Be yourself, Houston

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A few days ago, the Chronicle ran a question and answer session with Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who writes on urban development issues, broadly conceived.

It’s a little shocking that the interview made it into print, since most of Kotkin’s answers are antithetical to the most deeply held beliefs of so many Chronicle editors. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: When discussing quality of life in Houston, words like heat, mosquitoes and traffic seem to permeate the conversation. How do we overcome this negative perception?

A: What is quality of life? Is it to most people what they can do in their neighborhood or back yard? Or is it having some magnificent edifice in the center of the city where they can go, “Oh my God, isn’t that spectacular?”

Is the quality of life in Houston really bad? There are some things you can’t do anything about. The climate is what it is. It’s not like you don’t pay attention to quality of life, but is quality of life defined by pouring billions of dollars into downtown so a bunch of yuppies can make believe they’re in Manhattan?

Or is quality of life about hundreds of thousands and millions of people getting a house and having a decent quality of life and in many cases, for the immigrants, a quality of life that was unimaginable to their parents. Isn’t that what America is about, or not?

Q: Some $300 million was spent on a 7.5-mile light rail system that runs from downtown to the Astrodome complex. Supporters said the train would help bring the city into the 21st century. Do you agree with that theory?

A: I think you are a 21st-century city. The cities that are built on transit are 20th-century cities. It’s a good thing to have, but does a business move to Houston because it has a transit system? I hate to tell you your traffic’s not that bad compared to a lot of cities.

It is a good thing to have. It’s part of your infrastructure, like your airport and your port. But this idea that, “Oh, we’ll be a world-class city.” This endless — excuse the expression — this endless penis envy that cities have about, “Oh, if we can only be like someone else,” instead of saying how do we work with who we are to make ourselves better?

I think it is a good thing, but it can’t be more than a fraction of the solution. This is not going to be a city of straphangers. It’s never going to happen. You probably can’t afford to build a system to carry the number of people that go to work every day. Plus, if you look at the employment projection charts, they’re moving further and further out.

Go read the entire article. I’m an admitted contrarian, but I don’t have a contention with a single word from Kotkin.

Of course, I’m also a Houston booster, for which I make no apologies (and which partly explains the existence of this website). This quote is music to my ears:

This is a city of upward mobility and aspiration, and that’s what Houston should be selling itself as. Not as, “Well, we’re kind of getting like Boston, we’re kind of hip and cool.” To hell with that crap.

Houston has vitality. It’s got young demographics. It’s a city of opportunity. If I was 25 years old, I probably couldn’t move to Los Angeles. Houston would be one of those places you’d look at: Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.

Are you listening, Jordy Tollett?!

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX