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25 Things You Should Know About Houston

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In the state where everything’s bigger, Houston looms particularly large. How large? If it were its own country, Houston’s economy would rank 30th in the world. In terms of physical size, a loop around the city on Beltway 8 covers 88 miles. Throw in the world’s largest medical center, rodeo, commercial port, and the Johnson Space Center, and you’ve got the ten-gallon hat version of an American metropolis. Yet for all its size, the Bayou City has plenty of charm, sophistication, and a restaurant scene that’s become one of the hottest in the south. Here are a few things you might not know about Houston. 

1. It’s named after Sam Houston, the military commander-turned-politician who led the battle for Texas’s independence from Mexico. In addition to serving as the first president of the Texas republic, Houston opposed secession, was an honorary member of the Cherokee nation, and once beat a U.S. congressman with his cane for calling him a fraud.

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2.
From 1837 to 1839, Houston was the capital of Texas. This came after the town founders, brothers Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen, promised the Texas congress generous land and building incentives. In the span of four months, the population of Houston grew from twelve residents and one log cabin to more than 1500 residents and a hundred homes. And even though the capital soon shifted 150 miles west to Waterloo (soon renamed Austin), the Allen brothers’ move gave Houston a crucial early boost.

3. To bring commerce to the city in its early days, the Allen brothers claimed that ships could sail “without obstacle” [PDF] from New York to Houston. Never mind that no ship had yet made the journey, or even made its way up the winding, debris-clogged Buffalo Bayou to dock at Houston. In 1837, the small steamship Laura finally managed the trip from Harrisburg—a 12-mile voyage that took three days.

4. Despite rough waters early on, today Houston is one of the busiest port cities in the nation. Its 25-mile long system of commercial docks is one of the largest in the country, and brings in more foreign tonnage per year than any other port.

5. During the Texas oil boom, Houston was home to a group of tycoons who had quickly (and quietly) become the richest men in the country. The most notorious of these men was Glenn McCarthy, the son of an oil worker from Beaumont who struck it rich as a “wildcatter” digging wells throughout the state. McCarthy spent lavishly, regularly sinking into debt before seeing his fortunes rise again with the flow of Texas gold. In 1949, he built the $21 million Shamrock Hotel in Houston, and hosted an over-the-top opening party, attended by 3000 people, that included numerous Hollywood celebrities and a chaotic live national television broadcast. The Houston Chronicle called it “bedlam in diamonds.” McCarthy sold the Shamrock to the Hilton family several years later to pay off his debts, but still couldn’t keep himself from purchasing 14 newspapers, a collection of local bars, and his own “Wildcatter” brand of bourbon. He served as the inspiration for Jett Rink in Edna Ferber’s novel Giant (played in the movie version by James Dean), and has gone down in history as the quintessential Texas oilman and “King of the Wildcatters.”

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries


6.
In 1935, local businessman Will Horwitz built an underground tunnel that connected three of his downtown movie theaters. Inspired by the passageways beneath Rockefeller Center in New York, the tunnels included a penny arcade, shops, and a wine tavern. Over the next few decades, private companies added to the tunnels, creating a system that today spans six miles and connects 95 city blocks.

7. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, sees 7.2 million patient visits per year. That’s more than three times the population of Houston.

8. NASA’s Johnson Space Center was originally awarded to Tampa Bay. But after military officials there declined to shut down MacDill Air Force Base, the contract went to the search committee’s number two city, Houston. It didn’t hurt that many Washington politicians at the time were from Texas, including Lyndon Johnson and house speaker Sam Rayburn [PDF].

9. Houston is the largest city in the country without formal zoning laws. But that doesn’t mean there are chemical plants next to luxury high rises, or skyscrapers built in the middle of city parks. Instead, the city relies on local ordinances, deeds, and other measures to regulate building codes while still keeping the real estate market nimble.

10. Subversive art and car culture collide at Houston’s Art Car Museum. Also known as “Garage Mahal,” the museum features a rotating cast of decked-out autos, including a cockroach-themed “Roachster” and a trippy six-wheeled space buggy.
 


11.
Houston is also home to the National Museum of Funeral History, where you can see exhibits dedicated to the history of embalming, the deaths of popes, presidential funerals, and mourning in the 19th century. You’ll also be happy to know the museum is available for private rental.

12. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, with 145 different languages spoken by its residents. This includes 15,000 French speakers, 17,000 Arabic speakers, and just 25 Welsh speakers.

13. Houston’s theater district, home to nine performing arts organizations in a 17-block area, has the second highest concentration of theater seating of any city in the nation—according to city officials, anyway. Skeptics point out that numerous other cities make the same claim.

14. Spanning 20 days in March, Houston’s rodeo and livestock show is one of the largest in the world. Started as the Houston Fat Stock Show in 1931, the exhibition grew beyond heifers and hogs to include skill competitions and live music performances, beginning with Gene Autry in 1941. In 1970, 44,000 people filled the Astrodome to watch Elvis Presley perform. These days, RodeoHouston, as it's known, sees 2.5 million attendees and hosts a wide range of events, including a barbecue cook-off, flower show, and bull riding.
 


15.
Located on Malone Street in west Houston, the Beer Can House is exactly what it sounds like: a house covered with more than 50,000 beer cans. Owner John Milkovisch, a retired railroad worker, started the project in 1968, and over the course of 18 years added empty cans that he, his wife Mary, and his neighbors consumed. Today, the house is considered an example of folk art and is undergoing restoration efforts. Milkovisch, for his part, never thought too deeply about the project: “I guess I just thought it was a good idea. And it’s easier than painting.”

16. One of Houston’s most popular museums, Bayou Bend, is the former home of Ima Hogg, a Texas governor’s daughter who transcended her name to become one of Houston’s most influential philanthropists. Located in the city’s River Oak district, the museum features fine art, silver, and furnishings, along with an ornate organic garden that’s featured, among other flora, the first azaleas brought to Houston.

17. To help fund its newest album, pioneering Houston hip-hop group Geto Boys recently ran a Kickstarter campaign that featured a custom-made casket as a funding gift. Sadly, the group that gave the world “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” (immortalized in the movie Office Space) didn’t hit its funding goal, though they’re still moving forward with the album, Habeus Corpus, their first in ten years.

18. Before they were the Astros, Houston’s Major League Baseball team was called the Colt .45s. The name, chosen via an open contest put on by the owners, lasted for three seasons, from 1962 to 1964. Club officials’ switch to the “Astros” reflected Houston’s space-age ambitions: “The name was taken from the stars and indicates we are on the ascendancy,” club president Roy Hofheinz said at the time.

19. Once known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” Houston’s Astrodome has fallen on hard times. The Astros stopped playing there in 1999, and other events moved on to alternative venues. In 2008, the facility shut down due to numerous code violations, and since then it has sat empty as city officials try to decide what to do with it. Recent proposals have included an aviary, a hotel, the new state capitol, and an air-conditioned indoor park with underground parking.

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20.
Houstonians eat out an average of 4.8 times per week, and spend roughly 6 percent of their income in doing so, making them some of the nation’s most diligent restaurant patrons. Good thing they have more than 11,000 spots to choose from.

21. When dining out, you could go to an upscale steakhouse like Del Frisco’s, enjoy local seafood at Danton’s or sample vegan fare at Roots Bistro. Or you could ignore decorum altogether and get the Cheesy Cheeto Burger at the Hubcap Grill. Yes, that’s a burger topped with Cheetos and cheese sauce.

22. The nickname “Bayou City” may seem at odds with Houston’s urban sprawl. Nevertheless, the city is crisscrossed with bayous, rivers and other waterways—more than 2500 miles worth, in fact.

