Houston as the example of what decentralized pluralism and social trust could look like?

When David Brooks looks at the need for social trust in the United States, one example he looks to is the city of Houston:

Photo by Nick Bee on Pexels.com

Can America in the 2020s turn itself around the way the America of the 1890s, or the Britain of the 1830s, did? Can we create a civic renaissance and a legislative revolution? I’m not so sure. If you think we’re going back to the America that used to be—with a single cohesive mainstream culture; with an agile, trusted central government; with a few mainstream media voices that police a coherent national conversation; with an interconnected, respected leadership class; with a set of dominant moral values based on mainline Protestantism or some other single ethic—then you’re not being realistic. I see no scenario in which we return to being the nation we were in 1965, with a cohesive national ethos, a clear national establishment, trusted central institutions, and a pop-culture landscape in which people overwhelmingly watch the same shows and talked about the same things. We’re too beaten up for that. The age of distrust has smashed the converging America and the converging globe—that great dream of the 1990s—and has left us with the reality that our only plausible future is decentralized pluralism.

A model for that can be found in, of all places, Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in America. At least 145 languages are spoken in the metro area. It has no real central downtown district, but, rather, a wide diversity of scattered downtowns and scattered economic and cultural hubs. As you drive across town you feel like you’re successively in Lagos, Hanoi, Mumbai, White Plains, Beverly Hills, Des Moines, and Mexico City. In each of these cultural zones, these islands of trust, there is a sense of vibrant activity and experimentation—and across the whole city there is an atmosphere of openness, and goodwill, and the American tendency to act and organize that Hofstadter discussed in The Age of Reform.

Not every place can or would want to be Houston—its cityscape is ugly, and I’m not a fan of its too-libertarian zoning policies—but in that rambling, scattershot city I see an image of how a hyper-diverse, and more trusting, American future might work.

The key to making decentralized pluralism work still comes down to one question: Do we have the energy to build new organizations that address our problems, the way the Brits did in the 1830s and Americans did in the 1890s? Personal trust can exist informally between two friends who rely on each other, but social trust is built within organizations in which people are bound together to do joint work, in which they struggle together long enough for trust to gradually develop, in which they develop shared understandings of what is expected of each other, in which they are enmeshed in rules and standards of behavior that keep them trustworthy when their commitments might otherwise falter. Social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate. Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.

Houston is a growing city – now the fourth largest American city – and is a unique city in the United States. Brooks notes three features above: sprawl and a decentralized landscape, a lack of zoning policies, and diverse residents.

A fourth factor could be worth adding that might undercut Brooks’ example. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Kevin Smiley examined people-oriented cities and market-oriented cities. One of their case studies is Houston, a paradigmatic market-oriented city. Heavily influenced by the oil industry, the city has prioritized business over people. Can such a setting foster more social trust? If so, would it primarily be based on economic interdependence and would that be enough to overcome the problems Brooks suggests Americans face? If not, how can places combat the tendencies for current systems to pit interested parties against each other?

Furthermore, it would be worth hearing more how “islands of trust” can cooperate together to pursue projects for the good of the whole city. In a decentralized landscape, wealthier private residents may have what they want – access to a home and yard, for example – but it is less clear what kinds of institutions successfully bring people together over an expansive metropolitan region. A limited number of regions have tried metropolitan wide initiatives – see Minneapolis for sharing revenues, building housing across the region – but these can be difficult to sell and implement (see, for example, trying to promote mass transit in the Nashville region).

The contrast to Houston would be more established cities in the Northeast and Midwest that have long-standing institutions and coherent neighborhoods. Yet, the fault lines in these places may be too entrenched for significant coming together to happen.

Is there a growing smaller sized city that could lead the way in building social trust amid the pressures of pluralism, disagreement, and limited social trust?

Moving away from “master bedroom” and “master bath” in Houston

In the nation’s growing fourth-largest city, the realtor group for Houston will stop using the term “master” on its listing service:

photo of a bedroom

Photo by Barion McQueen on Pexels.com

Earlier this month, HAR replaced the phrases “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” with “primary bedroom” and “primary bathroom” on its property listing database.

The change came after several HAR members called for a review of the terminology.

“It was not a new suggestion to review the terminology,” according to the statement HAR sent its members. “The overarching message was that some members were concerned about how the terms might be perceived by some other agents and consumers. The consensus was that Primary describes the rooms equally as well as Master while avoiding any possible misperceptions.”…

“You may still use the term ‘Master Bedroom’ or ‘Master Bath’ as you feel appropriate in your marketing materials and in the Public Remarks, Agent Remarks, and photo descriptions,” according to the statement HAR sent its members.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Given the social and political climate, this is not a surprising move. And yet, the group said this concern has been raised before and the term is allowed in materials outside of the property listing database. I suppose this is change over time but it is incremental and limited.

2. Real estate is said to be about location, location, location. Realtor groups across the United States are organized by geography even as there is a National Association of Realtors. The local groups can act somewhat independently; in the past, local groups limited blacks and other minorities from moving into certain places. Would the National Association of Realtors strike master from their listings and other materials or would this have to happen region by region?

3. The Houston area presents an interesting case for this change given its demographics. The region has sizable Latino, Black, and foreign-born populations. Will such a change real estate or will the slow transition away from using master (#1) barely register?

Looking at a single suburban district to hint at 2020 elections

The quest to read the suburban political tea leaves for 2020 is on with eyes focused on a Texas legislature race outside of Houston:

The legislative stakes of Tuesday’s election in House District 28, a rapidly-diversifying suburb of Houston, are relatively low. Whoever wins likely will not even cast a single vote before they have to face re-election in November, as the Legislature does not meet this year. And even if Markowitz wins, Texas Republicans would still control the House by eight seats.

But Democrats are itching to demonstrate on Tuesday that Texas is a competitive state that will be up for grabs in 2020. Texas has 38 votes in the Electoral College; only California has more, with 55. Many say that the district, which is part of the ethnically diverse Fort Bend County, is representative of the demographic changes happening in suburbs around the Lone Star state — trends that could shift electoral results in Democrats’ favor.

“Fort Bend County is representative of what is happening in Texas writ large. There are a lot of immigrants,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist who ran GOP Sen. John Cornyn’s 2014 campaign. “Republicans want to hold this and need to hold this to say: ‘Look, we can stem the tide of the Blue Wave that everyone is talking about.’”…

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have all endorsed Markowitz. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, a native of San Antonio and a former 2020 candidate, has campaigned for her in the district. And O’Rourke, fresh off his failed presidential bid, has spent days at a time in the district, energizing the Democratic base and personally going door to door urging people turn out for Markowitz.

With suburban voters in the balance, both parties plus observers are looking for signs of how suburban voters as a whole will fall in the November 2020 elections. Is demographic change enough to lead to a shift in party affiliation? Will national issues, particularly with the president, dominate or will more local concerns prove influential? How much do individual candidates in such districts matter versus broader patterns and influences?

From a Houston news source:

“Fort Bend County is one of the most diverse counties in the nation. Now we have Indians, Asians, Mexican, Hispanic background, Cuban, Latin American, from all over the world,” Cantu said….

But Republicans, like Jason and Elizabeth Walker, have been relocating to the district too. The couple moved to Katy from San Francisco 10 years ago. Jason works in human resources and is a GOP precinct chair. He said the region may have gotten bigger, but people still care about the same issues, “which are keeping taxes low, having good schools…and keeping Fort Bend a place that is a great place to live for families.”

While both political parties would want to secure districts like these for their side, it looks like a number of suburban districts will be contestable in the near future. And suburbs will continue to change, pushing both parties to look for messages and platforms that resonate with suburban voters.

The widest highway in the world: 26 lanes in Houston

I recently ran into a discussion of the widest highways and a 2018 Houston Chronicle article claims the 26 lane stretch in Houston leads the world:

For what it’s worth, we can lay claim to the world’s widest freeway: The Katy Freeway at Beltway 8 is 26 lanes across.

Here’s how that breaks down: 12 main lanes (six in each direction), eight feeder lanes and six managed lanes. The managed lanes carry mass transit and high-occupancy vehicles during peak hours and are made available to single-occupancy vehicles for a toll fee during off-peak periods…

A few other contenders come close to the title but don’t quite make it, Voigt said, noting that the discussion had come up at the institute when the Katy widening project was completed in late 2008.

“Off the top of my head, the 401 in Toronto is 22 lanes at the widest and I think a part of the NJ (New Jersey) Turnpike is 18 lanes at one point,” Voigt’s email said.

That is a lot of lanes to maintain and I imagine the highway takes up quite a bit of space (and woe to those located right next to this stretch of road). Driving here must be an interesting experience, particularly if the driver is used to narrower highways.

Is it a surprise that this is in Texas, where everything is bigger and people like to drive, and in Houston, the quintessential sprawling and growing city with no zoning regulations?

It would be interesting to get a more in-depth history of this particular stretch of road. How many lanes did the highway initially have? Who approved the construction of so many lanes? Is there consensus that this was a positive move for traffic? How much money has been spent on this stretch (and that could have been spent on other transportation options)?

 

Holding a World Series parade in a sprawling big city

The Houston Astros won the World Series and held a victory parade Friday in downtown Houston. Downtown Houston exists but it seems odd to hold a parade in the central part of a city that has a reputation for sprawl and a lack of zoning. Some quotes about sprawling Houston starting with a list of “The American Cities With the Worst Sprawl.”

Texas and bigness again. Houston takes up 627 square miles, making it more than twice as large as Singapore with about 40% as many residents. Houston is sprawl defined, and that lack of density is the reason it makes our list. Dubbed “The Blob That Ate East Texas,” Houston is one of those quintessentially American cities not limited by any natural geographic barriers like mountains or bodies of water. Sprawl was a business decision for developers, as there’s a lot less risk building horizontally than vertically.

But Houston is discovering that sprawl isn’t a permanent blight, and the city has seen significant private and public investment in its urban core. Over the past eight years, Houston has completely reimagined its transit network by opening two new light rail lines and expanding another. Two additional lines are in the works with one slated to be completed by 2019. Houston also grew its bike sharing network from just 18 bikes in 2012 to more than 300 now. (Administrators are aiming for 1,000 by the end of 2017.)

The economy of Houston according to The Economist in March 2015:

FOR a view of Houston’s economy, get in a car. At the intersection of the Loop and Freeway 225, two motorways in the south-east of the city, you drive over a high, tangled overpass. To the east, where the port of Houston sits on Buffalo Bayou, the skyline is an endless mass of refineries, warehouses and factories: Houston is an oil town. To the west, glistening skyscrapers and cranes puncture greenery. In between, the landscape is a sprawl of signs advertising motels and car dealerships.

Houston is not pretty, but it thrives.

From a April 2000 guide to Houston in the New York Times.

Famous as a city without zoning, Houston is a sprawling metropolis, laced with highways as serpentine as ant tunnels, a place so vast that popular myth holds that a motorist can drive for an hour at 55 miles an hour and never get from one end of the city to the other.

Is it true? Probably not. But the city’s sprawl tends to obscure just how much is actually going on there.

Did all that sprawl contribute to a different kind of victory parade compared to one in a city with a more traditional urban core? Did the sprawl change how many people attended? (A reminder: Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and may someday soon pass Chicago for third place.)

Singling out a Houston McMansion

McMansionhell is back with a “snarky takedown” of a particular home in Houston. See the diagrammed pictures and explanation here.

It is not surprising that this researcher went after a Texas McMansion. I found in my article regarding uses of the term McMansion in both the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that there are some significant differences between the two areas of the country. The tone from New York City was that McMansions were overwhelmingly bad, even with their construction in suburban areas of the metro region. On the other hand, there were supporters of McMansions in Dallas. As McMansionhell noted, things are indeed larger in Texas and my study of the newspaper coverage suggested some people don’t mind celebrating this. Additionally, while sprawl is present in both places, a city like New York with such a dense center (some might argue the center of the world) does not celebrate the suburban conditions that encourage McMansions while residents of Dallas didn’t mind as much.

A side note: I found that design (example: Mediterranean architecture doesn’t work everywhere) and features of McMansions could differ quite a bit across regions. If this Houston McMansion is so notable, could one do something similar for garish McMansions in Orange County or Lake County or Westchester County?

