So You Think You Know Houston?

February 7, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

hostAs Anna Nicole Smith may have told Boris Yeltsin

By Lynn Ashby

Everyone in Houston is from somewhere else, or so it seems. A lot of you came here for a job, aka money, and planned to leave when things got better back in Detroit (or wherever). It’s been, what? Twenty years? Over that time, you have accumulated a bit of knowledge about your permanent temporary home. You know some of the freeway systems, how to pronounce “San Felipe” and “rodeo” and where to take your visiting relatives for a good collection of funeral stuff. You don’t? I can see your education of things Houston still needs some work.

For starters, everyone elsewhere knows about Houston weather. Our average rainfall is 49.77 inches a year. In 2012, the average high was 82.1 degrees and the average low was 62.1. The average humidity was 120 percent. Houston is the only city in America where you can tie a knot in a Frito. On the other hand, be sure to call your cousin in Detroit in January and give him your golf score. Incidentally, when you moved here from Detroit you probably received an 18 percent pay raise because the cost of living in H Town is that much less than the average for major metropolitan areas.

Many of these stats deal with the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, which is used a lot by statisticians, because it’s almost impossible to separate the city from the surrounding towns, farms and chemical dumps. Our MSA is this nine-county region covering 9,444 square miles—which is smaller than Maryland but larger than Massachusetts.

Perhaps that’s because public safety takes up more than half (55.97 percent) of the city’s budget. Unlike such cities as New York, New Orleans, London and Hong Kong, Houston’s mighty port is out of sight and out of discussion, but in 2012, Houston ranked numero uno in foreign tonnage among U.S. ports for the 17th straight year, and first in import tonnage for 22 consecutive years. Maybe you know that the port is 52 miles from the sea—wide beach—but did you know digging that channel was mostly a federal government project?


This MSA has more jobs than Wisconsin or Tennessee.

The highest point in Harris County is 310 feet above sea level. Ski Mount Houston!

Houston is 239 miles from Dallas, 348 miles to New Orleans, 197 miles to San Antonio and only a few feet from the nearest topless bar.

The median age in Harris County is 32.6 years, tied with Waller County but younger than any other in our MSA.

The largest ethnic group in the county is Hispanic: 41.4 percent. Anglo is 32.7 percent.

Three-thousand, five-hundred and fifty-nine of us list our occupations as fishing, farming and/or forestry.

In the last presidential election, President Barack Obama beat Governor Mitt Romney in Harris County by 585 votes: 585,451 to 584,866.

Our total crimes per 100,000 population in the Houston MSA is 4,127.7—as long as you don’t count the Astros’ bullpen.

Somebody get your parking spot in the Galleria? No wonder. There were 3,190,880 vehicles registered in Harris County in 2012, an increase of 100,823 from the previous year. (If you count the region, there were 4,988,236 vehicles registered during 2012.) That means every single morning last year, including weekends and Christmas, when you backed out of the driveway on the way to your job at the pig-rendering plant, there were 276.2 more vehicles on Harris County roads than were there on the previous morning. How far do you drive each day? The Texas Department of Transportation says in 2012, in the Houston region, we drove 137,941,698 vehicle miles per day. That’s an average of 27.65 daily for this region, up from 27.1 miles in 2011.

Houston has more HOV lane miles than any other U.S. city, mostly filled by cars carrying a driver and a dummy. We have 7.5 miles of light rail with more tracks on the way (2131?). According to the Houston Business Journal, which checked U.S. Census figures, only 20.1 percent of Houston-area residents enjoy a commute time of 14 minutes or less. The average travel to work is 28.1 minutes. Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown is the second-worst major metro area in the South for commuting. Just .4 percent of Houston workers commute by bike—that’s 3,793 of us. We rank 52nd among the 70 largest cities in terms of bike commuting by percentage of total workers.

On the afternoon of 9/11, exactly four planes were allowed to fly over the U.S. The biggest was Air Force One, which was returning President George W. Bush to Washington. The three others were F-16s scrambled out of Houston’s Ellington Field to escort the plane. Oddly enough, these planes were from W’s old outfit in the Texas Air National Guard.


Finally, this story is worth repeating for everyone who hasn’t heard it before.

Boris Yeltsin, came to Houston on September 17, 1989. He was in political limbo, having been fired as Communist Party boss of Moscow, and was in a newly organized group jockeying for power. Being sidelined on the outs, he came to America and visited the Johnson Space Center. As was his style, Yeltsin unexpectedly altered his schedule and dropped into a Randall’s near JSC, where he was astounded. “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this kind of choice,” he exclaimed. Yeltsin roamed the aisles and was particularly taken by the variety of meats and fish and quipped that the bounty tempted him to defect. “We don’t have this much meat in the Soviet Union.”

The visit changed Yeltsin. He returned to the Soviet Union a disillusioned commie. In his autobiography, Against the Grain, Yeltsin describes the experience as “shattering.”

“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons, and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”

Within two years of his visit here, Yeltsin left the Communist Party and later, as president, banned the party and confiscated its property. He then ordered reforms in the Russian economy, the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Berlin Wall came down, and the rest is history, but it all started in Houston.


Ashby knows Houston at 

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