No matter where I go in the world, Houston will always, in my heart, be home. I haven’t lived there in over 20 years, but that won’t change.
I was four years old when my family moved to H-Town, starting out at the tall Sheraton Hotel over by Memorial City Mall. After moving to Katy for a year, we settled clear across town into the South Belt area house which holds my childhood memories.
That house probably sustained significant damage during Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston. I don’t have a picture of my old home during the flooding, but I assume there was considerable damage because my neighborhood was the one most mentioned in tweets for help last Saturday night. As Harvey’s torrential rains pounded furiously and relentlessly, rapidly overwhelming drainage systems, desperate residents in my old community – unable to get through to 9-1-1 or the Coast Guard by phone – tweeted pleas for rescue. Their 140-character posts, listing the number of people trapped, their ages, and the addresses of their flooded homes, were gut-wrenching to read.
Some of them noted that they were taking shelter in their attics to escape quickly rising waters. Other Twitter users responded, imploring them to take an ax or hammer to break through the roof if necessary.
The lot on which my old home was built was particularly susceptible to flooding, given that it was lower than the others on my end of the street. So half a block of runoff always flowed toward us, and the sewer drain directly across from us, when storms came.
And oh, how there were storms. Most vividly, I remember Hurricane Alicia. Almost exactly 34 years before Harvey, Alicia schooled me in just how many ways water could invade a home.
It would be surreal to behold my old home now, surrounded by a moat. It’s even more devastating to see Houston, my city, MY CITY, looking like something out of a post-polar-ice-caps dystopia. It absolutely breaks my heart, especially to see what’s happened to places I’ve known and even loved.
Most of all, I hurt for my family and friends. Their suffering has constantly been on my mind throughout my waking hours. My wife has a few relatives there, and we have, literally, hundreds of friends who still call the region home.
A number of them have had to leave their residences, some wading through flood waters with kids on their backs and bags of clothing in their hands. Several friends have already begun ripping out floors and breaking down sheetrock, in a race against the spread of toxic mold. Others can’t get to their homes because nearby roads are still rivers. There are even neighborhoods that will remain flooded for weeks because they’re situated near reservoirs that must release water to prevent dam failure.
I have been so proud of my city to hear the many stories of neighbors and even strangers rescuing, feeding, housing, and clothing each other. My heart is touched seeing Greater Houston’s 6.5 million people, spread over 9000 square miles – an area greater than the size of New Jersey – looking out for each other in genuine empathy and compassion.
That’s my city. MY CITY.
It ain’t perfect, not by any means. It’s got its infamously unbearable heat and humidity, making the city hotter than hell, according to many a visitor – though how would they know? It’s got incredible traffic that daily chokes the patience out of drivers courageous enough to brave its 600 miles of freeways. And it’s definitely got the other problems that big cities usually have.
But it’s got an incredible spirit, one of cleverness and can-do. To me, that’s very aptly symbolized by the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, which kept legions of mosquitoes out and the air conditioning in. It’s also still a major point of civic pride that the first word spoken from the lunar surface was “Houston,” reflecting the creativity and gumption with which Houstonians led American efforts to put a man on the moon.
But to me, the spirit of Houston is found, as much as anything else, in its ethnic diversity.
They’re All Precious in His Sight
Greater Houston, the fifth most populous metropolitan area in the country, has long been majority-minority. Just 40 percent of folks are white, while 35 percent are Latino. One out of every six residents is African American; around seven percent are Asian. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times declared Houston the “most diverse place in America.” (Yes, the L.A. Times!) CNN’s celebrity chef-turned-globetrekker Anthony Bourdain says it’s “as multicultural a city as exists in the country.”
This diversity was plainly visible to me in my younger years when I’d drive along Bellaire Boulevard near the Beltway; even back then, street signs were posted in both English and Chinese. The ethnic flavor of that part of town has only mushroomed since then, with Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and mom-and-pop businesses as far as the eye can see.
