HOUSTON—Joel Kotkin, America’s leading urbanologist, predicted last year that by 2023 Houston “will be widely acknowledged as America’s next great global city.” Kotkin noted that Houston, “the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse metro area … is home to the world’s largest medical center and has dethroned New York City as the nation’s leading exporter.”
Houston? In the movie A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More (with a sneer in his voice) asks a traitor who has sold out for a sinecure, “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” East and West Coast academic and media leaders tend to think of Houston in that way: Next great global city? Dethroned New York City? Sure, the energy boom is sending dollars there, but … Houston?
My wife and I decided to learn about Houston by moving there for a month. We rented an apartment one mile from downtown and walked the city’s streets, shopped in its supermarkets, and visited its museums. We especially talked with Houstonians and drove with them where they regularly drive. Many have built the kinds of lives they want: Some choose urban living and others want an adjacent lake or forest. Ancestry is less important than ambition, as residents remake themselves and lack of zoning means that whole blocks change quickly.
We especially learned that Houston, which has added 400,000 residents since 2010 and now has a metropolitan area population of more than 6 million, is not one city but a group of welcoming, entrepreneurial neighborhoods: Many individuals and families have their own Houstons. Instead of presenting just the city we observed, I’d like you to meet seven Houston residents with faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but, secondarily, optimism about the spirit of Houston, a city where foundations are laid and dreams are made.
WHEN HOUSTON SYMPHONY first violinist Alexandra Wenig, 39, looks out from the stage of Jones Hall at its vibrant red velvet seats and golden teak walls, she sees bright, hot lights but also familiar, supportive faces in the first few rows of orchestra patrons. She went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, married a trumpet-playing husband who is now the symphony’s director of community partnerships (her professional name remained Alexandra Adkins), and nabbed a dream orchestra job—but it has left her unfulfilled.
Twelve years ago the Wenigs moved to Houston and found it “welcoming of people of different backgrounds. … There are not generations of old families. Everybody’s new.” The Wenigs at first lived in the Heights, a charming close-in neighborhood of small craftsman bungalows. After their sons were born, they moved to Kingwood, an affluent planned community north of the city, which advertises itself as within a “livable forest.” The trees are real, and the Wenig kids (3rd and 5th grades) ride their bicycles to school.
A bigger change began in her car one day when “the Holy Spirit swept me away.” She eventually became a part-time music director within her 800-person Lutheran-Missouri Synod church that is a three-minute drive away from their Kingwood home. At the symphony she began feeling like “a good foot soldier, doing other people’s creative ideas, [but] just draining away inside.” She struggled “with going to a job that was taking me away from my family at strange hours and wasn’t … feeding my creative spirit.”
Wenig thought about moving from a tenured position that others covet to a church calling. As she weighed the two career paths, she knew “100 other violinists” could do her symphony job, but she could “have a real impact” at her church, and “be spiritually nourished on a daily basis. I walk into [the church] building and I feel alive, with a strong sense of purpose. In the orchestra I show up and do what I’m told, but here I feel myself growing and changing, envisioning what would be done, how we can tell the gospel better.”
The pull of that calling became so intense that in January Wenig gave notice that she was leaving her symphony position to become Director of Music and the Arts at her church. Her last symphony performance is scheduled for May 25. The Holy Spirit seemed to be working on her, but so is the spirit of Houston, where many people do not fear the future or desperately hold onto what they have.
JUAN CARLOS MARTINEZ grew up in Mexico, where his dad had an air conditioning business, and moved to the United States in 1995 to study electrical engineering at Rice University. Later he felt a ministerial call and went to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, but returned to Houston and became a pastor at Christ the King, a largely non-Hispanic church located in Spring Branch East, a majority-Hispanic section of metropolitan Houston.
Martinez, his wife (originally from Puerto Rico), and their two children live in a rented house in Rice Village. One mile to the east stands the largest medical complex in the world: His wife, a doctor, is one of the 100,000 persons employed there. Four miles to the west sits a magnet elementary school his son attends. It’s a Mandarin immersion charter school that teaches half its classes in Chinese and half in English. (A segment with the children speaking and singing in Chinese is scheduled for our March 11 radio show/podcast, The World and Everything In It, available at wng.org, or through a podcast app.)
In a globalizing world Martinez believes the English and Spanish his children can ordinarily learn at school and home aren’t enough. The principle that goes with such pragmatism is important both for Martinez and Houston: Ethnic diversity is the spice of life and the stuff of heaven. His son’s school is almost equally split among African-American, Anglo, Asian, and Hispanic students, and not by quota.
Martinez spends a lot of time on Bissonet Ave., which connects medical center, home, school, and a strip center that includes a specialized tortilla shop: Explaining that Mexicans buy fresh tortillas every morning for their big early afternoon meal, he stopped at the tortilleria and bought one pound for a dollar. Also on Bissonet is another Houston institution, a Shipley Donuts store. There he meets with parents from his children’s school, just to talk: Martinez recalls conversations with a Polish atheist (“She became very interested in the gospel”) and says, “This is where informal apologetics takes place.”
Much of Houston is low-key in that way but also “vibrant,” Martinez says: He recalls seeing many young men in Philadelphia just sitting, while Houston displays “people working hard, so it feels like the city is moving and shaking.” He says the two U.S. cities he knows well are “night and day: fear in Philadelphia you might be the next Detroit, cranes in Houston. … All of that energy and expertise that comes from immigrants has made Houston a success story, whereas a city that hasn’t been able to capture that vibrancy and skill is struggling now.”
Martinez contrasts the message of a famous New York song—“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere”—with what he says hard-working Houstonians learn: “You CAN make it here.”
SYLVIA BOLLING, now in her 60s, spends almost all of her time not on the freeways but within two miles of the north Houston intersection of U.S. 59 and Aldine Mail Route. In that circle are 10 schools, five subdivisions, five apartment complexes, and many businesses and churches. Two-thirds of the young people within that circle are “economically disadvantaged,” and near the center of that circle is the Aldine Family Hope Center, which has grown from a seed she planted 25 years ago.
Late one afternoon Bolling strode the corridors of her center, hugging small children as she went. She entered a room with teenage girls, greeted them by name, and offered a promise: “If we see you working hard, we’ll put in a good word for you and you will get a job.” She marched into a room where teenage boys were in a Bible study under the supervision of a dreadlocked, triple-majoring Rice student. The guys were lounging, legs outstretched, but when they saw Bolling, several sat up straight. She looked one of them in the eyes and said, “It’s good I see you in here. When someone comes asking for a reliable helper, I’ll remember you were here.”
Bolling in 1989 was an effervescent speech pathologist with a husband and two teenage daughters. They lived in an Aldine dominated by gang-bangers who shot out library windows for fun at least once a month. (I interviewed last year, for a WORLD cover story on the death penalty, an imprisoned murderer from Aldine who in 1991 cut the throats of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.) With drug use growing, Bolling decided to do drug education programs in schools. She operated out of her car until 1995, and once walked into a confrontation of armed gangs to give the adversaries a stern motherly talking-to.
Trying to find a permanent site, she headed from the discomfort zone she understood to the “scary” downtown she hardly knew: “I’d go to the [Central] Library downtown. I was scared to death. I’d sit in the foundation section of the library and start reading about getting grants. People would come in, and I’d ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I’d go to United Way meetings. Relationships are everything in this city. You can meet people who will circle around you years from now.” Eventually the Houston Endowment gave Bolling enough money to buy the building and seven acres on which her center now sits.
The fledgling had gained wings. The center took off, largely with volunteer help: counselors, nutritionists, parole officers, and teachers of GED, ESL, karate, defensive driving, and more. She was her own janitor: “God told me, ‘You will clean every toilet until I tell you not to clean them anymore.’ Now, when someone comes to clean the toilet, I don’t look down on them. I say, ‘Praise the Lord.’”
