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Houston: A semisweet land of liberty

"Houston: A semisweet land of liberty" Continued...

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.

ENJOYING HOUSTON: Reynolds in his office at Houston Baptist University.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
ENJOYING HOUSTON: Reynolds in his office at Houston Baptist University.
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 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 segments on our daily radio/podcast show, The World and Everything in It, are scheduled for Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and the weeks of March 3 and March 10. You can access it through a podcast app on your phone or tablet, or by listening to the clips posted below.


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