In addition to being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is also the most ethnically diverse city. Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson took a tour of Houston with Rice University professor Stephen Klineberg, who is founding director of the Kinder Institute on Urban Research, to learn more about how this city went from a mostly white oil boomtown to what it is today.
“Houston was founded in this crummy little mosquito-infested swampland,” Klineberg explained. “It positioned itself as a railroad capital in the middle of the country where seventeen railroads meet the sea.”
The swampy southern city was not seen as a destination, but a passageway for goods, said Klineberg.
“Houston was best seen as a transhipment point where agriculture products were brought to Houston, but on a barge pushed on the crummy little Buffalo Bayou to the San Jacinto River to the great port of Galveston.”
From Boom To Bust
But in 1900, the world changed for Houston.
“In September of 1900, the great storm that destroyed Galveston,” said Klineberg. “And for the next 80 years. Houston was riding the resource of the industrial age.”
Oil made Houston rich. In 1980, 82 percent of all the jobs in Houston were tied to the oil business, and the price of a barrel of increased tenfold in value during the 1970s.
“This was boomtown America until the next fully fateful day when everything changed in Houston,” said Klineberg. “In 1982, when the oil boom collapsed, Houston went into a major recession – the worst regional recession of any part of the country at any time since World War II in a city that had known nothing but economic boom from its beginnings until that fateful day.”
“This biracial southern city dominated by white men has become, in the last 30 years, the single most ethnically diverse major metropolitan area in the entire country.”
A More Diverse Population And Economy
Immigration grew the city’s population and diversity. In the late 1960s, the majority of the population in Houston was white.
“This was a biracial southern city that was a southern city dominated and controlled by white men,” said Klineberg.
Houston was 74 percent white, 20 percent African American, 6 percent Latino and 0.5 percent Asian in 1960, said Klineberg.
“After 1982, the Anglo population of Harris County stopped growing,” said Klineberg. “And all the growth, of the most rapidly growing city in America, has been from the influx of African Americans, Latinos and Asians. And this biracial southern city dominated by white men has become, in the last 30 years, the single most ethnically diverse major metropolitan area in the entire country.”
And the city is not as tied to oil as it once was. Back in the ’80s, 82 percent of the jobs in Houston were connected to oil and gas, but today, that number is around 45 percent. Many Houstonians work in the sprawling medical complex, and others have jobs related to the Port of Houston – one of the busiest ports in the U.S.
A ‘New Form Of Human Settlement’
On a ride through the wide avenues of Houston, even in the middle of the day, there’s traffic. The streets are big, with many lanes across and they’re lined with strip malls. The roads wind underneath highways and snake around the city in loops.
“Three big loops of highway define the transportation network for the city of Houston,” said Klineberg.
“Houston is the epitome of this new form of human settlement, called the MCMR— the multi-center metropolitan region,” said Klineberg.
Spokes of highway jut out from Houston’s city center, spilling into the suburbs, and rolling across land with little geographic barriers to the massive urban growth.
“We have eight to 10 major centers of activity that are concentrations of workplaces and shopping places and residences that are larger than downtown San Diego all around this gigantic massive space that is almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts,” said Klineberg. “So the reason you need those loops is because you’re not just going from the suburbs into the city , you’re going from one suburb to another.”
And if you live in Houston, you’re probably doing that in your car. The city does have an extensive bus system and a limited light rail system, which was launched about a decade ago.
There are plans to expand the light rail – but in this city where private money is what gets things done, there are questions about the public funding needed to add miles of track.
“We’re going to see more and more suburban development and urban development both within the city and these centers.”
However, in a county that is expected to grow by a million people in the next two decades, and in a metropolitan area that is expected to grow by nearly 3 million in that time, it seems there’s a need for more mass transit.
Even sprawling Los Angeles is building miles of train tracks, above ground and below. But in 50 years, Klineberg doesn’t think Houston will build a subway. He does think the city will create a more effective bus system and more public transit, though.
And Houston isn’t restrained by natural boundaries like Los Angeles, whose mountains act as barriers to the city’s expansion. Houston can keep growing.
“Houston can grow and continue to spread out,” Klineberg said. “We’re going to see more and more suburban development and urban development both within the city and these centers.”
Immigration From China, Vietnam And Latin America
At the Hong Kong City Mall, a giant strip mall in Houston, there are Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, electronics stores, clothing stores and a huge Asian supermarket where many of the patrons speak little to no English.
While many from the 1980s generation of immigrants to Houston still identify with the country they came from, their kids were born and raised here and identify more with an American identity – marking a difference in the way generations will shape and play a role in the future of Houston.
But so far, Professor Klineberg said the power structure doesn’t reflect the new realities of Houston – and of Texas.
Many of Houston’s new immigrants don’t vote, some are undocumented, and others are eligible for naturalization but haven’t filed the necessary paperwork.
“Anglos still have overwhelmingly the power,” Klineberg said. “It’s still an Anglo world. But everybody knows that there’s an absolute inevitability to this gestation. I tell people no force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more Latino, more African-American, more Asian, and less Anglo. Nothing in the world can stop that. So the only question our generation has been given is how do we make this work, how do we ensure that this ethnic diversity becomes the tremendous asset it can be.”
Education As The Equalizer
Whether diversity becomes an asset to a community is dependent on education, said Klineberg.
“We have a bifurcated immigration stream coming to a bifurcated economy. Asians are coming with higher levels of education than we’ve ever seen in the history of immigration in America, much higher than Anglos, U.S.-born Anglos, and the first generation has difficulty with English and are staying in their co-ethnic enclaves but that second of generation coming to age now in Houston are going to be a powerhouse.”
At the Baker Ripley campus of Neighborhood Centers in Southwest Houston, teachers have kindergartners who are part of newly arrived families from all over the world. These students likely know more English than their parents do. Dean Ruby Gilberg explained why these families have landed in Houston.
“Well they want a new life, a new way of life, they want to grow, they want education, they want best for their children first,” said Gilberg. “Houston is like the old saying, ‘the melting pot,’ but in the reality they are just like other children. However we meet them from wherever they are from, they learn and they accept the things we have to offer them,” said Gilberg.
- Stephen Klineberg, professor at Rice University and founding director of the Kinder Institute on Urban Research. He tweets @SteveKlineberg.