The heterogeneity was also visible in my deeply refreshing visits to Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Its pastor, the Rev. D. Z. Cofield, was my first prof in grad school and became nationally known that semester when he officiated the memorial service for legendary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. More recently, D. Z. even served as the head of Houston’s NAACP chapter.
Houston’s ethnic diversity is also audible. 145 languages are spoken in the Houston area, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, French, Tagalog, Korean, Yoruba (a Nigerian language), and Tamil. Nearly half of Harris County’s residents are bilingual.
(Alas, I took Latin in high school, and my proficiency in Mandarin Chinese can only be described as … mild. Fortunately for me, one of Houston’s 145 languages is English, although it’s not always intelligible to folks from other parts of the country.)
The multi-hued character of the city is also embodied in its favorite sons and daughters. Its best-known citizen is the still-popular, nonagenarian former president, George H. W. Bush. But its most beloved star athlete arguably remains a Nigerian immigrant and proud American citizen, basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon. Hakeem the Dream, as he was called, led the University of Houston to three straight Final Fours and the professional Houston Rockets to its two championships.
The sculpture that honors Hakeem outside the Rockets’ home arena, the Toyota Center downtown, is a clear reminder that the spirit of Houston welcomes people from every corner of the world. A devout Muslim who amazed ignorant non-Muslims like me by dominating even during Ramadan, Hakeem wouldn’t consent to a statue being made in his image; that would violate Islamic teaching. So the team made a sculpture of his Rockets jersey, which stands as a testimonial to his accomplishments, his integrity, and the mutual love between the native of West Africa and his adopted city.
Of course, no discussion of Houston’s favorite sons and daughters could exclude the one, the only, the Queen – Beyoncé! Surely she needs no introduction. But I’m old enough to remember when a new girl group called Destiny’s Child signed CDs and posters at the local Blockbuster Music with only modest attention paid to their presence.
Other internationally prominent figures closely identified with the Houston area include the late Tejano singer Selena, champion boxer George Foreman, and Houston Rocket Yao Ming.
Together, they embody what I see as the spirit of Houston: a multiethnic rainbow of resourceful, optimistic people who, when push comes to shove, don’t give a flying Texas cockroach’s ass about how different you are. You’re a neighbor and a human being first and foremost.
Wouldn’t it be something if it didn’t take tragedies to remind us of that?
But that’s one of the things about Houston – as a whole, it doesn’t forget. When things went to hell in Vietnam, Houston took in tens of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia. (Every Vietnamese friend of mine back then, and I had many, came to Houston shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.) Houston, in fact, takes in more refugees than any other American city, and most other countries. If it were a country, Houston would be the fourth most welcoming in the world to refugees.
Yes, that causes conflict with the state’s governor. We won’t get into that right now. And of course, Houston has its share of racists and xenophobes. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not usually the ones in charge.
Not Over Yet
I very much appreciate the outpouring of generosity that the rest of America is directing toward my city. I do ask that you’d remember that this crisis isn’t close to being over, and it won’t be for literally years to come. Flood waters are still rising in some areas. Folks trapped in homes are still being rescued. Thousands are still without essential services like running water and electricity.
And then there’s the long, arduous clean up, which may take more than a year, if other storms are any indication. Nearly 200,000 homes throughout the Gulf Coast have been damaged or destroyed. Only 20 percent of folks have flood insurance, meaning thousands have lost all their material possessions.
Of those whose homes are currently uninhabitable or are total losses, their owners or renters need to find some place to stay for the next several months, if not longer. These victims especially face difficult challenges. Many potential alternative housing options, like vacant apartments, were also flooded. So then where do these folks go? Some have been evacuated to Dallas and Austin, far from their jobs and schools. How will they make it until they return, if they eventually choose to?
In months to come, when you feel the pain of how much more you’re paying for gas because Gulf Coast refineries are offline, please remember my city. Please keep praying, for human effort alone can only restore so much. Please keep giving, both out of compassion and because Houstonians will be there for you when disaster strikes your region someday, just like they were for Louisianans after Hurricane Katrina.
Houston, I love you. Always.