The World Series of Sun Belt Cities

Image via flickr/Richard Schneider.

Bill Fulton | @BillFultonVta

I’ve lived in both cities. I’ve devoted most of my professional career to understanding the two of them. And, conflicted as I am about who to root for in the World Series, I’ll say this: It’s a great matchup because Los Angeles and Houston are similar as urban places – the two largest cities in the American Sun Belt. And as a Houstonian, it’s worth saying that Los Angeles holds important lessons – good and bad – about our future.

When I moved to Houston three years ago – after living in Southern California for thirty years – the thing that struck me more than anything was how similar its urban form is to Los Angeles. An enormous, low-rise city laid out on a grid across a gigantic coastal plane. Glued together by a highly developed freeway system. Punctuated by large job centers scattered across the landscape. Slowly realizing that maybe cars aren’t the answer to everything. And gradually rediscovering the underlying natural environment that gave rise to the city in the first place.

Over time, I’ve come to see that even in non-physical terms, the two cities are similar. Demographically, this similarity is really striking. Both cities are about 40% Hispanic, and their metro areas have an enormous array of nationalities and ethnicities. The only big demographic difference is that, because it was traditionally a Southern city, Houston has a larger African-American population.

But even in that case, what’s important is not the difference but the connection. Los Angeles’s black population migrated largely from Texas and Louisiana, and the connections back and forth are important. (In Walter Moseley’s Easy Rawlins novels, Easy lives in South-Central but grew up in the Fifth Ward.) As one of the westernmost historically black colleges and universities, Texas Southern draws more than its share of Angelenos.

And among other ethnic groups, Houston is increasingly viewed as an affordable alternative to Los Angeles. Houston has the largest Vietnamese population outside of California and the relationships among East Asian communities in particular is strong. Not long ago I spoke with a dentist and his wife of Chinese extraction who grew up in Los Angeles and then lived in the East and the Midwest. They settled in Houston because of the large Chinese population and the general view that, if they couldn’t afford to live in Los Angeles, Houston was the next best place to be a Chinese-American.

It’s a little too easy to say that Houston and L.A. are similar because they grew up as postwar auto-oriented cities. It’s important to understand that, at least at their core, both cities are older than you might think. Yes, they are the two largest cities in the Sun Belt. But they have been the two largest cities in the Sun Belt since 1950, when Houston passed New Orleans as the largest city in the South. L.A. emerged early as a center of aerospace and manufacturing, Houston as a center of cotton trading and then energy. Both benefited greatly from World War II industrialization. Both are port cities, and in fact the expansion of the Panama Canal is likely to increase the competition between the ports. Both had – and still have – enormous freight rail infrastructures, which are deeply interconnected. (It’s not unusual for freight traffic in L.A. to get screwed up because of some snafu in the Port of Houston.)

Nevertheless, it is true that they both boomed in the 30 years after World War II to become the poster children for Sun Belt sprawl, both good and bad. L.A. and Houston were carpet-bombed with basic, low-amenity suburban tracts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet they have also been centers of urban innovation. When I was a young urban planner learning about “new towns,” everything I read kept leading me back to Irvine and The Woodlands, which are similarly innovative as master-planned communities. Even in baseball, the two cities were leaders of postwar suburban innovation. Dodger Stadium and the Astrodome – dating from 1962 and 1965, respectively – were hands down the two most important and innovative baseball stadiums built between the 1920s and the 1990s. These were the stadiums that led the way with exploding scoreboards, varied cuisine, and ample parking.

As I learn more about this moment in Houston’s history, I am struck by the similarities with the Los Angeles I lived in during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The emerging world-class traffic problems. (The 610 Loop around The Galleria reminds me so much of the 405 on the Westside.) The dependence on traditional industries that may not be around forever. The struggles of a black-white city accommodating a wide range of emerging ethnicities, especially a fast-growing Hispanic population. The unaffordable housing. The gradual coming to terms with the idea that a world-class city must be urban, not suburban, in nature.

And so what can we learn from L.A.? My takeaway is: Don’t wait too long to embrace the need to be a more urban place. For Los Angeles, the tipping point came in the ‘90s, when traffic got so bad Angelenos began to realize they would never be able to fix the problem with more freeway lanes. Since then, L.A. has embarked on the largest transit construction effort of any American city in the last 100 years. It will pay off in the long run, but in the short run traffic is still miserable, the transit oases are few and far between, and Angelenos are taxing themselves to death trying to get ahead in the process. So don’t get too far behind the curve – in transportation, housing, and diversifying the economic base.

Oh, and by the way: I’m not really having a hard time deciding who to root for. The Dodgers are a great ball club. But the Astros are the most exciting, fun young team I’ve seen in a really long time.

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