Window installation at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas from December 13, 2014 to January 15, 2015. The window painting was presented in conjunction with the performance of “Ode to a City,” a text written for the occasion.
Ode to a City
I moved ten times in the six years that I lived in Houston. In order, the places that I lived from June 2008 to July 2014 were: a shared dorm room in the University of Houston’s Moody Towers, the Archstone apartment complex, the guest house of a mansion off North Boulevard, the Bayou Park apartment complex, a sublease near Rice, an old house in the Heights, a now-demolished 1960s era apartment in Montrose, an older house in Third Ward, another house a block east from there, and the guesthouse of what used to be a farm in the Heights.
Put another way, I went from the Third Ward to Washington to Southampton to Memorial Heights to Rice to the Heights to Montrose to the Third Ward to the Third Ward again to the Heights. Over that time, I lived with a 8 different girls, 4 boys, 1 family, 2 couples, 1 cat, 1 boyfriend, 2 chinchillas, and lots of fish.
I came from Austin. I remember that when I learned that my Teach For America placement would be in Houston, I would cruise up and down I-35 at night on the small strip of highway with a downtown view and think to myself, “Fuck this. I’m going to a real city.”
The first thing I did that was actually Houston was to attend a Joanna opening. I skipped my college graduation and somehow ended up in a house with people I didn’t know. There was a wildness there that seemed strange and new and electric… Is there anyone who has commemorated the Joanna like it deserves? Lots of people experienced it, especially in its second incarnation next to the Menil. At The Joanna, people drank cheaply, fell down on the dance floor, got walked in on while peeing, left without saying goodbye, met people that they would later hate, saw people they already hated, listened to zydeco, ate weird food, inhaled too much smoke, lost pieces of clothing, grinded on the wrong person, gave too many hugs, got nervous, got excited, wore costumes, came and never made art, got insulted, got hit on, sweated profusely, kissed people without asking, peed in the yard, and met everyone who they would later come to see as the ‘Houston art scene’… Where is that place for people here now?
Cut to the University of Houston’s Moody Towers, where I sleep on a “bouch” (bed and couch). It’s 5 am and my roommate, a perky, freckled Christian from Dallas, blow dries her hair about a foot from my head every morning at this time. I’m 21 years old and I’ve brought with me an assortment of newly-purchased ‘business attire’ that I already know is ugly. I will teach and grade papers and sit in meetings and take certification tests and deal with Teach For America and Houston Independent School District staff for the next three years of my life, but it is only during this particular summer that I have the distinction of eating every meal in the Moody Towers cafeteria, gazing out of my too-tiny-to-commit-suicide dorm room window, and awaking each morning to the whirr of a hair dryer.
I Hurricane Iked it in Austin because I was scared and knew nearly no one in Houston. At the time, I was living at The Archstone, an anonymous Washington-area apartment for young professionals. As an outsider, the days leading up to the storm felt especially apocalyptic. I was convinced that my own psychic misery had conjured the storm, and that my proximity to the Gulf of Mexico had stirred the waves and weather into a vortex of angst. I was in my first semester of teaching.
I hated living at The Archstone because of my psycho roommate who loved Kid Rock. But I also hated the complex’s cookie cutter feel and the fake tans and fitness vibe which like, totally bummed me out. Although it was by no means fancy, the Archstone was a precursor to the new wave of luxury mid- and high rise apartments that are now taking over the city. About half of Houston’s population lives in apartment complexes, which is more than double the Texas state average of 17%. In Houston, there are about 3,000 apartment communities with more than 1,000,000 units. Because Houston’s GDP grew by 27% between 2009 and 2012 and continues to rise, the city now attracts some of the highest rates of college graduates in the US. Many of these newcomers are young and mobile enough to postpone home ownership in favor of longer-term renting, and if they work in the medical, finance, or energy sectors, they might start with $85,000 a year salaries. Some of these industries even offer housing stipends ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 per month. The demographic is therefore well suited to the luxury apartment boom.
Fast forward a couple of places and I end up subleasing a room near Rice University. Two of my roommates are soon-to-be married Biology grads who have filled the dining room with stacks of buzzing fish aquariums. They keep a poop-filled chinchilla room upstairs, and I suspect that they also have a turtle. The house was basically a dump and ‘persistently funky’, but it was also affordable in a sea of bougerie. Every day I’d marvel at the two-toned schedule of the place: the whites would vacate the premises during the day, then the brown folks came in to take care of their yards and babies. I remember seeing the bright yellow “TOWER OF TRAFFIC / STOP ASHBY HIGHRISE” signs in neighbor’s front yards and thinking, “if there’s anyone who can stop a moving train, it’s these people.” I figured that my neighbors were all movers and shakers, lawyers, and perhaps even the very developers trying to build the Ashby Highrise itself. But even they lost.
In 2012 I moved to Montrose for the first and last time. That was also the year that the city of Houston passed the Downtown Living Initiative Chapter 380 Program, which offered tax breaks of $15,000 per multifamily unit built in downtown Houston. The area that ‘Downtown Houston’ encompasses has since been expanded, now covering areas of Midtown, Montrose, and the Museum District. The cap on residential units that the program benefits has also doubled from 2,500 to 5,000, meaning the total cost of the subsidies for builders could reach $75 million. About six months into our Montrose lease, we were told that we had 30 days to vacate. The 1960s era complex would be demolished to make way for a new mid rise luxury ‘community’. It was surreal to see a place that’s been inhabited for decades razed to the ground. Moving out of the empty shell gave me another apocalyptic feeling.
I remember about two years ago thinking, “Holy shit, this town is Austinizing.” I had seen the city turn awful during the Austin City Limits and South By Southwest festivals, which sparked an influx of mostly white, affluent, creative-ish types who had enjoyed getting wasted in a town with more trees than theirs and decided to come back to stay. Many of the problematic sides of the city like its lack of diversity are still there, but now it is more corporate, more branded, and less affordable. What is happening in Houston is certainly different, but there are some similar consequences.
A few months ago, Cody Ledvina invited some friends to throw a painting into the large pits at construction sites of soon-to-be douche castles, as he called them. I thought the project was brilliant. The participants had been long time Montrose residents and artists, and the gesture of them tossing their art into the soon-to-be high rise parking lots was existential, sacrificial, funny, rebellious, and even archaeological. I imagine 2,000 years from now (or 20 at the rate Houston’s going) scientists excavating the site and discovering, impossibly, a dood’s work on canvas at the base of this monstrous and decaying urban dwelling site.
In August of 2014, Houston issued more permits for residential construction than the entire state of California, which has 4 times Houston’s population. 73 new apartment complexes were built in Houston last year, 61 are currently in construction, and 61 are proposed to be built. The development is raising rents and moving a lot of folks eastward. That phenomenon deserves its own essay, and I can’t give it justice here. But I will say that I thought more about belonging, race, and being a neighbor in my last two years living in the Third Ward than at any other time. I stayed there longer than anywhere else in Houston, and it was there that I felt the most and the least like a neighbor. It is a community with history and urgency. I think of the political demons that have plagued and divided the nation for the last few weeks, months, and years, and I think of who lives there now, and who will live there next.
I won’t ever get tired of Houston from the car window: catching Houston’s toxic pink sunsets, speeding down highways watching the lights flash, passing anonymous-looking buildings I’ll never visit. Maybe this view is the one Houston is truly meant to be seen from: always moving, always changing, as it was for me and will continue to be.
‘Ode’ comes from two Greek words that mean ‘sing’ and ‘shape’ or ‘form’. Today I sing the shape of the city I knew for six years. I no longer live here but I salute all of you who do.