One of Aldine’s basic problems, Bolling realized, is that “no one was teaching our kids about the world of work. They don’t have parents who work. They don’t get it in school. That’s a vast emptiness, and Satan has his best time when we leave an opening. The mom says, ‘Stay in the house. Lock the door.’ But the 10-year-old boy peeks out the window and sees people with gold hanging down, big cars, women. When he’s 12, he goes out there.”
Houston, though, is a city with fewer restrictions on pursuing opportunity than most: That encouraged Bolling to encourage teens by showing them practical alternatives that regulations, taxes, and union rules in other cities make harder to achieve.
Bolling’s message to everyone is similar: “You have gifts and you need to use them.” Aldine residents who use the food pantry have to volunteer for two hours in return for receiving provisions: “When we started requiring this, some folks asked, ‘Who does she think she is?’ After a while people starting saying, ‘Thank you, I no longer depend on handouts.” Bolling has seen the clichéd posters that proclaim “A hand up, not a handout”: Governmental programs emphasize the latter, but Bolling accompanies every handout with a hand up.
A plaque in her office could be the motto for Houston generally: “In every community there is work to be done and in every heart there is the power to do it.”
CONVERSATION IN THE FOYER of City of Refuge, a south-central Evangelical Presbyterian church, continued past the scheduled starting time for Sunday morning worship. Suddenly a big voice displaying the vibrato of classical training summoned the slow into the 200-seat sanctuary, where they joined worship director Nicky Pizana in vibrant hymn-singing.
Pizana, 27, has lived since she was 6 in a little yellow wood-frame house in southeast Houston: It’s just down the street from the elementary school where her mother teaches, and close to the Baptist church in which she was baptized and “made Jesus the Lord of my life.” (Her parents were once youth pastors there.) The house now has some bullet holes, souvenirs from drive-by shootings not aimed at her family but at the drug dealer next door.
Pizana has always been a Houston commuter. She attended a magnet elementary school with an African-American majority and came out with eigth-grade science and math knowledge. She took a school bus—picked up at 6:30 a.m, home at 5 or 5:30—to attend a middle school in a western part of the city with Jewish students as well as other Hispanics. Twice each week at 6 or 6:30 she went to club soccer practices. “I’ve always been busy. … I grew up on Houston roads.” As she learned to drive, her dad “right away” took her onto the freeways.
She used those freeways for the 30-minute drive to Houston Baptist University, where she majored in vocal performance. She sang at one point with the Houston Choral Society but felt called to work in churches and reach the lost and the outcast. Now she uses the freeways to get her to youth ministry gigs where she performs as lead singer in a band, Three Point Crossing, that has been together since she was 18. She loves performing different kinds of music: “When you’re working with different groups such as hip-hop or Latin Christian artists, you’re able to take the gospel to … different audiences. All of them are the same in needing Jesus.”
Pizana is a member of Park Temple Baptist Church north of downtown, and she drives there for Wednesday evening services and for Monday evening discipling (with the three other band members) by the church’s pastor. But last July she became City of Refuge’s worship director, her “dream job at a young age” with a multiethnic congregation (and a Japanese pastor) that “is a beautiful picture of heaven.”
JULIE ALDRICH, 35, had an upbringing diametrically different from Nicky Pizana’s, but they’re both at City of Refuge on Sunday morning—and they both spend hours in their cars.
Aldrich grew up in River Oaks, the Houston neighborhood four miles west of downtown that is one of the wealthiest in the United States, with home prices ranging from $1 million to more than $20 million. She’s fourth-generation Houstonian on both sides of the family, with lots of oil money in her background, and at one time her traveling was often up and down River Oaks Boulevard: expensive country club at one end, The Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine at the other. Baptized and confirmed there, she also attended St. John’s School from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
Within a one-mile radius of her home lived a cornucopia of family members—cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents. A kindergarten classmate not from River Oaks visited her house one day and exclaimed, “It’s a mansion.” (“That’s the first time I thought I had more home than others had.”) She flew to Colorado on private planes: “I knew that not everybody had a plane, but didn’t realize how crazy that was.” Her consciousness of special status slowly increased, and when in third grade a limousine came into the carpool line for her, she “was so embarrassed.”
