Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Part Four: Everything is Bigger in Texas

Part Four: Everything is Bigger in Texas

Size Matters

It’s springtime and I’m driving north on Interstate 45 toward the Woodlands. I’m in Texas on a work trip, but unfortunately I’m visiting Houston instead of Dallas, my hometown. It's only April but it’s already hot and humid. And it's ugly. And it’s boring. It’s Houston.

As a Dallas native, I’ve never been all that fond of Houston. To put it more bluntly, I’ve always hated Houston. It’s a hot, muggy, disjointed, sprawling swamp with little character. Absent zoning laws in this anything-goes town, you’re likely to have a gas station next to your two-bedroom ranch house on one side and a high-rise luxury apartment building on the other, followed by a strip club, an Applebees, another modest two bedroom ranch, and a Baptist church on the corner, across from Home Depot. This eclectic mix would be fine if you lived in a dense urban environment. But Houston is decidedly suburban—and it is utterly devoid of style.

Houston’s tiny downtown is particularly boring. With its underground pedestrian tunnels, even at midday Houston makes sleepy downtown Dallas look like a bustling metropolis. Except for NASA, the Rothko Chapel and Rice University—and the obvious fact that it’s named for the first president of The Republic of Texas—I can find very few redeeming qualities about Houston. Just think about it: they have to root for the Astros, a lousy National League team we grew up calling “the Lastros,” and the Texans, a second-rate AFC expansion team. (Last I checked, the real “Texans” moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs.)

Of course, Houston is in Texas—and I now live in Chicago—so it is at least part of the Lone Star Nation, which means that it may be a dump, but it’s still better than most other dumps outside the homeland. (Like most Texans, it’s perfectly okay for me to ridicule second-rate Texas cities, but not for non-Texans to do so—even if they’re making fun of lowly Houston. This kind of logic is obviously flawed, but it’s perfectly reasonable to this Texpatriate.)

While driving north past an endless series of strip malls, each with its own Chili's, Dollar Store, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster, I look up and happen to notice one of the thousands of gaudy billboards that line this ugly stretch of highway. Tacky billboards are more prevalent than fire ants along I45 between Houston and The Woodlands. This particular sign reads, “Lots as Big as Football Fields.” Below the headline is an image of a football field replete with yard lines and goal posts. (Presumably the goal posts are sold separately.) The fine print—which at two-feet high technically isn’t all that fine—explains, “New three- and four-bedroom homes: each and every lot is at least 100 yards long,” and home “prices start at $299,999.”

My mind immediately turns to Chicago real estate prices. For $299,999—the price of a three- to four-bedroom home with a100-yard lot in the northern suburbs of Houston—you can buy a two-bedroom vintage condo with approximately 1,500 square feet in a relatively good neighborhood. (A good neighborhood means no gangs and only minor graffiti—apparently those rather modest qualifications justify $200 or more per square foot.) No parking or deck or green space—and certainly not enough space to field a football team, much less a bocce tournament—just enough room to live in a 75-year old building with 35-year old radiators, window unit air conditioning and worn hard wood floors.

For a measly $500,000, one can purchase a single-family home in a Chicago neighborhood that doesn’t require two-inch bars on the windows. And for a nice, new home with more than two bedrooms and a yard, prices start at $750,000 and up (way up if you're near Lake Michigan). For homes within a three-iron of Lake Michigan (depending on how good a golfer you are), prices start at $1 million plus. Otherwise, you have to go pretty far outside the city to get space—like Wisconsin. (Seriously—I actually know folks who live in Hammond, Indiana or Kenosha, Wisconsin and commute to downtown Chicago.)

Okay, so maybe Houston isn’t so bad after all. (Except during the oppressive heat of August, when it’s even worse.)

Vertical Living

In Chicago, we don’t have much space. At least not space enough for homes with football field-sized lawns like those available to the fine folks in Houston. In the City of the Big Shoulders (but small lot lines) we don’t buy homes with lawns “as big as a football field”—we buy condos big enough to stage a four-person air hockey tournament. Our two-bedroom condo in Evanston is just big enough for my family—at least until July, when we will add another baby girl—and not quite big enough for the in-laws to stay while visiting. Naturally, it’s on the market. (Know anyone interested in a fabulous two-bedroom condo four blocks from Lake Michigan and one block from the train?)

