African-Americans give Houston top marks

Brett Grace was torn. Rising fast in Houston's banking scene, he knew his next career move was New York, the financial capital of the world. He was set to leave until his father and mother - executives at Compaq and Texaco - talked some sense into him.

"I would have been stupid to leave. The opportunities in Houston are booming.... It's definitely the place to be," says Mr. Grace, a loan officer at Washington Mutual. "I'm gonna ride this little crest as long as I can."

Dressed smartly in a gray pinstripe suit and pale orange shirt, Grace is one of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans living - and prospering - in Houston. While many US cities are struggling under old hurts and new prejudices, this bayou city is known for embracing diversity and fostering success - regardless of race.

In fact, a recent survey of online readers of "Black Enterprise" placed Houston as the No. 1 US city for African-Americans to live, work, and play. The magazine hits newsstands today, and many cities are in for a surprise.

"We sometimes look at New York and Los Angeles as the cultural epicenters of America, but they are just too big and expensive for many people," says Derek Dingle, the magazine's executive editor. "Houston is an accessible, dynamic city with a low cost of living, affordable housing, and amazing job opportunities. African-Americans look at all that and think, 'I can make a name for myself here.' "

While educators see the survey, like most Internet surveys, as unscientific, it backs up a perception held here in Houston by many in the black community: With a bit of effort, anybody can succeed.

In fact, ever since the Allen brothers floated up the mosquito-infested Buffalo Bayou in 1836 and deemed the swamp land livable, Houston's creed has been business first, ideology second.

That's not to say that Houston wasn't racist in many ways. It was part of the Confederacy, after all. Segregation was enforced in restaurants and other public facilities, not by law but by custom.

In more recent decades, the city has faced charges of police brutality, a steady exodus of whites to the suburbs, and only now has its first black mayor. But its entrepreneurial spirit has helped the city make steady, if still incomplete, progress on racial matters. Examples include quiet moves by the city's ruling elite to desegregate lunch counters in 1960, and an early shift toward community policing in the 1980s.

Today, Houston is no longer shaped by a cadre of white businessmen meeting at the Lamar Hotel, but the pragmatic ethos remains. The city has enjoyed almost constant economic growth since the Civil War. Its worst downturn occurred, not during the Great Depression as in most other parts of America, but during the oil bust of the 1980s.

"With an expanding economy and plentiful jobs, some of the worst elements of prejudice, racism, discrimination were held at bay. Everybody was too busy," says Cary Wintz, a historian at Texas Southern University here.

As Houston has prospered, doubling its population every 20 years, African-Americans have been the city's cornerstone. Whites have fled and Hispanics and Asians have poured in, but the black population has remained solid at roughly 25 percent since 1850.

As the city grew, so too did the housing stock, and the city did not impose discriminatory zoning laws.

"African-Americans in Houston weren't forced to live in inferior housing, in ghettos with severe overcrowding," Dr. Wintz says.

All this meant that blacks around the turn of the century were better off in Houston than in many cities, enjoying higher homeownership rates than elsewhere. Today, their homeownership rate here is 43 percent, one of the highest in the US for blacks.

"Homeownership is a very important indicator," says Mr. Dingle of Black Enterprise. "It is a symbol of the American dream."

"Our city has been blessed to avoid some of the racial strife experienced in other cities in recent years," says Al Calloway, president of the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce, which represents the city's black business community. "Sure, there are issues, but our leadership has been up front about recognizing those problems and getting to them soon."

In the civil rights era, for example, with sit-ins sweeping across the South, the city's elite worked with black leaders to come up with a plan. They were determined to integrate the city peacefully and quietly.

The plan was to integrate 70 lunch counters across the city during the last week of August 1960. The local news media, including both the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post, agreed to a total news blackout. Wire services sent out reports of the lunch-counter integration and the press cover-up, leaving the Austin-based Texas Observer to conclude that "Texans everywhere but Houston read about lunch-counter integration."

And so it was that Houston emerged as the only major US city not to have a race riot - a distinction it still holds today.

Chamber president Mr. Calloway concedes that conflict is easier to avoid in the current era of abundant jobs.

Cary Yates knows about the opportunities here. An African-American who came to Houston from Pittsburgh after graduating from college, he started as an officer of a bank and within a year was a vice president. "That same position would have taken me another 15 years to achieve in Pittsburgh."

Today, Mr. Yates is vice president of community investment at Bank One. Most of his friends in Pittsburgh are in service-industry jobs such as hospital work and firefighting.

"Very few are in the financial sector, engineering, or sales and marketing. You have to ask yourself: Why?" It's not because those jobs aren't there, he says. "It's just that the opportunity to succeed is greater here in Houston for many African-Americans."

Top US cities for blacks

1. Houston

2. Washington, D.C.

3. Atlanta

4. Charlotte, N.C.

5. Memphis, Tenn.

6. Detroit

7. Baltimore

8. Dallas

9. Chicago

10. Philadelphia

Source: "Black Enterprise" magazine survey of online readers regarding economic opportunities, quality of life.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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