IT'S PAST 11 P.M., AND I'M walking with my husband in downtown Houston. We've just seen a play at the Alley Theatre, and the stroll to our car, which I'd left at my office, gives us time to dissect the show and enjoy the city at night.
Enjoy the city at night: I never would have thought of doing that in 1980, when I first came to Houston. Back then, downtown was not a place I'd wanted to walk after dark. That I can do it now is one sign of how Houston, America's fourth-largest city and a place I've lived in and around for most of my life, continues to reinvent itself.
We're a diverse city of 2.1 million residents, with A-list universities, top museums, and the world's largest and arguably best medical center. We have a vibrant business community and more Fortune 500 company HQs than any other city except New York, including food giant Sysco, Waste Management, and the expected oil-and-gas titans. Annise Parker became our mayor last year, making Houston the largest U.S. city ever to be run by an openly gay person. Yet we are often misperceived. Disappointingly to some, cowboys don't roam the streets (except during the rodeo and livestock show each March). When Giuseppe Bausilio, a title star in the national tour of Billy Elliot the Musical, came to town and I asked him what he wanted to do, the 13-year-old Swiss dancer replied, "I want to shoot a gun for the first time." Sigh.
But another of the Billys, Daniel Russell, who hails from Australia, told me he wanted to visit NASA. For decades, that has been one of our symbols of research, teamwork, and the modern frontier spirit. That's the Houston I know and love.
HOUSTON WAS BUILT ON THE determination to overcome life's little adversities ... like yellow fever. In the 1830s, when the New York — born Allen brothers arrived on Buffalo Bayou's banks and began urging people to settle here, they failed to mention the mosquitoes or the swamps. Like the Houstonians who have come after them — from oil prospectors to waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia — the brothers preferred to focus on the possibilities. "Entrepreneurship is in our DNA," says Walter Ulrich, president and CEO of the Houston Technology Center, an incubator with ties to Rice University.
"Houston is a mix of the wild, wild West and the most sophisticated global community in the world," says Leisa Holland-Nelson, a native Houstonian who spent 25 years working in the fashion industry in Manhattan before coming home to cofound an online communications firm called ContentActive. "Between those two elements, you just have incredible freedom."
This sense of opportunity, coupled with Houston's affordability, might explain why, according to a Brookings study, Houston is one of the nation's prime magnets for people ages 25 to 34. Case in point: the Texas Medical Center, a collection of 49 world-class institutions with nearly 100,000 staffers that, in the words of president and CEO Dr. Richard Wainerdi, is practically "a private city" focused on healing. The collaboration, innovation, and specialization happening at TMC — from the rehab of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to "pediatric heart surgeons that work with children's hearts the size of strawberries," Wainerdi says — is a huge draw for young professionals in health care.
To freedom and opportunity, add cultural diversity. By the numbers, the city is currently 42% Anglo, 33% Hispanic, 18% African-American, and 7% Asian and other. Says Tony Diaz, director of Nuestra Palabra, a group that promotes Latino literature: "Houston is going to be the boilerplate for what the multicultural American dream looks like."
Houston at its best doesn't just tolerate its mixed heritage; it's a full embrace, and you can even taste it. Food writer Robb Walsh leads a barbecue tour of Houston with local chef Chris Shepherd as part of a culinary project started by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We go to an African-American place," Walsh explains, "then a Hispanic place for barbacoa, then a place for Korean barbecue, and then Chinese barbecue."
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED IN Houston — like most people, I came for a job — the equation here was simple: Given the choice between a parking garage or a park, the former would win every time. So it's hard to underestimate the importance of Discovery Green, the park that opened in 2008, as a symbol of the new Houston.
"In the past, this community was more focused on commerce as the immediate goal. Trees kind of got in the way," says Greater Houston Partnership president and CEO Jeff Moseley. "Now we understand that we have to have balance." Discovery Green has 12 landscaped downtown acres, a lake, public art, and a weekly farmers' market. Each year, there are more than 400 public events — mostly free — from alfresco opera nights to last summer's big-screen World Cup viewings.
Attendance has exceeded all expectations, and Discovery Green program director Susanne Theis is thrilled by the composition of the crowds. One of her fondest memories is of a jazz concert last fall by Jason Moran, who grew up in Houston's Third Ward. Theis spent much of the evening watching a young couple. "They had a little baby. They brought their lawn chairs and their picnic," she says. "A couple like that, with a 2- or 3-month-old baby, probably wouldn't have gone to a club to hear Jason Moran. Here, they could make it a family experience."
The creation of this green space also signals more attention to environmental concerns. We still love our cars, but Houston is becoming a renewable-energy research center. And this spring, the one-millionth tree was planted on a city right-of-way as part of a 10-year initiative to "reestablish the urban forests of Houston," says Moseley. We're restoring our bayous, too, removing concrete linings that we thought would protect us from floods but actually destroyed nature's filtration system. We're willing to learn.
ONE DEMOGRAPHER PREDICTS that, over the next 30 years, Houston will add 3.5 million people — roughly equivalent to an entire L.A. I have mixed feelings about that, but then I too was once a new Houstonian. No one ever came up to me and said I didn't fit. I found opportunity — in jobs, friendships, and recreation. This is where I started my family. This is where I've also reckoned with disaster. I've lived through hurricanes, lost power for days, had my office destroyed by rainwater, and come home to the task of chopping up toppled trees.
Houston has always been able to roll with whatever happens, good or bad. When I left the state for another job in the mid-'90s, I promptly got homesick for all of Houston's variety. A city that looks to new ideas and new people as assets has something about it that feels very right, and so I came back four years later for another fresh start. The heat and humidity? Well, there's always air-conditioning. And there's always the comforting thought that, in Houston, I will never die from shoveling snow — or, for that matter, from boredom.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.