I just got back from a pleasant family visit to Houston, Texas.
Let me say out front: I like Houstonians. They’re friendly, laid-back, enterprising people. They put a man on the moon, and that achievement embodies a lot of their best traits. Especially when it comes to doing business and making money, Houstonians know exactly what’s going on. They follow the golden rule of American business: Never complain, never explain. They burn the midnight oil to master the practical details. If you want to get something done, hire someone from Houston, and sit back and relax.
But these friendly, hard-working folks live under a terrible curse. They live in the ugliest major city in the developed world. In fact, Houston is uglier than many cities I’ve visited in the third world. And, unfortunately, Houstonians have themselves to blame. Their extreme friendliness to free enterprise — some might call it cultic devotion — means they refuse to tolerate the government telling citizens what they can and can’t do with their private property.
This means there is no zoning in Houston, Texas. That is, when you own a piece of land, there are almost no restrictions set by the government on what you can do with it. You can build a giant, big-box retail store, or a subdivision, or a gun store. If you buy piece of land with a charming old house on it, you are free to bulldoze the house and build a 3-story McMansion.
What have Houstonians done with this freedom? Take a look at this picture:
This shows the destruction of a huge structure called the Town and Country Mall, in West Houston. Here’s its old website, courtesy of the Wayback Machine, and a piece about it from a website actually called deadmalls.com. If you look carefully, you can see a poignant detail, a marquee for the store "Personalized Creations" on the ground floor to the left. This mall was a little more than 20 years old. Hell, I worked in it for a while when I was much younger, at a shop called Tropik Sun Fruit & Nut. The manager was a rude woman named Frances. I got my revenge on her by gorging on hideously expensive macadamia nuts when she wasn’t looking.
The mall began losing money in the late 1990s, not because of my macadamia-nut habits. Apparently, no thought was given to finding another use for this huge structure. Turn it into a museum? On land that valuable? Mixed-income housing? Think what that would do to property values. No, the whole thing gets bulldozed and dumped in a landfill. What a staggering waste of material and effort. What will come in its place? Apparently some high-rise apartments and a cluster of more "pedestrian-friendly" strip-malls. To be fair, the new project makes some half-hearted gestures towards better urban design. But the reason why is telling: the developers of the note that one of the "psychographics" of the area residents indicated they were fed up with the "saturation of no-personality, homogenous retail in the suburbs."
That is, what this developer is saying is that the people in West Houston were fed up. This poses some problems for the average Houston booster. If you slag Houston in front of him, he says: "Well, sor-ry, Mr. Elitist. The reason the city looks this way is because people can get what they want here. If they want to drive a big car, they can do it. If they want cheap gas, they get it. If they want a big house, we’ll build one for them. If they want Wal-Marts on every corner, bang, they’re there! If you don’t like their taste, then go on back to New York City."
But do Houstonians really want a "no-personality, homogeneous" city? I think Houstonians have perhaps tolerated the way their city has been created, but it hardly means they approved it. Property developers and real-estate tycoons have made almost all the decisions that have made Houston a blot on the landscape.
And Houstonians often lament the problems caused by Houston’s crappy design. While I visited, the front page of the local paper had a story on traffic congestion. The average Houstonian spends 63 hours a year stuck in traffic, which costs him or her $1,061 in extra gasoline prices. "Rush hour" (i.e. the time of peak traffic congestion) in Houston now lasts almost 8 hours. Traffic congestion reduced somewhat in the late 1990s, after a spate of "road-building," but now the huge streams of new cars and suburban properties have overstretched Houston’s already-massive roads, and the government is launching yet another huge, expensive, landscape-crushing orgy of road building. It’s like addiction: You build some roads and feel satisfied for a while, but then dumb growth causes your tolerance to rise, and the next time, you need even more roads to get satisfied again.
And the city Houstonians "want," if that’s really the case, is not only inconveniencnig but sickening them. Think about the mall example. Because many Houstonians are obese and don’t exercise very much, they consider walking a hassle. The market, in turn, instantly responds to their needs. To reduce walking, people get easy-to-drive-to strip malls, drive-in fast food restaurants, ever larger freeways. This, in turn, further reduces their need or ability to get exercise, and they become yet fatter. Houston, like many other southern cities, is full of people who would be healthy except for their exercise and eating habits, which have made them terribly fat. Many have simply lost the natural human ability to walk long distances.
The following nightmarish scene has haunted me since I returned from Houston. I visited one of those big-box retail stores. (In many areas of the city, you have no choice — they’ve destroyed all nearby local competition). As I was walking through the parking lot, I saw a huge, gleaming SUV pull into a parking space. An entire family — two parents and three children — got out of the car. They were all overweight by any measure, and the childrens’ eyes were still somewhat glazed from watching the in-car DVD player. The family peeled themselves laboriously out of the car seats with a sound like ripping velcro. When they hopped down 2 feet to the pavement, their flab-encased bodies rippled with the shock of touchdown. The father even grunted slightly. Then they all gathered together and waddled slowly toward the store. 2 of the 3 children were still sucking loudly on huge cardboard buckets of soda.
All that wealth. All that hard work. All that free enterprise. For this?