Aldrich professed faith in Christ under high-school Young Life tutelage and increasingly wondered about “over the top” extravagances, such as when a helicopter picked up cheerleaders from the roof of a Houston skyscraper and delivered them to the football field before a big game. She decided to attend Wake Forest University in North Carolina: “No one knew my family name. It was great.” Then came work in Washington, D.C., marriage and a move to London (and an Oxford degree), followed by a move back to Houston, where she works part time across from a building designed by her great-grandfather’s firm and within a mile of Scurlock Tower, a medical center named after another great-grandfather.
But the Aldriches decided not to live in River Oaks. They adopted two African-American boys: One is now 3 and the other almost 2. They’ve put their 3-year-old in a River Oaks preschool but live in a middle-class neighborhood several miles away. The Aldriches own land and plan to build in a neighborhood close to low-income areas but not in them: Their lot is between the homes of two African-American professionals who own private equity firms. “We want to live authentic lives,” Aldrich says, not in a tiny shotgun home but not in a gargantuan mansion either.
Meanwhile, she spends a lot of time in her car, shuttling between family, friends, and preschool in River Oaks, and points east where she lives and chairs the board of Agape Neighborhood, a Christian poverty-fighting charity. Houston is a city where people reinvent themselves, not in the Great Gatsby sense of running from the past, but with the goal of having roots but sometimes transplanting them.
WILLIAM LAWSON AT AGE 85 remembers the past. With his dignified bearing, short-cropped hair, long jaw, and rail-thin frame within a sweater and suit pants, he could be an elderly professor or lawyer—but when we stopped at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church in a close-in area of Houston where ex-slaves laid brick streets, the pastor hailed him: “You’re our sage, the sage of our community. We want to get you back to preach over here.” Lawson responded with a smile, “No, you don’t want that.”
Lawson grew up in Missouri and came to Houston in 1955 to work as Baptist chaplain at Texas Southern, a then-new university established by the Texas legislature for African-Americans in an attempt to avoid integration. In 1962 he started with 13 others a church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist, that now has more than 5,000 members on its rolls. Lawson pastored it for decades and now, retired, lives in a comfortable home with walls full of African-oriented art and photos of his three children—he’s been married for 57 years—plus one of himself and Martin Luther King Jr. (“His life was on the line every day. He knew what he was facing.”)
Lawson recalls how Texas Southern students, not the NAACP, “dragged” him into the civil rights movement. They told him, “Reverend Lawson, kids in North Carolina are doing sit-ins, we want to sit in here.” Lawson told them, “Do you realize why your parents sacrificed to send you to college?” But they insisted, and Lawson over the years worked to achieve integration without violence. Once, when police surrounded a university dorm amid reports that students were armed and ready to shoot, officials brought Lawson to defuse the situation. (Later, police found only one .22 pistol.)
The reason Houston escaped big race riots, Lawson says, was not black or white but green: “Houston was not Klan-oriented, Houston was money-oriented.” City leaders met upstairs at the Rice Hotel downtown and agreed that the new Astrodome, space center, and other innovations were attracting big businesses to Houston, but “if we have Birmingham [racial conflict] in Houston, that’s gone.” They agreed that all businesses would “quietly desegregate. All the department stores would simply let customers come in and try on clothes. All the restaurants would just open their doors and people could just come in. They would take down the ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs off of buses and drinking fountains.”
That’s exactly what happened: “The decision was not moral, purely economic.” In the photo on Lawson’s living room wall, a young Lawson looks into the camera with a big smile, but Martin Luther King Jr. looks at someone to the right of the photographer, lips slightly parted, as if he’s assessing the content of that person’s character. Houston leaders made the content of a resident’s wallet more important than either color or character.
