Not only of a cool city but of a city that was cool in a way that wasn't just another replication of Brooklyn built in some reclaimed industrial downtown for one thing, Houston doesn't really have one. Last summer I made plans to head to Houston, to explore further. As though tired from its Caribbean journey, the storm circled lazily above southwest Texas for a catastrophic four days. The images, on the ground and TV, were otherworldly: water, pushed by swollen bayous and overwhelmed pumps, running uphill; highway signs hovering mere feet above the waterline, the roadways beneath them filled up like giant bathtubs.
By the time it was over, the numbers, too, were surreal: Harvey had disgorged as much as 48 inches of rain—a trillion gallons—on the Houston metro area. Some , homes had flooded and tens of thousands of people had needed rescue. Still, the cracked-open metropolis that the rest of the country gazed upon in the immediate aftermath of Harvey was clearly one of deep communal ties, fierce civic pride, and wells of creative energy.
There were the four employees of El Bolillo Bakery who, trapped by rising water, spent two days of the storm baking 4, pounds of flour's worth of bread and pan dulce to distribute to flood victims. There was the Houston Ballet, whose home theater was inundated but who pressed on with its season in makeshift digs all over the city. Something special, it became clear to those who might not have been paying attention, was going on here.
In its youthfulness, its diversity by some measures, the most diverse large city in America , and its explosive growth an astonishing two decades of 25 percent in the greater metro area , Houston was looking more and more like the American city of the future. Part of the change has been intentional.
But a good deal of what's happening in Houston feels more organic and idiosyncratic than what an urban-studies expert might devise in a PowerPoint presentation—an energy that feels born of two major factors: one, the growth that has turned the city's diverse but discrete bubbles into a series of unavoidable Venn overlaps, allowing cultures to clash, cohabitate, and collaborate; the other, a pervading sense of independent frontier wildness.
That trait may not ride in wearing the cowboy costume it does farther west, but it nevertheless feels distinctly Texan. This is a key point of identity: the theoretical ability for anyone to build anything anywhere never mind that it is in part responsible for the kind of development that makes the city so susceptible to damage from natural disaster.
People chatter about commercial real estate in Houston with the same mix of envy, romance, and fascination that they do residential real estate in New York or San Francisco: who's developing what project and where; which buildings are sitting empty, waiting for the price of oil to rise; who's erecting what glass tower as revenge for which other guy's glass tower.
Elements of that primal venturing will surely inform several generations. And that you can look east, as well as west, for its source, to the special properties of places that line the Gulf of Mexico: Cajun self-reliance, New Orleanian devil-may-care, that sense of extraterritoriality that exists up and down America's third and wildest coast, wherever the water regularly threatens to rise.
It works equally as a description of the city as a whole. They call it Gulf Coast Soul. Dallas is the metrosexual middle brother that nobody really wants to spend time with. But Houston is the older, cooler sibling—he's got some miles on him, he's been through some stuff, but he totally knows what's cool and what's not. There's a T-shirt for sale in Houston these days that was designed by James Glassman, who runs a website about the city's history and is the author of The Houstorian Dictionary.
And anyway, you want weird? Houston has it by the square mile. Like, genuinely strange. The only hotel in Houston's Montrose neighborhood is La Colombe d'Or, a five-room outfit located in a mansion originally built for an oil magnate. Seemingly preserved sometime in , it is filled with art and staffed by a rotating assemblage of men in suits, all of whom seem to have worked there for decades.
I was the sole guest for much of my time there, in a suite that inexplicably included a full dining room set, and I was never percent sure they weren't ghosts.
All in This Together: The Unofficial Story of "High School
Montrose is the part of Houston that looks the most like a cool city is supposed to look—dense; green; filled with museums, coffee shops, cocktail bars, and other hip independent businesses; at least plausibly walkable though few seem to do so. Montrose has also been the center of Houston's food scene, which, as is customary these days, has led the city's charge into the national conversation in a way that a music or art scene might have done for an emerging city 20 years ago. Nobody has worked harder toward that end than Chris Shepherd, who has three restaurants in Montrose.
