Houston is a city I have called home all my life. I grew up on the southeast side of town in a small neighborhood called Southbelt, moving from one apartment complex to another. I watched as my parents tried to give me and my siblings a decent life. They encouraged us to be whatever we wanted and taught us no one was better than us. The neighborhood was predominantly white and the encouragement was necessary because I didn’t always fit in. When I turned 12, my parents were able to buy a two-story tan home with a Hardie Board and brick exterior that matched all the other homes on the block. I became more involved in the community by helping the local church and taking part in extracurricular activities at school but still did not fit in to the neighborhood. Something was missing. I needed to get out and explore. It was this feeling that helped me decide to move to Arlington, Texas.
Five years later, I graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington and I found that, aside from a few good friends, I had no real attachments. The 250-mile drives to visit Houston were over. I decided to move back. It was time to get back to my little neighborhood and at the same time become an outcast again.
Only two flags fly in Southbelt—the American and Texan. Three megachurches spread the gospel only minutes from each other and each house has a couple of cars in the driveway adjacent to a St. Augustine lawn. People never really speak about politics or religion in public, unless there is a good joke involved. Life runs at a slow pace. On the weekends high school students watch Friday football and have house parties. Middle- to upper-income couples settle and raise a family. Seniors come to retire. It’s a small, God-fearing community. There is even a 100-foot plus cross to prove it. While I was aware of other pockets of Houston, such as the renovated Mexican flea markets with poor, uneven streets in South Houston or the glass and steel towers of Downtown or the small dilapidated black barber shops near Scott Street, Southbelt was the Houston that I grew up knowing and I stuck to it.
After graduation and a few months job-hunting, I started my career in a small office in the Montrose area called Cisneros Design Studio. This job introduced me to the people who call themselves “Inner Loopers.” The environment was different from my upbringing along the Gulf Freeway corridor. I was accustomed to Ford F-10 trucks that had bumper stickers that read “W The President” in support of George W. Bush. Now I was coming across those same trucks that said “F The President.” The landscape was also different. In place of a Starbucks here, a Super Target over there, and a Home Depot next door, I saw “Mom and Pop” stores or chains with a significantly smaller footprint. I gathered from all these observations that this city was divided in its culture, people, and lifestyles.
For the past five years, I bounced back and forth from inside to outside the Loop. In that timeframe I have worked for two different architectural firms and gone back to school at the University of Houston. In this short time, I have noted different incidents that give me a sense of my fellow Houstonians just minutes north of me. The majority of those incidents occur while I’m in or with my car.
My vehicle is something that is a necessity in Houston so it only makes sense that I would do most of my observation behind its glass. One of the first encounters was on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose. I knew Montrose was home to the the gay, lesbian, and transgender community when I first began working in town. I got so many puzzled looks from people in and around Southbelt when I mentioned I worked in the Montrose area that I started to say that I worked near Downtown and when they started to ask for specifics I just said around the Museum District. This little white lie ended follow-up questions such as “Is your boss gay?” or “Are you not telling me something, Chudi?”
At the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, I was wrapping up my lunch break and heading over to a Valero gas station. As I got out of my gray 1988 Mazda 626, breathing in some “fresh” air and escaping some humidity that had accumulated in the car due to the lack of air conditioning, I wiped my brow and dug into my pocket for my credit card. As I swiped the card at the pump I notice an older woman pumping her tank in front of me wearing a white Sunday dress with a large church hat, as if coming from a church meeting.
As I watched the numbers of gallons at the pump flicker before me, I could not help noticing something odd about the Church Lady. She had a boxy and weathered face and the stout figure of a construction worker. As I continued to take careful and casual glances, she turned towards me and gave me a stare as if she was going to give me a beating. Then I realized I was in the presence of a cross dresser. This was my first such experience and the person appeared to want to beat me up, inching closer to me. I ended all eye contact and abruptly stopped pumping my gas. I dug for my keys in my pocket while frantically trying to get back into my car and sped away from the station, while at the same time trying to avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic.
My next experience in the area occurred several weeks later. It was around 5:40 in the evening and I was ready to go home. The streets were busy and vibrant with cars and pedestrians. I proceeded south on Montrose past the Mecom fountain and waited at the stop light on the corner of Main and McGregor. Once the light turned green horns sounded off for the first car to move. I was thinking to myself, “It hasn’t even been a full second yet and people are blaring their horns for the front car to move. Where’s the patience? Where are the southern manners that we Texans brag about? My God, everybody calm down!” As the first car moved forward all the cars behind, including my own, followed, moving as quickly as we could before the light turned red again. I wondered are all people very confrontational down here. Would the people inside the Loop make up the inhabitants of yet another geographic area that I’m going to want to flee from?
A few days later, on a warm January afternoon I was at the office of Cisneros Design Studio at my area working on the latest sketch that Mr. Cisneros had designed. It was just after lunch and I was not in the mood to work anymore. As my eyes bounced back and forth from his sketch back to monitor, my neighbor Jeff strolls back into the office and mentions to me some guy that could be the next President of the United States. Knowing Jeff, I realized this could be another crazy story he has to tell me, but they are always interesting, whether it’s about his ex stalking him or what he saw at the bars the night before. Jeff is a white guy with a very “laissez-faire” attitude. He was in his early 30s but at times it seemed like he was 21. He had long hair and he seemed to be a product of the Inner Loop.
