For some time, Greater Houston has been, to those who don’t live here, in the midst of an identity crisis. Even Anthony Bourdain, a man who made a career of ostensibly analyzing and broadcasting to the world the essence of every city into which he wandered, admitted to “entertaining lazy prejudices and assumptions” about the Houston region and its residents.
Maybe it isn’t their fault. Houston does, to some degree, defy categorization. Are we cowboys or astronauts? Are we defined by the award-winning chefs or the abundance of mom-and-pop spots? Our world-class museums or our fanatical football fans?
The confluence of Houstonians’s ideas and sensibilities have informed the evolution of our region in complex and unobvious ways, too great in number to track, catalog or fully recount. The region’s diversity and vastness extend to our arts, culture, and food — and create an environment of constant discovery. Understanding Houston would like to spotlight just a few places and organizations that make our corner of the world so vibrant.
Houston’s world-class arts community
Houston is home to the esteemed Theater District, which boasts nearly 13,000 seats, and is one of only five cities with permanent resident companies in each of the major performing arts disciplines. The Alley Theatre, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance, [Jesse H.] Jones Hall [for the Performing Arts], Revention Music Center and the Wortham Theater Center are all within the 17 blocks that comprise Houston’s Theater District. Additionally, many smaller venues and organizations bring the arts to all corners of the region.
Similar to the Theater District, Houston’s renowned Museum District is broken into four walkable, themed zones, featuring both touring and permanent exhibits throughout. While the Museum of Fine Arts might be the oldest art museum in Texas, it is certainly not the only way to engage with the arts in Houston.
There were more than 1,260 arts and culture organizations in Houston’s three-county area in 2020, up from just 181 in 1990. Most of this growth was in Harris County (599 new organizations), but both Montgomery and Fort Bend counties both saw significant growth in arts and cultural sectors as well — the number of arts and cultural organizations in Montgomery County grew tenfold in 30 years.
These organizations contribute significantly to the local economy as well; the Houston Metropolitan Area’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generated over $579.4 million in total economic activity in 2015, according to the latest Arts & Economic Prosperity report. These organizations directly supported 14,389 full-time equivalent jobs and delivered $42.8 million in local and state government revenue.
Despite an abundance of arts organizations and performances, families with lower incomes do not have the same level of access to the arts as higher-income households.
According to the latest Houston Arts Survey, just 29% of respondents with reported household incomes below $37,500 attended a live performance, compared to 52% for respondents with annual household incomes between $37,501 and $62,500 — and the disparities continue to increase with higher earnings.
However, Houston’s passion for the arts isn’t fully reflected in official access or attendance figures. Many organizations in Greater Houston work to address disparities in access to and participation in the arts. Groups like Asia Society Texas Center, MECA Houston, the Laini Kuumba Ngoma Troupe and the Institute of Hispanic Culture celebrate and showcase the artistic traditions and cultural expression of diverse communities that have been historically underrepresented in the “traditional arts” scene.
A region shaped by local and global traditions
Houston’s three-county region observes an amalgam of traditions — both homegrown and carried from afar. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the world’s largest of its kind, is an example of a homegrown tradition informed by the traditions of another culture. The Rodeo grew out of an effort to preserve a regional industry but has made efforts to incorporate and recognize Latin American contributions to the industry and culture from which it was born. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wouldn’t exist without the charreada, which was the cultural precursor to the rodeo, or those big Texas cattle drives (which sustained the nascent Texas economy) that came by way of Spanish Mexico.
The Houston region is home to a number of religious congregations that originated from around the globe. The Islamic Society of Greater Houston (ISGH) is the largest Islamic society in North America, and the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the first and only traditional Hindu temple of its kind in the United States — the stones for which were hand sculpted by 2,000 artisans in India.
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is one in a long line of ambitious monuments that tells the story of our region. The Astrodome also comes to mind, but so do smaller places like the “Be Someone” bridge and the Rothko Chapel, which showcase a different form of Houston’s social and intellectual ambitions. The former often serves as a barometer for our times, as the message often changes to represent the current needs and fears of the citizenry, and the latter stands immovable.
Houston’s culinary influence
Houston, once known mainly for Tex-Mex and chain restaurants, now boasts eateries that represent more than 70 countries and American regions. Renowned chef and restaurateur, David Chang called Houston the “next food capital of America” in 2016, and the food scene has only grown since then. The most meaningful way that the food scene in Houston has changed recently is not in the flavor of the food itself, but in the visibility it has gained on the national stage — 10 Houston chefs were among the 2022 James Beard Award Semifinalists.
Despite the bevy of talented chefs on the cutting edge of cuisine, the evolution of the region’s culinary identity is due in principle to one factor: the diversity of its residents.
Our position on the Gulf Coast secured a foothold not only on fresh local seafood but on one-of-a-kind Cajun cuisine, and the French fundamentals that inform it. The Czexans (Czech Texans) that immigrated to the hill country have given us a lot more than the famous, but still nationally obscure kolache. The fact that our region is home to the third largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the nation has contributed to a culinary culture in which dishes like pho or bánh mì are as commonplace as BBQ and hamburgers. Additionally, the significant South Asian population has given rise to some of the most acclaimed Indian and Pakistani food in the country.
A region made vibrant by its residents
We all know that Houston is diverse. We have seen the data asserted time and time again. What that data does not tell us, however, is the individual stories of all of those people. The un-measurable and intangible essence of what makes Houston special is that for every person represented artistically or culinarily in the three-county region, there are thousands more, cooking in their homes or painting for their grandchildren.
Houston is certainly vibrant, but it wouldn’t be anything without Houstonians — who are as difficult to define as the region itself. Be they artists, chefs, or cowboys, the stories and passions of the people that inhabit the region are what bring Houston alive.