His empire begins along Westheimer Road, Montrose's main drag, in the building that was once his flagship, Underbelly, and reopens this month as a cast-iron steak house, Georgia James. That menu you may want to take notes began as a one-year experiment at One Fifth, down the street, which Shepherd has given a conceptual overhaul for each year of his five-year lease.
Shepherd is a large man, partial to shorts, bespoke dress shirts from the venerable Houston tailor Hamilton Shirts, and New Balance sneakers. These conceal the results of monthly pedicures finished with nail polish in the shade Deep Steel Blue, which happens to be the Houston Texans' color. Born in Nebraska, raised in Tulsa, he came to Houston for culinary school when he was 22 and has never left. One hot morning, he was doing the same for me. Despite having made this trip hundreds of times, he grew palpably excited as we approached Bellaire Boulevard, the main drag of Houston's Chinatown.
Each strip mall offered another suddenly mandatory stop: hand-pulled noodles here, Szechuan dumplings there. The most obvious urban counterpart to Houston is Los Angeles, with its diversity, its car-centrism, its sprawl. Houston is not beautiful like L.
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It is empirically ugly and totally intoxicating. The point isn't that there are beautiful places hidden amid the ugliness; it's that the ugliness itself becomes imbued with a kind of beauty, thanks to the thrum of human energy that takes root there. The tall multi-paneled signs standing outside each mall, written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, Spanish, Korean, and more, begin to look like slabs of Rosetta stone.
You pass buildings of exquisite strangeness. Cars mounted on poles as 3-D signs.
A three-storied Italianate villa—complete with arches, columns, fountains, and statuary lining its circular driveway—turns out not to be a casino or banquet hall but in fact a dentist's office. Shepherd and I started at Saigon Pagolac, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants to open as the city's Asian-immigrant community spread out along Bellaire in the late s.
Within a few minutes, the table was overwhelmed by platters of food: the crispy pancake banh xeo; tight pouches of beef wrapped in betel leaf; spongy squares of banh hoi, the intricately woven pads of vermicelli noodles. Shepherd had recently found a nearby supplier of fresh banh hoi for his own restaurant, a discovery he talked about as though each weekly delivery arrived via reindeer-pulled sleigh. We were joined by Alba Huerta, who came to Houston from Mexico with her family when she was 6 and has long been one of the city's pre-eminent bartenders.
We talked, as we ate, about the emergence of the city's food scene. The turning point, they agreed, was the annus mirabilis of Shepherd opened Underbelly that year. One of its founders, Morgan Weber, had just opened the gourmet Revival Market.
A branch of the high-end sushi restaurant Uchi arrived from Austin. A few years earlier, Justin Yu and Seth Siegel-Gardner, both Houston-born chefs who had been working in fine dining in California and Europe, returned to town and, along with Terrence Gallivan, opened a one-month summer pop-up. It was such a resounding success that they were now opening ambitious projects in town: Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan opened The Pass and Provisions ; Yu created a tasting-menu restaurant named Oxheart where he, too, won a James Beard Award.
Texas-Style Brisket Get some at Ray's. And don't forget to order the oxtails, too.
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A scene was being born—one that, its participants quickly realized, had the potential to invent a culinary identity where there hadn't been one before. That generation has continued to work together, in various combinations, ever since. The movie soundtrack hit No. The May release of the DVD sold , units on its first day; Disney has a version that high schools around the country can license and perform; there are talks about a Broadway version, the sequel High School Musical 2 is scheduled to go into production in January for a summer airing, and the soundtrack album has gone triple platinum and remains in Billboard's Top It explores in detail the film's impact, following the cast as they promote High School Musical around the world, and providing all available information and conjecture about High School Musical 2.
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All In This Together
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