Places close to the lake and/or proximate to downtown will cost you much more. Additionally, in most high-rise buildings, the higher you go, and the better the view—at least in the most desirable neighborhoods—the more you pay. Unlike Houston—or Texas generally—people in the Windy City think of space differently. Instead of spreading out, we expand upwards. What we lack in space we make up for in crowds, crime, traffic, congestion, pollution, and general overcrowded misery. Chicago is a cacophony of car horns, sirens, traffic, cell phones, noisy elevated trains, violent winds, and random effluvia. Oh, we also have great culture, delectable deep-dish pizza, exquisite architecture, ethnic food of virtually every variety, beautiful parks and beaches, and Wrigley Field. Ultimately, it’s a fair trade-off, I guess.

Indeed, Chicago is crowded, but it’s nothing compared with New York City, thank God and Sam Houston. However, it feels downright huge compared with Dallas or Houston. Chicago is crammed with people living a vertical existence who spend huge amounts of time walking to and from crowded, smelly L trains and city buses.

As for driving: it’s fine, unless you mind sitting in traffic for hours at a time pounding your head against the steering wheel, screaming at everyone around you and fantasizing about going postal like Michael Douglas’s character in the movie Falling Down. At rush hour, traffic is merely terrible. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon during the summer, the traffic in Lincoln Park digresses into something truly disastrous. It can take 20 minutes to go two blocks—and that is on a good day. Octogenarians with cataracts ambulating with the aid of aluminum walkers can make better time than a Porsche on Fullerton Avenue at noon on a Saturday during the summer. (And that is no hyperbole—I’ve seen it happen!)


So after my appointment in the Woodlands I roam the streets of suburban Houston prowling for football field-sized lots. I can’t seem to find the development advertised on the billboard, but I do drive past home after home replete with massive lawns and huge, new, two-story McMansions built to look like the authentic, stately, older homes in Chicago’s North Shore. Everything is expertly manicured and the homes are big and beautiful, albeit a bit sterile and artificial. The neighborhood appears completely manufactured—as if Stepford wives are making dinner inside each six-bedroom monstrosity for their oil executive husbands.

Still, I have to admit: it must be nice to have that much space and be in a new home with central air, new floors and windows, and a backyard big enough to play touch football (with the entire Houston Texans football team). I could never buy a home this large in my North Shore town on my current salary unless I won the Lotto. The property taxes alone in Cook County on such a home would exceed my monthly take-home pay. (In Cook County, where the sales tax alone is a whopping 10.75%, property taxes and real estate transfer taxes are fat enough to choke a pig.) Of course, there are no homes in my town—or anywhere in the North Shore—with quite this much land.

Wide Open Spaces

Space is different in Texas. Denizens of the Lone Star State routinely drive long distances across the homeland. Consider this: an intrastate drive from Texarkana to El Paso is 813 miles, whereas it’s only 791 miles from Texarkana to Chicago. (A drive from Dalhart in the panhandle to Harlingen near the southern tip of Texas is even longer at 848 miles.) Let’s face it—Texas is huge!

The scale is simply different in Texas, and distances can be deceiving. The wide-open sky that stretches out against the arid prairie grasses and scrub brush in places like Marfa or Dumas provides breathtaking views for hundreds of miles. A lightning storm more than 100 miles away provides enough color and grandeur to captivate motorists along Highway 287 for hours. One can see the earth’s curvature in these unique places, and the heat emanating from the landscape in mid-August creates constant mirages along the lonely Texas highway. The pace of life is slower in these parts, and I am convinced it is because folks who live beneath these massive Texas skies need more time to soak in the awe-inspiring vastness of the landscape. Indeed, space here is decidedly different.

In the semi-urban and suburban oases of Dallas and Houston, land is plentiful and driving long distances is routine. Quite frankly, space here is taken for granted. Perhaps that’s why there are so many hulking SUVs in Texas. Even a trip to the grocery store or the barbershop can be considered a road trip.

While Chicago is a sprawling city replete with suburbs and exurbs for fifty miles in every direction (except east into Lake Michigan, of course), the volume of people living in the city proper creates a dense, congested environment where residents must conform to life in smaller quarters. While there are plenty of Texas-sized SUVs in Chicago, parallel parking—a must in the city, especially in Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, and Lakeview—makes large vehicles a liability.

There are certainly plenty of wide-open spaces downstate or in neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana, but life in Illinois—or in the Midwest generally, for that matter—tends to be Chicago-centric. Chicago is the hub of the entire Midwest. Sometimes it seems that every college graduate from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri is required to spend at least three years living in a crowded Lincoln Park apartment before moving back home (and all are required to wear their college sweatshirts at least once a week to show off pride for the state they have recently abandoned). As such, all roads lead to Chicago, and very few lead away—with one notable exception: Route 66, the mother of all American roads.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

One hundred paces due east from the front door of my office building—at the corner of Jackson Blvd and Michigan Ave, in downtown Chicago—there is a historic marker identifying the starting point of Route 66. This historic road, which links Chicago and Los Angeles, meanders southwest out of Chicago toward the Texas Panhandle. After reaching Amarillo, the route heads nearly straight west for miles and miles until it reaches western Arizona, where it curves and winds until finally ending in the City of Angels.

Ironically, Route 66 begins and ends in dense, urban jungles (i.e. Chicago is dense and urban; Los Angeles is merely a jungle), but the rest of the road passes through moderately sized cities (e.g. St. Louis, Tulsa, Albuquerque, etc.), hundreds of small towns, and miles of open space. In fact, it’s as though the road is squeezed out of downtown Chicago by congestion and the sheer lack of space through a dense maze of skyscrapers and drawbridges until it reaches the outer suburbs, where it is forced out into the open prairie following the line of least resistance toward the western United States.

After the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Route 66 is decidedly Western in orientation—and one’s sense of space begins to change hereafter. Indeed, Route 66 is a tour through America’s wide-open Western spaces. Though I’ve only driven sections of the famous road, I know much of the route west of Amarillo rather well. On at least three occasions in my 20s, I drove sections of it through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and there are few landscapes as beautiful or as wild. In the west—particularly in Texas—space is different. We cherish it. We need it. Wide-open space of the West gives us room to move and grow and expand.

As historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained in his “Frontier Thesis,” which he delivered in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in my adopted city of Chicago, the open spaces of the western frontier helped create the unique American character that we cherish so. (When Turner delivered his famed paper, Chicago was considered the northwestern frontier.) According to Turner, the aggressive and innovative American style of democracy—indeed, the American character itself—was embodied by the expansive American frontier of the 19th century. The harsh, arid, boundless landscape that my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather made his home in the mid-19th century challenged citizens of Texas and other western states to adapt and thrive. The cumulative and successive effect of adaptations by generations moving west was itself, according to Turner, the process of Americanization. The further west one ventured into the vast, untamed landscape beyond the Mississippi River, the more uniquely American the community.

Perhaps Turner’s thesis was accurate. Many contemporary historians find fault with his analysis, but I think he was on to something. Of course, when he delivered his paper in Chicago 117 years ago, the frontier was already closing. Yet, the western concept of space was—and still is—decidedly different than that of the East or even the Midwest. There is simply more space in the west. (At least there is more space now—people sure are moving there in a damn hurry, so who knows how long that will last.) Moreover, the west is different. To put it simply: it’s wild—or at least much of it is. An abundance of wild, wide-open space changes the way people live and interact with one another. And it changes one’s values and the manner in which one consumes.

One thing is certain: the abundance of space in Texas allows its citizens to expand their collective footprint to gargantuan proportions. Taken to extremes, land in places such as the northern suburbs of Houston is so abundant that every homeowner can field a regulation Pop Warner football game in his front yard every Saturday morning. Apparently, that’s progress. (Sounds good, I guess, as long as I don’t have to mow the whole damn 100-yard lawn in August!)

Sweet Home Chicago

Back in Chicago, in the land of vertical living and $200-$500 per square foot, our condo is for sale and we hope to purchase a single-family home complete with back yard and attached garage. (Once more: know anyone looking for a lovely vintage condo in Evanston? It’s a steal! Did I mention the wood-burning fireplace?) I don’t expect to own a home with a football field-sized lot. In fact, I’d settle for a backyard the size of regulation badminton court so long as the home is: 1) free of toxic mold, lead paint and asbestos, 2) has central air, and 3) the local schools don’t double as penitentiaries-in-waiting.

Is that really too much to ask? This Texpat doesn’t think so…

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