Competing population projections for Chicago

I highlighted one recent prediction that Chicago would soon trail Houston in population. Yet, another projection has Chicago gaining people and holding off Houston for longer. Which is right?

Data released by the Illinois Department of Health in February show that the population for Chicago, about 2.7 million in 2010, could decrease by 3 percent to 2.5 million by 2025. Meanwhile, Houston’s population could reach 2.54 million to 2.7 million in 2025, according to the Reuters report. But a recent population estimate by the Census Bureau shows an increase in population, rather than a decrease.

Census estimates released in June show that the population of Chicago increased by 1 percent from 2010 to 2014. So why is one projection showing a decrease, but another an increase?

Both data sets are based on estimates and assumptions, says Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer. Unlike the 2000 or 2010 census, where all residents answer a questionnaire, any interim projections or estimates must use sampling or a formula based on past population statistics to calculate population…

“Trend data do not support any increase in the projections for Chicago in the next 10 years,” said Bill Dart, the deputy director of policy, planning and statistics at the health department. Dart explained that the estimates from the census use a different formula than the health department. And factors such as births, deaths, migration, economic boons or natural disasters can disrupt projections.

Two groups dealing with population data that come to opposite conclusions. Two ways we might approach this:

  1. The differences are due to slightly different data, whether in the variables used or the projection models. We could have a debate about which model or variables are better for predicting population. Have these same kind of variables and models proven themselves in other cities? (Alternately, are there factors that both models leave out?)
  2. Perhaps the two predictions aren’t that different: one is suggesting a slight decline and one predicts a slight increase. Could both predictions be within the margin of error? We might be really worried if one saw a huge drop-off coming and the other disagreed but both projections here are not too different from no change at all. Sure, the media might be able to say the predictions disagree but statistically there is not much difference.

The answer will come in time. Still, projections like these still carry weight as they provide grist for the media, things for politicians to grab onto, and may just influence the actions of some (is Chicago or Houston a city on the rise?).

Houston predicted to soon pass Chicago in population

Chicago may not last long even as America’s Third City:

Houston has been one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities for years, fueled by an energy industry that provided the backbone of the economy, low taxes and prospects of employment that have attracted job seekers.

But Houston also embodies the new, urban Texas, where political views have been drifting to the left, diversity is being embraced and newer residents are just as likely to drive a hybrid as a pickup truck…

Within eight to 10 years, Houston is forecast by demographers in the two states to pass Chicago, which has seen its population decline for years, as the third-largest city.

Houston is projected to have population of 2.54 million to 2.7 million by 2025 while Chicago will be at 2.5 million, according to official data from both states provided for their health departments. New York and Los Angeles are safe at one and two respectively.

The rise of Houston combined with Chicago’s ongoing population loss could bring more attention to the former city while diminishing the latter. Chicago already dropped behind Toronto in population; how far might Chicago slide? Chicago may like to compare itself to New York but new comparisons to Toronto and Houston might lead to some different kinds of conversations as well as new insights.

Chicago still leading the way for corruption

A new report finds Chicago is still at the top of American cities in corruption:

According to new research released today by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson, there were 45 convictions for public corruption in 2013 (the latest year available) in the U.S. court district that covers the Chicago area. That’s way, way above the 19 convictions in Los Angeles and 13 in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). But Houston had far and away the most pols convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013, with 83.

Since the U.S. Department of Justice began to collect data in 1976, Chicago’s Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, Cook County and 17 other counties, has had 1,642 convictions, according to Simpson. That compares with 1,316 in LA and 1,260 in the New York district, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and six other counties…

If it makes you feel better, Simpson notes that on a per capita basis, Illinois is in seventh place. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and North and South Dakota rank higher than Illinois.

In this case, I don’t know if the quantification helps at all. When scholars or activists produce such figures, they are often trying to draw attention to a particular cause by pointing out the large numbers. This is how social problems are made. On the other hand, Chicago has had a reputation for corruption for decades. Do these numbers mean anything if residents of the region already expect this? Perhaps the comparison of numbers with other cities and regions can help. Yet, it doesn’t look like knowing these figures changes very much.

And what is going with Houston – is the oil money flowing a little too freely?

Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.