HOUSTON — An old Texas rivalry erupted anew one recent Saturday afternoon, on the corner of Dallas and Austin streets in downtown Houston.
Jason Bath was getting married, and his buddies - most from either Dallas or Houston - had come for his bachelor's party. The mood is lighthearted and fun, until they start comparing hometowns.
"People from Dallas are a bunch of stuck-up, rich snobs," says Jason.
His buddy, Joshua Anderson, shoots back: "I always get lost here in Houston. It's too big - and polluted."
Listening to the jousting, Greg Smith sums up the Dallas-Houston rivalry this way: "It's kind of like kids who fight over who has the biggest toys."
The two biggest cities in the biggest state in the continental US are having a Texas-size spat over which is the premier metropolis. It's an old rivalry, but one that only seems to grow in intensity as each works to build its economic and social base.
The latest jab comes from Houston, which just approved construction of a $700 million convention-center hotel on, alas, Dallas Street. That's an unacceptable address, say Houston city planners, who will be renaming that section of the street.
"We don't need to give our competition any publicity," says Jordy Tollett, president of the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corp.
Please, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk told reporters recently. "If Houston wants to compete with us in the convention business, they are going to have to do a whole lot more than change street names."
A lot of cities squabble - politely and not - over bragging rights in a state. There's the subtle, civilized competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles (almost unnoticed by L.A.), and the perpetual undercurrent of tension between Twin Cities siblings.
Perhaps the most infamous rivalry, though, is the one between New York and its neighbor to the north, Boston, where simply invoking Babe Ruth is grounds for war. Yankee fan Richard Lorenzo speaks unabashedly for many New Yorkers when he says of Beantown: "Boston is a perfectly wonderful city minus their love of losers, which truly is a testament to their faith. It's like a Greek tragedy up there."
Here in Texas, there's nothing subtle or small-scale about the current spat. Residents of both cities are fiercely proud of their hometowns - and are sensitive to the image problems of each. Houstonians, for example, know that outsiders still think of their city primarily as the oil pump of America, even though the local economy has become much more diverse over the past 30 years. Dallas, meanwhile, is still laboring under its image from the 1980s hit TV show of the same name.
True, the identities of the two cities are distinct - and ever evolving.
Metropolitan Houston is by far the largest city in Texas, and the fourth-largest in the US, with 4 million people. An international flavor laces the streets, where some road signs are labeled in both English and Chinese or Vietnamese - a recognition of Houston's large Asian population. Indeed, Houston is home to the second-largest Vietnamese enclave in the US, in addition to its sizable Hispanic and black communities.
Dallas, by contrast, is the business person's city. It's the center of business and finance in Texas - and the frequent host of foreign dignitaries. The king and queen of Spain spent part of last week touring the city, and Mexico's Vicente Fox made Dallas his first US stop after he was elected president. Downtown Dallas is a shopper's haven, and convention-goers have turned it one of the top destination cities in America.
"Houston and Dallas both aim to be the best," says Houston Mayor Lee Brown. "That friendly rivalry just makes two great cities even better."
Others in Houston are not so diplomatic.
Calling Dallas "our northern suburb," Jim Kollaer, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, says the move to change the name of Dallas Street was tactical. "They wouldn't put their new arena on Houston Street in Dallas either."
All kidding aside, says Mr. Kollaer, "there is more that brings us together than separates us." He cites joint work on problems that affect the entire state, such as the environment and transportation.
But even he can't resist interjecting:
"We have a brand new football team. They have a team that's on the decline.... We have a port. They don't. Well, Dallas says they have a port, but they neglect to say that it's in Houston."
With some feuding US cities, the hard feelings began at birth. In Nebraska, for example, Omaha in 1867 resisted a new city that would be the state's capital - Lincoln. Local politicians from Omaha have been looking to win back that status ever since, says James McKee, author of "Lincoln: The Prairie Capital."
"At one point, Omaha proposed taking the capital and the university and leaving Lincoln with the penitentiary and insane asylum. It seemed to them an even trade," he adds. "We don't know what the response was. It was never recorded, thank God."
Back in that Houston parking lot on Dallas Street - just spitting distance from the site of the new convention-center hotel - the guys are ready to head to their bachelor party. Jeremy Lacy has these parting words:
"People from Texas are proud people," he says. "Yeah, there's a lot of talk about the rivalry between Dallas and Houston. But keep in mind, we are all still from Texas."
And as anyone in Texas will tell you, that's better than anywhere any day of the week.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor