From the ground, Houston’s highways don’t look like much. They’re just more roads in a city of roads. But the folks living within Interstate 610, which traces a ring within the city, are a little different from the residents outside it, or at least that’s the lie we tell ourselves, for whatever the hell that’s worth.
Houstonians call I-610 the Loop. It divides the city into two parts: inside the Loop and outside the Loop. The city circumference is marked by Beltway 8, the last buffer before you hit the suburbs. When I was a kid, I lived a neighborhood cluster beyond Beltway 8, west of the city. If you want to picture what that looked like, imagine absolutely nothing at all. Then add some rice fields and some football fields and an H-E-B. Your typical Southern suburban Americana. Still, this was Houston, so there was some semblance of diversity. Even a few decades ago, my family could find just about everything we were looking for (beef patties, black barbers, family friends) outside the city’s inner core.
When my folks moved to Texas, they thought about living in one of Houston’s historical centers, whose neighborhoods supported a respectable amount of diversity alongside all the amenities of city living, something neither of them had yet experienced in the States. But the cost of housing and the shitty infrastructure pushed them to the suburbs. It was a rare day that we drove the forty-five minutes eastward to enter the Loop, and I treated that shit as if we were taking off for Fukuoka or Lisbon or Bordeaux, because I knew that things were different there, somehow—even though I mostly just watched everyone and everything from the backseat of our Suburban. I knew that people downtown smoked, probably. People in the Heights fucked, probably. People in Montrose even did the kind of fucking I wanted to do, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time. Most important, every other person in the Loop wasn’t a white boy in a plaid button-up, khaki shorts, and high black socks rocking last year’s big sneakers, emphatically calling them FRESH. I wanted to live somewhere where weird was OK. Or cool, even. Honestly, that would’ve been a big fucking stretch for me.
The greater Houston area isn’t anything resembling a singular mass. The city is a collection of nooks and crannies and alleys and bridges, fused together by sprawl and strip malls and the occasional food desert, and unified by a total lack of zoning ordinances. In a lot of ways, the city can be defined by what it’s not—as an inverse of what lies beyond its municipal borders. That space is what most non-Houstonians conceive of as “Texas”: all whiteness and open space and sportsball and gun shops. There’s barbecue all over the place, and chain restaurant after chain restaurant. There’s a deep-rooted conservatism in most of the suburbs that’ll take generations to unpack.
Eventually, I grew up and found a place inside of I-610. First in the city’s Third Ward (Beyoncé’s old neighborhood), then in Montrose, and then in the Heights. The difference from the suburbs where I grew up was in the diversity, sure, both ethnically and financially—the white boys were nowhere to be found—but there was also a looseness among my neighbors, the kind that’d been inaccessible to me until then, a big, fat whatever. You wanna live with two fuck buddies in a garage apartment by the bayou? Whatever. You wanna grab some khao soi before you hit the outdoor symphony before you hit the warehouse rave on Westheimer? Whatever. For me, the move has mostly worked out.
After a while, though, I started to see things differently. I realized that for many Houstonians—first- and second-generation immigrants, refugees, and transplants alike—the inner loop/outer loop divide doesn’t even exist. So many folks had come from so many different places, each walled off in different ways, that this real estate boundary was irrelevant; what actually mattered was the streets being safe when their kids walked to school. The crossing-over from outer to inner that I used to think of as so special was just a slickness in lieu of a softness.
But other newcomers, ones with money, ones seeking a vegan eatery within walking distance of their gym, were invested in the distinction between inner and outer—and they wanted to be on the inside. They’d move for what? For the sake of cool? FOH. That’s a particular blend of privilege cloaked in supposed liberal openness. In a city run by marginalized folks—most of whom are just looking for a place to live without someone fucking bothering them—enthusing about the benefits of your particular little section is not so different from “I don’t want those kids at my school” or “I’ve got plenty of ——— friends.” Simultaneously, longtime residents of the Loop are moving out. The suburbs are diversifying—with Asian folks, with Latinx folks—in a way that’s forcing the suburban locals to deal. The calculation has been made: live in the Loop, in squalor, for the sake of street cred, or stick it out in the suburbs and make your own shit on a budget.
It’s a choice that really isn’t much of a choice at all.
Lately, I live at the top of I-610, right next to a taquería and a church and a bail-bond den. My friends live closer to the suburbs. The food’s better out there, at least the food that I want to eat. It’s almost funny: the neighborhoods I once sought as a refuge from pervasive whiteness have since found themselves at the heart of Houston’s radical gentrification. And while the suburbs are still places where, at a restaurant full of Spanish-speaking employees, the table next to me might make a crack about everyone speaking English, the difference between today and five or ten years ago is that the city is a place where this happens too. Maybe there wasn’t ever a difference at all.
Still, there’s something about moving through the border traced by the Loop. On the drive back from my parents’ place, I’ll buy a pot of kimchi from the Noodle House off of Longwood and eat it on the porch of the gay leather bar a few miles from my complex. When the bear sitting beside me asks where I’m driving from, I’ll tell him. He’ll say that his son (no blood relation) lives in Katy too. We’ll frown about that for two seconds. But he’ll say that he really likes him, and he doesn’t mind the neighborhood either. It’s a whole new place now, he’ll say. The borders are dissolving, sort of, and I’ll agree with him. That’ll be something else we’ll drink to, along with the many different ways you can live in a city, inside or outside of any loop, physical or not, here or there, near or far.
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