My grandfather had his home in Houston at the corner of Milam and Clay which, following World War I, was on the outskirts of the city. It was a plain frame two-story house, with a banistered porch circling half the second floor. Today the house is gone, but the location is in the middle of downtown Houston. A small community then, less than 200,000 population, today Houston is the sixth largest city in the U.S. and still growing swiftly. Why this growth?
The climate in Houston might have been lifted from Dante’s Inferno. The landscape is endlessly flat, the kind of place where, if you stand on top of what is called a hill, you have to ask which way is down. The night air gives you sinus, and the morning breeze brings hay fever. It is fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and yet it is the third largest port in the country, simply because in the early years of the century, imaginative (and at the time, considered slightly mad) local leaders dug a ditch to the sea and called it the Houston Ship Channel.
But one large reason for Houston’s success not noticeably visible in descriptions of the city is its “absorption quotient.” Houston may be the most open city in America, socially, politically, and commercially absorbing the best and the brightest of the immigrants. Those who migrate (what LBJ used to call “the eastern breed”) to Houston are no sooner unpacked than they are wheeling and dealing with the old lions and resident barons as if they were native-born. If there is one barrier to speedy entrance into Houston’s business and social life, it is genetic stupidity, and even that doesn’t keep everyone out.
The fanciest country clubs; the downtown luncheon clubs where the proconsuls of oil, real estate, banking, agriculture, ranching, chemicals, and law gather to assemble their economic strategies; the corporate enclaves; the countless independent enterprises which spring up in multiples of geometric progression, like erotic rabbits in Texas heat (which is some kind of heat); these are all open to newcomers bounded only by energy, brains, charm, and ambition, as well as ideas for some venture that has the potential for fat profits.
And so it came to pass that the easterners, as they began to stream in during the 1940s and 1950s, and the homegrown found no hedgerows to obstruct their aims or energy. The old barons just smiled, welcomed them, absorbed them, put them to work—from which most of them got rich, and those that didn’t kept trying.
The result was Houston, where today, if you mention the word “depression,”Houstonians look at you blankly and silently think you are using some fancy word to describe a ravine.