23. Houston is home to the first traditional Indian temple, or mandir, in North America. Originally built in 1988, Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was upgraded in 2004 to a temple made of Turkish limestone and Italian marble that workers built in India, and then shipped in pieces—33,000 of them—to Texas to be assembled like a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle. It took volunteer builders two years and 1.3 million combined hours to put the pieces together.

24. Queen Bey, a.k.a. Beyoncé Knowles, got off to a superstar start in her hometown of Houston. At age 7, she beat out competitors twice her age in a talent show, bringing the audience to its feet with a soulful rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

25. If you’re strolling along the river walk beneath the Preston Street bridge, and you see a red button, go ahead and push it. It’ll cause bubbles to erupt from the bayou nearby. The project, called the Big Bubble, is a creative way to aerate the water, and to startle other pedestrians as well as kayakers.

Dean Ruck's Big Bubble from Douglas Robertson on Vimeo.

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25 Things You Should Know About Tucson
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The west is still wild in Tucson. Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Arizona’s second-largest city attracts artists, astronomers, outdoorsy types and at least one rare cat. Read on for more Tucson trivia.

1) Some of the earliest evidence of corn cultivation in North America comes from Pima County, Arizona, where Tucson is located. Archaeologists have recovered kernels estimated to be 4000 years old within 60 miles of the city.

2) Towering above the downtown area is an iconic mountain called Sentinel Peak. Look at it from a distance and you may notice that the base is darker than the summit. The native Tohono O’odham people called this landmark Ts-iuk-shan—which is a corruption of their word for “black base.” Spaniards later turned Ts-iuk-shan into Tucson.

3) On March 20, 1880, a passenger train rolled into Tucson for the first time. Mayor R.N. Leatherwood sent out telegrams to dignitaries to publicize the occasion, writing to Pope Leo XIII that the railroad now linked "this ancient and honorable pueblo" with the rest of the Christian world. Newspapers began calling Tucson “the A. and H. Pueblo,” which gradually shrunk to its current nickname, “the Old Pueblo.”

4) If you’re a stargazer, Tucson is one of the best spots in the U.S. for astronomy. In 1972, Pima County enacted a “dark sky” code to regulate the brightness and number of outdoor bulbs in an effort to help local observatories like one at Kitt Peak. Now Tucson suffers from far less light pollution than most cities do, allowing stars and planets to shine through the darkness.

5) Above Broadway Boulevard, you can walk through the belly of a giant metal snake. A covered bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, this serpentine structure is designed to look like a diamondback rattlesnake, whose gaping jaw and fangs form the entrance.

6) By day, it looks like a big plastic doughnut. But after sundown, the solar-powered Desert O sculpture lights up in an array of vibrant colors. The ring, owned by the city of Tucson, is 6 feet in diameter and uses LED lights to create a brilliant display with a different color combo for every night of the week.

7) In 1970, then-mayor Jim Corbett called Tucson's East Speedway Boulevard the "ugliest street in America." At the time, it was enveloped by garish billboards that obscured the city's beautiful vistas. Then Life magazine ran a two-page photo of the forest of road signs and advertisements. The embarrassing spotlight led to Tucson's sign code, passed in the 1980s, which gradually limited billboards and tacky signage.

8) According to Guinness World Records, Davis-Monthan Airforce Base in Tucson has the largest aircraft repair shop and storage facility on Earth. Covering 2600 acres, it could house 4200 aircraft and 40 aerospace vehicles at one time, while still leaving room for 350,000 production tools.

9) In 2013, a new species of scorpion was discovered in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which are visible from downtown Tucson. Biologist Rob Bryson Jr. discovered the species in the Santa Catalinas' "sky islands"—isolated mountaintop habitats known for their biodiversity.

10) Cyclists should consider dropping by on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving for El Tour de Tucson, Arizona's largest and longest-running cycling event. The series of races attracts more than 9000 bike enthusiasts per year and usually raises about $2 million for local charities.

11) Hugo O’Conor, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army, is regarded by some as the founder of Tucson. Although a Spanish mission had been operating in present-day Tucson since 1692, and Native American communities before that, O’Conor arranged to have a military base for Spain's army set up on the site in 1775, resulting in a population boom for the city. O'Conor's red hair and courage in battle gave him the nickname “The Red Captain.”

12) The United States Handball Association Hall of Fame is located on North Tucson Boulevard.

13) Five years after peace was declared in the Mexican-American War, the U.S. bought the lower third of Arizona, which included Tucson, from Mexico. The $10 million transaction, known as the Gadsden Purchase, was finalized in 1854 and added a 30,000-square-mile territory to the United States. The expansion allowed Gadsden, a railroad promoter, to build a transcontinental railroad through the new territory.

14) One of the largest rock shows in the country, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show attracts around 50,000 people annually. In addition to hosting gemstone scholars and dealers, the annual convention has exhibited the most dazzling rocks in existence—like the Hope diamond, lunar rocks collected by NASA astronauts, and the eye-popping Logan sapphire.

15) The Arizona State University Sun Devils and the University of Arizona Wildcats have a longstanding rivalry that dates back to their first meeting in 1889. Each year, the teams compete for the Territorial Cup, the oldest rivalry trophy in college football. The Wildcats play regular home games in their 56,000-seat stadium in midtown Tucson.

16) Speaking of the University of Arizona, it was founded in 1891—21 years before Arizona achieved statehood.

17) Tucson's world-class culinary scene was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015 as a “Capital of Gastronomy.” Only 18 cities around the world have been given this title, and no other American city has cracked the list yet. Jonathan Mabry, a historic preservation officer in Tucson, filed the application for the city. “There are more heritage foods grown within 100 miles of Tucson than any other city in North America,” he told Smithsonian.com.

18) The Fourth Avenue Underpass doubles as a one-of-a-kind photo gallery. Roughly 7000 tiles bearing black and white portraits of 21st-century Tucsonans line the walls.

19) Four national flags have flown over the Old Pueblo. Spain ruled Tucson and the rest of Mexico until 1821. Then Mexico itself took over, but sold Tucson and much more territory to the United States in 1854 (see #13). When the Civil War broke out, the city joined the Confederacy and flew the Confederate flag from February to June 1862. Then Union forces, bearing the American flag, took the city back

20) Tucson is the oldest incorporated city in Arizona (and has been since incorporating in 1877).

21) For a few weeks in 1933, radio listeners in Tucson could enjoy a local show hosted by a very young Ray Bradbury. At age 12, he landed a gig at KGAR reciting comic strips on the air every Saturday night. “My pay was free tickets to see King Kong, Murders in the Wax Museum, and The Mummy,” he later reminisced. “You can’t do any better than that.”

22) El Charro Café is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. continuously operated by the same family. It may also be the birthplace of the chimichanga. As the legend goes, they were invented by Monica Flin, who established El Charro in 1922. She once flipped a burrito right into the fryer, splattering oil everywhere. Since kids were within earshot, she resisted the urge to curse and yelled “chimichanga,” a slang word that means thingamajig, instead.

23) The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is truly larger than life. A gallery of scale models, it boasts more than 300 tiny room boxes and houses. Some examples predate the Revolutionary War.

24) Downtown, a street known as Calle Carlos Arruza honors one of the greatest bullfighters in history, Mexican-born Carlos Arruza, whose nickname was El Ciclon (The Cyclone). According to historian David Leighton, Calle Carlos Arruza is one of the very few streets—possibly the only street—in the U.S. named after a bullfighter.

25) Only two non-captive jaguars, the largest cats in the New World, are known to reside within the U.S. One of them, nicknamed El Jefe, is a Tucson celebrity. Discovered in 2011, he can be found stalking the Santa Rita Mountains 25 miles south of the city. Jaguars are a near-threatened species: biologists estimate that about 15,000 are left in the wild.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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