On Hidden Culture, and Other Lessons From Houston

Houston makes you work, and it’s hard for most people to see. But it’s not like I blame them. For the longest time, I didn’t see it either.

A lot of folks, when you say Houston, figure you’re either around to watch the Rockets, or you’re passing through the Medical District, or you must clearly work for the oil industry because that’s what we do. Then there’s the Texas factor - the implication of ignorance. The last thing on most people’s minds is a play, or a film, or some outlandishly grand art exhibition. But the city supports all of these things. It pumps their blood, allowing them to bloom. The arts hide in plain sight, tucked snug in each of the wards, and when you finally recognize their prevalence in the culture you’ll wonder how you missed them.

Houston 1

The sprawl doesn’t help. There’s simply a ton of space in the city, and we’re all trying to find our place in it. And as a writer, that’s a boon - a bigger issue would be too little to wrap your mind around - but for the longest time, I was blind to the city’s wealth. I took the whole damn thing for granted. I looked to Portland and New York for inspiration, or Los Angeles and Seattle. They were places I had no real attachment to, but still, they weren’t the South. The South wasn’t where culture happened. If anything, I figured this was where it died. So I mourned those other cities the way you front over something you never really had. In the meantime, the one I lived in was sinking its teeth into me.

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Which isn’t to say it happened at once. Owning Houston, and its importance to my work, was a gradual, steady process. But if I had a moment of clarity, it came on the job, a few years back, when I worked for a handful of publications scattered around the city. Their audiences varied, but they were all pretty specific. We either wrote for the moneyed suburban set, or the club-kids, or the activists. And it wasn’t that these audiences conflicted with each other, or that they didn’t care what the other had to say. They just very rarely interacted on the page. But in real life, they coexist.

I drove from one pocket to another, from old money to poverty to startups. Throughout it all, I saw the full extent of what I wasn’t capturing. Every major metropolitan area’s comprised of the tiny metropolises within it, and Houston supports an abundance of them, and I was just passing them by. In an effort to capture one highly specific vision of the city, I was missing the place as a whole. There were so many stories I’d been blind to.

So I opened my eyes.

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In Houston, it’s possible to grab a Oaxacan breakfast in the morning, visit the Japanese gardens in the afternoon, catch a Greek dance in the evening, and top the whole thing off with a pair of midnight baos. For all of its industry, the city’s stuffed with tranquil spaces. Some are finely crafted and deftly articulated. Others are half-assed and tossed together. There’s ridiculous wealth and maddening homelessness with an abundance of people maneuvering their way in-between. And like any city, there are cultural bubbles, but they converge with one another, crashing and growing. My goal became to chronicle a bit of that. Maybe put some of it into words.

Last Fall, I finished a collection of short stories, something I never thought I’d do. But it only happened when I realized there was no one right way to chronicle the city. There doesn’t need to be. There are just too many voices. Those voices make a chorus, and we all have a role. There’s no single documentation, because Houston’s so thoroughly itself for each of us. There was no greater joy in realizing that. It was a gift I’d had all along.

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For better or worse, the rest of the country is catching on. They’re wondering how we all manage to come together. Some are a little in disbelief, others give us the benefit of the doubt. Not too long ago, I found something calling the attention “a silent ascendance.”

But, honestly, I think that’s bullshit. There’s nothing quiet about this city. And, if we are, when we are, it’s because we want to be. Houston’s forced me to keep my head down, grind, and make do with what I can grab. More often than not, you’ll find that what you’re left with is more beautiful than what you were looking for.

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My city lets me do that. It’s a city that lets you love. It’s a city where you can make bank. It’s a city where you can float on nothing, for years and years at a time. It’s a city that lets you drift, for as long as you need to, with a group of people that’ll accept you, or you join you, whatever you’re looking for.

It took me a little while to figure that out, and a lot longer to write it down. But it’s a privilege that it showed itself to me. And I’ll always be grateful.

Bryan Washington

Writer from Houston. Author of Lot from Riverhead Books. Published by GQ, The Awl, and The Paris Review.

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