Powerhouse

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The Energy Capital of the US is Texas to a “T”, says Lindsay Sutton in his affectionate portrait of Houston, whose residents are refreshingly bold in business as they are in life.

It’s an old joke in America that you can always tell a Texan… but you can’t tell him much. Outside of the US, the image is of big guys wearing big Stetson hats and tall ladies with big hair. Neither the male nor the female form is said to be backward at coming forward – the Texan way is to tell it how it is. To some, this makes them bold and brash; to others, confident and sure. You know where you stand and that’s usually good for business.

The powerhouse city of Houston – dubbed the Energy Capital of the US – is Texas to a “T”. It simply oozes confidence. It may be America’s fourth largest city but they like to tell you it’s a city of “firsts”. For a start, the word “Houston” was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. Just 40 years ago, at 3.18pm on Sunday, July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong said the never-to-beforgotten words: “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” As he told Mission Control back home in Texas that the US space capsule had made its historic lunar landing. Never mind his follow-up statement: “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” The one Houston likes to remember is the first one. More recently, Houston has been in the news because of Hurricane Ike.

Weather experts predicted that the city – just an hour’s drive from America’s Gulf Coast in the Deep South – faced widespread devastation in September as the howler approached. A mixture of minute planning and good luck helped save the day. There was to be no re-run of the Hurricane Katrina story that caused so much misery and heartache along the coast in New Orleans in 2005. It’s true that in Houston, thousands were affected by loss of energy supply, fresh water and services but the city quickly got to grips with tackling the situation. From its early days, back in 1836, Houston has been used to handling external challenges. General Sam Houston dealt with the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto to give Texas its very own status as an independent republic before it agreed to join the rest of the US. Little wonder that the city named itself after the great Texan hero. Today, Uncle Sam’s Greater Houston is recognised worldwide for its energy industry, particularly oil and natural gas and the construction of oilfield equipment. This great petrochemical and engineering complex owes much to the city’s manmade ship canal, which allowed it to become a sea port linked directly to the Gulf of Mexico, close to the coastal resort of Galveston. The nearby Port of Houston ranks first in the US in terms of international commerce.

Only 21 countries, other than the US, have a gross domestic product bigger than Houston’s regional gross area product. This is Big Country all right. Surprisingly, Houston is also a crucial player in alternative energy trends: a quarter of Houston’s total electricity is purchased from wind energy sources. It certainly has the raw materials – think of the words to Glen Campbell’s famous song: “Galveston, oh Galveston, I still particularly oil and natural gas and the construction of oilfield equipment. This great petrochemical and engineering complex owes much to the city’s manmade ship canal, which allowed it to become a sea port linked directly to the Gulf of Mexico, close to the coastal resort of Galveston. The nearby Port of Houston ranks first in the US in terms of international commerce.

It’s ironic that just as much of the traditional wealth of Houston comes from under the ground in the form of oil, many of its inhabitants choose to stay below surface level too because of the climate. The city has no less than 11km of tunnels and also skywalks linking downtown buildings. This enables citizens to avoid the intense summer temperatures, heavy rain showers and the high, energy sapping humidity.

There are underground parking lots, stores and restaurants, and some commuters never step foot on terra firma when they come to work in the city centre. Not surprising really. There are around 99 days per year when the temperature is above 32ºC, and summer mornings average more than 90 percent humidity. Houston is definitely hot, in more ways than one. On the economic front, however, the traditional reliance on energy is changing. One major economic player of note is healthcare and medicine. The internationally renowned Texas Medical Center is Houstonbased, with a reputation for embracing an impressive concentration of research and healthcare institutions.

According to city information, this includes 13 hospitals, two specialty institutions, two medical schools, four nursing schools, alongside schools of dentistry, pharmacy and public health, with almost every health-related career opportunity available. The city fathers are also pushing tourism, since there is plenty on offer in historic Houston. Down the freeway, an hour’s drive away, is the coastal resort of Galveston and between is NASA’s Johnson Space Center – the actual Mission Control of all rocket and satellite projects in the US, set up in the 1960s by President Lyndon B Johnson, a Texan if ever there was one. They think back fondly of big-hearted LBJ in these parts, except for Vietnam, which, they say “just ate him up”.

At the giant Space Center, you can watch controllers actually talking to the astronauts up there on current space missions, travelling at 17,000mph, or 5 miles per second if you prefer. The memories of triumph and disaster come flooding back, starting with John Kennedy’s simple statement in 1961 that it was his wish to land a man on the moon and bring him back before the end of the decade. Eight years later, they did just that. It takes just over 91 minutes to go round the earth in orbit, a speed which puts our current globetrotting into perspective. As the guide says: “This is not a theme park. This is the real McCoy, the real deal.”

There’s no shortage of good hotels in downtown Houston, though I was impressed by the Hotel Icon, a five-star boutique establishment that used to be a bank. You can still go in the vault behind reception, which is quite a novel experience.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, legendary bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde considered hitting the bank but passed on by, deciding there were easier pickings down the road. Dining is no problem whatsoever in America’s fourth biggest city. There is a huge variety of eating places in this cosmopolitan hub, which has its fair share of illegal immigrants adding to the mix. Straighttalking Texans, descendents of immigrants themselves, call them “recently arrived future Americans”. With more than 90 languages spoken in the city, there is the same variety of international cuisine. Houston has a large Asian population, including the largest Vietnamese-American community in Texas, an estimated 850,000 in 2006. The city has two Chinatowns, a

Little Saigon and a Little India community too. If you want to push the boat out, try the Restaurant Americas. That’s where the highrollers hang out. The food is top-class and even the cappuccinos come Texas style. You can also eat at another of Houston’s intriguing attractions, the Downtown Aquarium. Naturally, seafood is a speciality. As you eat a lobster, you watch another one

swim by. Appropriately, the restaurant is sited in the city’s old Waterhouse and Fire Station. A train takes you through a tunnel with the aquarium all around you and with 700 tonnes of water above you. For those with a gambling instinct, there’s the Sam Houston Race Park with year-round live thoroughbred racing or simulcast racing. They also have a choice of turf or dirt track into the bargain. On the culture scene, Houston is one of only five American cities with its own permanent professional resident companies in all the major performing arts disciplines of music, opera, ballet and theatre. Big New York shows regularly transfer south to Houston as a matter of course. It’s long established that the wives of Texas tycoons have plenty of money and plenty of time for the arts. A great novelty is to pop round to the workshop of Texan sculptor David Adickes in Houston. He’s famous for his six-metre

high alabaster Presidential busts for the President’s Park in the Black Hills of Dakota near Mount Rushmore. He also made the huge Cowboy statue set up by a freeway near Houston. Not to mention a 60-footer of State hero Stephen F Austin and a bigger one of Big Sam Houston himself. All easily seen from your automobile. As Houstonians joke: “It’s our very own Mount Rush Hour.” If retail therapy is your bag, The Galleria shopping mall is the fourth biggest in America. Beneath its spectacular glass atriums are more than 375 fine stores and restaurants. To get away from the bustle, Houstonians love old Galveston not just for its ambience and fine Victorian architecture, but also its sea breezes bring great relief in the hot summers, which is why so many folk live there or go down at the weekends.

Hurricane Ike was a problem but the city is a survivor. After the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, they built the seawalls up by another five metres and that has largely done the trick. Oil tycoon George Mitchell made it his mission to restore and revive Galveston during the 1970s, and the variety of characterful houses is something to behold. The old part of the city near the port also has great charm. “Not so much a case of faded splendour,” tourist chief Brian Distefano corrected me. “More a case of comfortably broken in.” In America’s throw-away society, it really is a joy to be in Galveston. Its 51km of beach can easily accommodate its seven million visitors a year. For families, there’s no end of seaside fun, though it will take time for all the attractions to fully recover from storm damage. Still, it’s a measure of their resilience and defiance that they have renamed the Oktoberfest the Ike’s OverFest. It’s best to leave the last word to the locals: “Not quite the West, not quite the South. Texans first, US citizens second.” That’s how they put it. And Houston, with all its up-front confidence, epitomises that sentiment.