TWO YEARS AGO John Mark Reynolds, 50, moved with his wife and four children from 1,300 square feet in Los Angeles to 4,000 in Sugar Land, an upscale suburb southwest of Houston. He showed me the house on the cul-de-sac where he lives (close to a lake with ducks) and his provost’s office at Houston Baptist University, an up-and-coming school for upwardly mobile students. HBU’s morality requirements make it attractive even to Muslim students: Reynolds enjoys being the chief academic officer of “a place to teach Muslim students where Jesus is Lord.”
In Los Angeles Reynolds drove “the 5,” the human pipeline known as Interstate 5, and now he refers to “the 59” (U.S. 59, which cuts through the Houston area diagonally) as “the 5 of Houston,” but a much easier one to navigate. He doesn’t mind the 10 miles he drives to work on “the 59,” even if the traffic sometimes moves slowly, because he remembers California hours where “the 5” became a parking lot. He relishes the Los Angeles–Houston comparison: “If you want a job and a nice house with a big yard next to a lake, go to Houston, not New York or L.A.”
Reynolds readily cites Houston’s other advantages: The city is an energy center where pipelines and production facilities converge, a high-tech center with Rice and other brain factories, and a port on a growth spurt. (Panama Canal upgrades mean more Chinese goods will arrive on their way to the American interior.) Houston benefits from the business climate of a state without an income tax. Its location—in a flat area that stretches inland for dozens of miles, with no zoning—lets workers with families buy more house for less money than they could elsewhere.
Those cities and others have their attractions, of course. New York City offers America’s toughest financial and artistic competition. Detroit and New Orleans draw pioneers looking to build new communities. But Reynolds notes that Benjamin Franklin moved to Philadelphia early in the 18th century because it had become North America’s city of opportunity. He speaks of Chicago in the 19th century developing a similar reputation that drew Dwight Moody to its precincts, and Los Angeles in the 20th century becoming “the paradigmatic city.” He says Houston is becoming the same in the 21st century, “the place where things are happening.” He calls Houston’s “light Christianization” superior to the dominant atheism-in-practice of New York City and Los Angeles.
HOUSTON HAS MANY PROBLEMS. When we drove down Dowling St., once the hub of Houston’s third ward and its main African-American business street, but now dilapidated, William Lawson said the biggest problem in his community now is that half of African-American students drop out of high school: Houston has growing upper and lower classes and a shrinking middle class. Lawson complains that public schools now are “almost atheistic. You don’t have to teach atheism. If you tell a child, ‘You don’t have to include God in your thinking,’ you’re virtually saying, ‘There is no God.’”
Some of Houston’s pluses have attached minuses. The spread-out roominess that creates low housing prices does lead to nerve-jangling commutes for some. The absence of zoning opens the door to tear-downs, rebuilding, and infill apartment complexes that put people close to shopping and restaurants—but also to buyers next door making changes that depress a neighbor’s property values. Churches can readily build and expand, but so can abortion businesses: Go to “Houston heads, Houston tales” at wng.com for a description of a nurse who “made the rounds late at night to collect garbage sacks of little broken bodies from the local abortion clinic dumpsters.”
A rising tide of atheism could swamp all boats, and so could crime. Chicago has first place in the murder rankings of America’s large cities, but Houston generally makes it to the top 10. Openness to commerce also means openness to drugs: Houston’s proximity to Mexico and countries further south makes it a hub for the trafficking of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs, along with human trafficking.
Despite the problems, though, dozens of Houstonians have told me what Reynolds put into five words: “Houston’s the place to be.” (“Houston heads, Houston tales,” quote nine more residents.) Many exult in their city’s ethnic diversity: WORLD reader Jennifer Hong notes, “When we celebrate an annual Thanksgiving meal with my husband’s colleagues from the medical center, each visitor brings a dish from his or her home country. … Some years we have had six continents represented.”
Houston, in short, is a semisweet land of liberty. In a nation where pessimism now reigns, the city’s optimistic spirit may allow it to become what its diverse residents, rather than officials, make of it—for good or ill.