He goes on to tell me that there is this guy named Barack Obama planning to run for president. I look at him as if he just lost his mind. He continued to say that this Obama character is black, as if that was going to excite me about his new findings. My first thought was “Oh great, another black man running for President.” I smiled politely and told him I was skeptical. Basing my judgment on the neighborhood I grew up in, I countered with, “Who in Iowa or Florida would vote for a guy who’s name sounds like Osama?” I know from experience that your name does play a factor in how people perceive you. My second doubt stemmed from my being generally unsure about black candidates. They usually make the campaign about race and they always try to rhyme like they went to the University of Dr. Seuss.
Jeff seemed perplexed at my reaction, but I decided to look at this candidate a little more closely anyway. As the weeks followed I started to see why Jeff was so excited. He was intelligent and spoke well and talked about issues that interested me. This was an eye-opening moment for me that I truly believe stemmed from working inside the Loop. I began to see how cynical I had become due to the environment in the suburbs, but even more importantly, I saw that Jeff was more open minded and optimistic than I ever have been. Although this senator from Illinois was black and had a funny name, it was Jeff, not I, who thought he could be the next president.
I observed other traits around the new geographic area where I worked. The community was much more diverse in its economics and population than the suburbs. Because of the closeness of buildings, you can see Maseratis and Lamborghinis in the driveway of Hotel Zaza and a few blocks north Interfaith Ministries caters to the poor and runaways. I lunched at the Jack and the Box on the corner of Montrose and Yoakum observing runaway teenagers while peacefully finishing my sandwich and fries.
I came across some thought-provoking liberal ideologies, people and bumper stickers that I assumed could only be found in New York or California. It was a place where conforming was not acceptable. Originality was the norm. I felt I had found a place I could finally connect with.
As my one-year anniversary at Cisneros neared, I was offered a job near my original neighborhood. This new opportunity paid more, had benefits, and the best part was that I didn’t have to drive 30-45 minutes every day to work. I felt that this was going to be the best move for me and my early career. During the first few months at the new office people were courteous and nice. But the conversations with my new employees left me disconnected.Most of the people were already married with children, and most of their conversations were about golfing, fishing, or their kids — all things I could not relate to. For lunch, the different restaurants were limited to the typical food chains that can be found anywhere in the city. The people and the environment of the neighborhood I grew up calling home all of a sudden had this feeling of being sterile. I started to feel that sensation of displacement once again.
After a year at my new office, I was set to begin my first school design, all the way from schematic design to the finished product. I was excited; this is exactly what I waited for — until I saw the final rendering. It was a symmetrical building with a tower in the front and brown and tan brick all around. I was highly disappointed. What upset me even more was that this is really what the educational client had requested. Within the Loop you could use different material like corrugated steel, stone, and maybe a little plaster here and there. Things could be asymmetrical; the norm was to break from normal. Outside the loop projects had to coordinate with deed restrictions and conservative voters ranting and hollering about the color of a brick on a new school or the geometry of the building. And the last thing any school district wants to do is upset its voters. Therefore, they play it safe and make everything vanilla or tan. After a while I noticed that everything is tan around my home neighborhood and office. The majority of the schools are tan, most of the shopping centers are tan, and just about every house is tan. I felt the suburbs were trying to kill originality.
A few months later, I was driving to work, and as I was coming over the overpass of El Dorado at Interstate 45, I noticed someone walking over the overpass. I reached the stoplight on the other end of the overpass and waited for the light to turn green, I thought to myself, “Why is that person walking over the bridge? Is his car broken? Does he even have a car?” I stopped myself. What is so bad with walking from one location to another? Is this what living outside the Loop has done to me? My experience inside the Loop was fighting my current environment. Instead of being so critical of people walking, I thought maybe this guy has the right idea and those of us in our cars need a reality check about our environment. I recalled the old Taco Cabana at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, watching people walk constantly through that intersection.
As I got off the elevator and entered into my cubicle space in the office, I noticed my neighbor to the right of me is searching online about buying a scooter. Since gas prices are now $4.00 a gallon, he’s rethinking the idea of buying a truck and is considering a scooter. He asks me what I think about the scooter he has selected and I politely tell him I think it looks nice. But since I am one who can’t learn to keep my opinions to myself I continue to tell him he may want to wait out this gas price spike or at least buy an electric car like a Prius. He smiles and looks as if he takes my suggestion into consideration and goes back to work.
I am not sure to what extent I will always remain a product of the suburbs and how much my exposure to the Inner Loop changed me.
As I logged onto my desktop, I remember walking to my car from a Half-Price Bookstore on the corner of Montrose and Yoakum, and noticing a scooter going by with a long lanky gentleman wearing a white helmet. As I left the store and headed to my old, worn-out 1988 Mazda 626, I realized how many people in the Montrose area owned scooters. After a while I thought that maybe a scooter would be pretty cool to have if I lived down here.
I tried to snap out of my flashback but couldn’t help my reveries.
Not too far from the Beltway and Beamer intersection, minutes from my old home, I saw a large man riding on a bike. “Foolish,” I thought. This is not Montrose. Drive a car or stay inside.