Houston Versus Chicago: A Reflection


A new sculpture sparked the latest in Houston and Chicago's urban rivalry. But some murkier truths lurk beneath the surface.

Chicago Bean

A new sculpture sparked the latest in Houston and Chicago's urban rivalry. But some murkier truths lurk beneath the surface.

Houston got a new art installation last week and, thanks to a publicized email exchange between Chicago and Houston’s local newspapers, some attention.

The piece, “Cloud Column” is a super slick, vertical sculpture that reads like a Space Age obelisk. And, as a close cousin to artist Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” a.k.a. the Bean in Chicago, the sculpture has been labeled “unoriginal” – no matter the piece now up in Houston was actually made first.

That particular accusation from the Chicago Tribune’s Kim Janssen set off an email back and forth with the much-beloved Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Gray. Others chimed in defending the city from national naysayers. It was the usual urban rivalries stuff. But beneath the exchange were important realities about the vitality of our urban spaces and their challenges.

It was a bit of an unfair fight. In much of urban theory and urban sociology, Chicago has been The City by which other cities are examined and understood. The Chicago School and its concentric zone model of urban development, among other contributions, became a prototype for researchers and writers. And even today, as Janssen points out, “Chicago” remains a stand-in for any sort of urban ill a politician needs to evoke without doing much (any?) actual research on the issue.

So it makes sense that by this Chicago-oriented understanding of urban spaces Houston falls short. The city boundaries alone could swallow up entire other cities with room for dessert. That concentric zone model holds, to an extent, but not for Houston's multimodal development. And of course, there’s the sprawl: well-known but poorly understood.

See, within that sprawl sit suburban strip malls filled with dance studios, restaurants, grocery stores and other independent businesses run by immigrants; pockets of density rivaling East Coast cities; and layers of development that tell the story of Houston’s transformation from a biracial Southern city to a city where roughly one in four residents was born outside this country.

Some Houston features are common and likely recognizable to Chicago and other American cities: gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown, increasing spatial concentration of both poverty and wealth, diversifying inner ring suburbs and master planned communities served by loops upon loops of highways.

Though just a few cities have set the standard for what “urban” means in this country, Houston, still among the fast-growing metropolises scattered across the South and West, represents the future of urban development and its challenges.

In the back and forth between Chicago and Houston, the usual points emerged. Janssen called Houston a “cultural abyss.” And Houston writers retorted with claims of the area’s diversity and growth. But both missed important realities.

When someone criticizes a place as large and varied as Houston for lacking “culture” what they mean is that it lacks the same level of comfortably commodified, institutionalized, tourist-friendly culture seen elsewhere. That we have, of course. No city boosters anywhere would have it any other way and Houston has tied its tourism dollars to the arts scene here explicitly. But what frustrates the outside, and even sometimes the inside observer of Houston life is that much of what comprises the area’s culture is something you sort of have to be invited to: the marathon sessions of making tortillas and tamales in the lead up to the holidays, the trail rides that wind their way toward Houston in the weeks before the big rodeo every year, the suburban dance studio packed with preteens practicing their Bollywood moves, the backyard barbecue. Our museums, theaters and galleries are nice too, but living rooms and backyards are where Houston shines.

And then there’s the other side of the argument: that our diversity alone confers bragging rights and that it reflects our affordability and general openness. Thanks to these things, the argument goes, we’re growing and about to overtake Chicago in population any day now.

These are the sorts of claims Houston’s amalgamation of civic and business boosters has been using to sell the area for decades. Growth is the goal, promoted as both value free and proof of a benevolent city. This is an urban dogma shared by cities and adopted by many of their residents but in Houston developers and politicians have had a particularly close relationship historically.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey that's led to a bit of a reckoning but one that has rarely gone as far as to question the general doctrine of growth. The city was declared “open for business” long before some of its affected communities had begun the actual process of recovery.

The storm laid bare the limitations of the growth doctrine, including the very unequal outcomes it provides for its residents. Houston, like many other cities, is a study in contrasts. Diversity as an idea and a brand often serves to obfuscate these meaningful differences in investment, access and opportunity.

Houston’s demographics are taken as proof that it must be doing something right and welcoming – nevermind the just recently settled fair housing complaint against the city, the persistent education gaps in our school districts, the stark economic segregation, the racially disparate health outcomes, on and on. Chicago faces many of the same challenges. In fact, when the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute needed a city to contrast with the documented racial segregation and inequity in Chicago in a recent report, they chose Houston as a place with more moderate segregation.

But Houston is still confronting its own unequal landscapes. To the west of Houston, Fort Bend County is sometimes described as more diverse than the region itself because of its almost even breakdown between white, Hispanic, black and Asian residents. But within that, divides emerge quickly. The county’s largest school district, for example, has been under investigation for several years now for discriminatory practices in its disciplinary actions.

Yes, we are all here but how are we all doing? And for Houston’s black and brown neighborhoods now experiencing gentrification, its renters facing increasing housing cost burdens, its large undocumented community: for how long can we all stay?

The good news, many people have been advocating around these issues for decades. They’ve done the surveying, outreaching and planning. Becoming more equitable in Houston and beyond will take political will, innovation and an acknowledgement that growth alone does not mean a city is working for everyone.

This takes the fun out of a bit of collegial back and forth over a new art installation, sure. But it hopefully examines some of those readymade city slogans that Houston – and most any other city – has deployed in favor of a bit more self-reflection. Hey, maybe that shiny new sculpture can help with that.



Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Subscribe to our e-newsletter

Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Featured Sponsor

Support the Kinder Institute