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James Howard Kunstler Hates Houston! Badass! [10/25/2007 11:45:00 AM]:
Props to Lomax over at HouStoned for this one -- it turns out this year's Peak Oil conference hit Houston last week, and author/anti-petroleum/anti-car guy James Howard Kunstler was there to finally sample all that Helltown has to offer.

Now, I should state up front that I do agree with a heck of a lot of what Kunstler says: I hate our dependence on oil to keep our lives running, I try to work as close as possible to where I live, and hell, part of the reason we're moving is so we can attempt to grow our own veggies for when The Apockyclipse comes. (No, I'm serious. Well, kinda; I do like growing my own strawberries & peppers.) My wife and I are big fans of The End of Suburbia, which is one heck of a wakeup call of a film, and Kunstler figures prominently into that.

Unfortunately for him, he also comes off in the film like a strident Chicken Little, proclaiming that we're all going down, big-time, without offering a whole lot of constructive criticism. Maybe there wasn't time for that in the flick, sure, or it got edited out; whatever. Either way, though, of all the Peak Oil experts in Suburbia, Kunstler ends up looking like a loon. (Houstonian Matt Simmons, on the other hand, a guy who Kunstler praises, comes off looking like the Sanest Man in Texas, and good on him for that.) Which is sad, because he is a smart guy with a lot of good ideas.

At least, that's what I thought before reading his post about our not-so-fair city. I'll grant that Houston's a pretty good poster child for The Bad That Petrochemical Addiction Can Do To You, but Kunstler didn't really get into that in his post. He didn't talk about, say:

  • how the average Houstonian (and yes, I'm totally SWAG-ing, here, but it sure seems true based on people I've worked with over the years; I currently work near the Galleria with people who live in Fulshear, Greatwood, Copperfield, & Spring, among other areas) commutes upwards of 30 min. each way to where they work, with many people commuting an hour-plus from places like Kingwood, Clear Lake, or Sugar Land

  • how housing prices in inner-loop Houston have skyrocketed in recent years, with rich folks doing the reverse-white-flight thing and moving into neighborhoods that had been considered dangerous since at least the '80s, and the fact that that's partly due to gas prices being so insanely high

  • how chemical and petroleum companies have thoroughly poisoned the environment just about everywhere south and east of 610

  • how Pearland's currently planning to build a landfill that's as tall as a large office building

  • how overbuilding and the preponderance of cement as turned each moderate rainfall into a potentially disastrous flood that could (and has, more than once) cripple the whole damn city before sluicing out to drown the reclaimed-rice-paddy suburbs

Nope, none of those. What did he go after, instead? Um, how ugly and soulless our downtown is. Wha?

Actually, he didn't even really do that, because he only saw the area right around George R. Brown and Toyota Center, which is an urban wasteland even by Houston standards -- I mean, seriously, there's nothing there for tourists but the convention center or basketball arena, or maybe Old Chinatown if you're brave enough to walk east a block or two. And while I'm not the biggest fan of our downtown, I have to say it: that's not fucking fair. Mr. Kunstler, you barely got a glimpse of the city, only a few blocks around the convention center (and is George R. Brown really that big a convention center? I thought it was pretty much the norm for that kind of building...), and yet you're going to tar-and-feather the whole city with that brush? Shame on you.

That's just as silly as someone flying into IAH, looking around, and declaring that, gee, Houston must obviously be a rinkydink little town with lots of pine trees. Hell, if you were to judge a lot of major cities just based on what's right around the convention center, I'm guessing a lot of 'em would come up wanting. Houston's far from the prettiest place on earth, it's true, and parts of the city are butt-ugly, but it's a very large, decentralized city. If you want lots of greenery, if you want quirky art shops & kids with tattoos, if you want local activists working for change, if you want lofts built over restaurants and shops, it does all exist, just not all in one central area and certainly not in our downtown, which is still struggling back to its feet after both the '80s recession and the Main St. shutdown to build the Light Rail.

In answer to your complaints about there being nothing open after 7PM in downtown -- which you didn't see for yourself, because you apparently didn't leave George R. Brown, but instead talked to other people -- yep, you're right, there isn't. Downtown is primarily the home of business, and that's it; even the part that's more lively, the Main St. area, largely shuts down at night. And why? Because very few Houstonians (relatively) live there. Mr. Kunstler, part of your mantra for living in a post-petroleum age is that people need to live near where they work and shop and eat, right? Well, we're not all so good at living where we work, true, but almost everybody lives near where they shop and eat; Houstonians don't need to commute far to get food or buy clothes. It's one of the few benefits of our sprawl.

So, given the reality that a small, small percentage of our population lives in or near downtown, who would it benefit to have tons of shops there open all night? Our nonexistent tourists? People who commute in from Katy to go shopping? If so, wouldn't that be absolutely counter to what you're trying to bring about, with smaller, more all-in-one communities? In that respect, Houston, weirdly enough, almost works. We may look like a gigantic megalopolis, but we're actually a network of smaller communities -- nobody just lives "in Houston," but in Bellaire, or West U., or Cy-Fair, or Pasadena, or Aldine, or Garden Oaks, or Montrose. Each neighborhood (even the further-flung suburban ones I've been to), by and large, has its own restaurants, grocery stores, shops, doctors, even police.

Some of it you can even walk to, if you can brave the summer heat -- I can walk to the grocery store nearest to me, and often do when I don't need to stock up with several weeks' worth of food. Of course, we don't live anywhere near where our food comes from, which is still a huge problem, but the past five years or so have seen a crop of promising local-food co-ops and farmers markets spring up in various places around the city. It's nothing like what they have up in, say, Portland, but it's growing as more and more Houstonians become disgusted with factory-farmed meat and vegetables.

As for the crime reportage, well, I can't deny that. Houston can be a violent, dangerous place, true. Again, though, in a city this huge the violence is distributed across a very large area, and the few truly dangerous 'hoods aren't places you'll just randomly end up in (unless, of course, you're my dad, who managed to get lost in the Nickel while helping my wife & I move out of our old house in the Fourth Ward). Even now, downtown's hardly Baghdad -- since no actual people hang out there much, why would the criminals? In my experience, you're more likely to have your car broken into in front of your nice suburban home than parking in downtown. The one time somebody smashed in one of my windows was when I was parked right in front of the house I was renting just north of Rice, which is one of the highest-priced residential areas in town.

Beyond that, Mr. Kunstler, you yourself point out that it's the media who're obsessed with death and violence and the sexcapades of Senators -- doesn't it follow, then, that Houston's media skews that way, too? As somebody who tries to avoid local TV as much as possible, I can attest to the fact. If you were to watch our nightly news, you'd probably think (as you already seem to) that Houston's nothing but an orgy of pointless, sickening murder and brutal crime, and yet the majority of Houstonians go about their days without being shot or stabbed or robbed. It happens, unfortunately, but not nearly as frequently as the media would have you believe. Violence sells, remember? Don't believe everything you hear on TV or read in the papers.

At any rate, there's my meager defense of my adopted hometown. I don't know if Kunstler himself will ever read this (hrm...maybe I should mail it to him?), and the odds of him returning to H-town seem unlikely, but what the heck, here's my invitation: Mr. Kunstler, if you ever do decide to come back to Houston, drop me a line, and I'll happily show you some of the rest of the city. You don't need to bring your quinine, mind you; we got rid of malaria some time ago, although we do see other mosquito-borne diseases from time to time. And maybe we can talk about the actual real problems Houston has, like the ones I listed above, and visit some of the good and bad areas around town. (Be warned, however, that it'll probably involve some driving. Sorry 'bout that.)

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