During the holiday season, the Kinder Institute is re-publishing some of its most-read stories of 2016. This piece, originally published Aug. 25, highlights the experience of Sukhada Tatke, a freelance journalist from Mumbai who recently moved to Houston. She explores the city through the eye of a newcomer. It's an experience shared by many, given Houston's massive foreign-born population.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.
When people ask if I like Houston, I always have the same answer: “It’s growing on me.” And so, after almost two years of living here, I chuckle when I catch myself sometimes calling it home.
The city, like this country, is overwhelming to first-time visitors by account of its sheer size. “Everything is big in Texas” we were told after my husband accepted a research position with a much desired lab at Rice University. At the very first instance, we got a taste of it: A big taxi drove us on a big freeway to take us to a big house where we had rented a room for our first month in town.
If I had kept a journal during my initial days, or even months in Houston, the entries would have reeked of vexations about feeling immobile without a car, being a lone walker in a sea of whirring cars, or the other routine angst-ridden sentiments that follow a big move (a car had never been a part of my lifestyle in Mumbai, nor my husband’s in his native France, and we thought we would be fine without one here). But the move to Houston was different.
My first footsteps in Houston – and the confusion that accompanied them – are steps many others have taken before me. The region has a massive – and quickly growing – foreign-born population. Nearly a quarter of the Houston area's 6 million residents were born outside of the U.S. I’m one of the 70,000 Greater Houston residents originally from South Asia.
Never before had I been to a place where a country’s flags fluttered outside people’s homes; where I was warned time and again not to accidentally step into someone’s yard because the homeowner had the right to shoot if he felt my presence threatened his safety; where the person next to me in a grocery store could have a gun in his pocket.
My subsequent visits to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and other U.S. cities that are vastly different from Houston accentuated the disconnect I felt within this city’s vast expanses.
The Houstonian sprawl stands in stark contrast against Mumbai, where I grew up and lived until I moved here. Mumbai is at best like a pack of sardines with a population density of roughly 52,000 people per square mile (nearly 15 times the density of Houston). Very often, one can get flung around in a wave of fellow pedestrians jostling for space. I rarely found myself alone and exposed on the streets back home even in the dead of the night, as I do in Houston in broad daylight.
Living in my Upper Kirby neighborhood, I quickly realized how easy it is to be insulated from the rest of the metropolis. I didn’t want my Houston story to be a singular version unaligned with the diverse tales interwoven into this city’s narrative. To get to know the city and understand her people, I had to shake off my self-imposed inertia and explore my adopted home.
Having no car meant that I had to rely on the faltering public transit options. Unsurprisingly, venturing out became a big source of anxiety as opposed to in Mumbai where I was spoiled for choice. About 7.5 million people commute by local train every day there -- a figure that's almost four times the total population of Houston. In Mumbai, easy access to buses, rickshaws, taxis and more recently, the metro, makes for easy mobility (though one cannot, however, gloss over the fact that in India, one can easily spend an hour stuck in traffic jam to cover a distance of five miles).
Once I got somewhat familiarized with bus and light-rail routes in Houston, I ended up in parts of the city I probably wouldn’t have known if I had had a car. Waiting for a rail connection at Wheeler station; taking an hour and a half to reach Briar Forest by changing three buses; spending 45 minutes looking out the window of the bus en route to Hillcroft Avenue showed me various slivers of Houston. What mainly stood out was the conspicuous absence of people on streets. Often, the only people seen walking the streets were homeless.
I was also struck by how profoundly divided Houston is on a racial and economic basis. A bird’s eye view shows that the city is rich in its diversity, but a closer look provides a sense of segregation where neighborhoods are either mostly white or mostly black or mostly brown. This, I discovered during my visits to the historic black neighborhoods of Freedmen’s Town and Third Ward, as well as the Mexican vicinity of Near Northside.
Neighborhoods that housed predominantly people of color gave telltale signs: grocery stores had cheaper, unhealthier foods on sale; roads had more potholes than elsewhere; houses were older and more rickety; people more obese. Naturally, these areas were poorer. These attributes are perhaps not uncommon to the rest of the country, but unbecoming of a city like Houston which prides itself on being inclusive.
In Mumbai, there is literally a cheek-and-jowl kind of coexistence between different communities owing to the expensive real estate. The rich and poor live in close proximity; often, slums flank an upscale apartment complex, further underscoring the obscenity of inequalities.
Mumbai is as old as Houston is new, but both have similar layers of complexities; the clash of various cultures, richness in identities and fissures of equality. With no ethnic majority in Houston, I see people who look and talk like me, and the commonalities of struggle, joy and rituals are felt by other South Asians.
Immigrants flock to both Mumbai and Houston from far and wide, seduced by the hopes of a better life. When the Latino cleaner in my apartment complex smiles at me, I am reminded of the dalit, members of the so-called “lowest” caste woman who collect garbage from homes in my neighborhood in Mumbai. Battles over gentrification in places like Midtown and Third Ward are reminiscent of Mumbai in early 2000s where several age-old textile mills were torn down to pave the way for malls.
Where Mumbai is largely a concrete jungle, the verdant spaces of Houston please the eye. If in Mumbai, I make halts every few minutes to chat with known people I bump into. But in Houston, large passages of time go by as I walk through the city, forced to confront my solitude.
In the tree-laced streets of the Menil neighborhood; in shutting my eyes to the outside world at the Rothko Chapel; in contemplating the sun set from the big square opening of James Turrel’s Skyspace; in the whiff of the south Asian food on Hillcroft, Houston opens herself in an embrace. I cheerily succumb.
Sukhada Tatke is a Houston-based writer who has been published by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly. She previously worked as a journalist in India, writing about civic issues for The Hindu and The Times of India.