Class-Divided Cities: Houston Edition

The eighth in our series exploring the class divides across America's largest cities and metros.

Author's Note: This is the eighth of a series of posts that explore the class divides across America's largest cities and metros. Using data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, each explores the geography of class within a large city and metro area. For a detailed description of methodology, see the first post in the series.

Houston's class divides are sharp and well-defined, as the map above (for the city proper) shows. The creative class lives in the areas that are shaded in purple, the red areas are primarily service class, and the blue are working class. Each colored space on the map is a Census tract, a small area within a city or county that can be even smaller than a neighborhood.

The creative class is clustered in and around Houston's downtown and in each of the far quadrants of the city, including the upscale Montrose, roughly four miles to the southeast of the central business district and home to a large population of gays, artists, and bohemians, with upscale restaurants, art galleries, vintage shops, and restored bungalows. Nearby is the University of St. Thomas and the Menil Collection, a leading art museum surrounded by a cluster of satellite spaces, including the pastoral Rothko Chapel.

A few miles to the northwest of Houston's central business district is Houston Heights, where professionals, knowledge workers and artistic creatives occupy restored bungalows and modern lofts and patronize a mix of eclectic restaurants and galleries. There are also substantial creative class clusters around Rice University, West University Place, and the neighborhoods adjacent to the Texas Medical Center.

A sea of service class red surrounds these creative class clusters. Southwest of the 610 loop, predominantly Latino communities like Gulfton contend with high crime in a transient landscape filled with aging apartment complexes. Southeast of the loop some neighborhoods look much the same, but as in the rest of the city, pockets of crime and failing residential infrastructure are often intermingled with stable or emerging neighborhoods. Some of the city's historic Ward communities directly to the east, northeast, and southeast of the city center provide good examples of this phenomenon as they are in the midst of a significant transformation. As Cities contributor and University of Texas at Arlington doctoral candidate Michael Seman points out:

Large sections of the predominantly Latino and African American communities in many of these areas are experiencing externalities that accompany gentrification. As rising rents in neighborhoods like Houston Heights and Montrose marginalize developing artists and entry-level professionals, many are moving eastward. At the same time, both the University of Houston and Texas Southern University continue to attract thousands of university students to the areas, impacting the landscape around the campuses. Despite these forces, some of the service class areas still have collections of crumbling brick bungalows and shotgun shacks in various stages of disrepair. But in keeping with the postmodern, hopscotch nature of Houston's urban redevelopment, Project Row Houses, a community-based nonprofit art and cultural organization, is facilitating equitable redevelopment in one of the most distressed sections of the Ward neighborhoods, while providing cultural and social amenities to the surrounding community.

The working class (blue areas on the map) is pushed well out to the periphery, mainly to the south and north of downtown in areas such as Spring Branch, which is discussed in more detail below, and around the Port of Houston.

economic output [PDF]. Population growth has been explosive over the past decade, driven by substantial international immigration, as well as the inflow of residents from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The second map (see right, click for larger image) charts the the class geography of class for the entire Houston metropolitan region, which spans ten counties and covers more than 10,000 square miles. Greater Houston's boundaries extend from the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast lowlands in Brazoria County at the southernmost tip of the region all the way north to the tall pine trees in San Jacinto County's Sam Houston National Forest. The metro's westernmost border navigates rolling hills and rural communities in Austin County while the eastern border dissipates into the farmland, forests, wildlife and oil wells of Liberty County. The metro is the nation's fifth largest, home to more than six million people with $420 billion in

Again the class divide is pronounced. The creative class spreads across the center of the region in a series of island clusters that run from the downtown neighborhoods noted above to Sugar Land in the southeast and the Woodlands to the north,  as well as neighborhoods sprouting north and south from the I-10 as it heads west. Seman points out that roughly 20 miles west of Montrose, there is a substantial creative class cluster around Memorial mixed with the Energy Corridor. The Memorial Villages are independent towns that fought off Houston's annexation attempts. The Energy Corridor is home to the corporate offices of ExxonMobil, BP America, and CITGO. Toward Houston's boundary to the southeast is Clear Lake, another suburban area whose creatives mostly work in the aerospace industry or at nearby Johnson Space Center. The suburban creative class pockets differ markedly from those in the city, which are set in denser, more mixed used neighborhoods. "There are several clusters of the creative class spread throughout the region, and with each concentration comes a decidedly different lifestyle," Seman notes. In suburban Sugar Land, he adds, "members of the creative class are more likely to occupy a recently built custom home and attend an elaborate, invite-only soiree held at the regional airport sponsored by the local Porsche dealership."

The next map is interactive: Click on a tract to see its percentages of each of the three major classes across the Houston metro. 

The creative class includes people who work in science and technology, business and management, arts and culture, media and entertainment, and law and healthcare professions. All told its ranks make up 33 percent of the metro's workers, just slightly above the national average of 32.6 percent. They are high-skilled, highly-educated, and highly paid; they average $75,570 per year in wages and salaries, more than the national average of $70,890.

In the top 10 leading tracts, the creative class makes up roughly 75 percent to more than 80 percent of all residents. The creative class accounts for more than half of all residents in roughly one in five tracts, and more than two-thirds of all residents in just five percent.

Top 10 Creative Class Locations in the Houston Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Creative Class Share
University Place, Houston (4120) 83.4%
West University Place (4123) 79.6%
Braeswood Place, Houston (4132.01) 79.3%
University Place, Houston (4119) 78.8%
River Oaks, Houston (4112) 78.2%
University Place, Houston (4122) 77.4%
Astrodome, Houston (3144) 76.0%
Braeswood Place, Houston (4132.02) 75.7%
Houston (4106) 75.2%
Pasadena (3402.03) 74.4%
Metro Average 33.0%

 

Nine of the top 10 creative class tracts are in the city proper. Seven of the top 10 are located in the upscale area around Rice University, which is one of only three tier-one research universities in Texas. This area includes the separately incorporated island city of West University Place, with its mix of turn-of-the-century Craftsman homes and elaborate new construction, as well as the adjacent neighborhood immediately surrounding the Texas Medical Center — a world class cluster of treatment centers and research facilities drawing patients and medical professionals from across the globe. River Oaks is perhaps the oldest, most affluent, "old money" area of Houston. The tract labelled "Houston" is on the southern edge of the central business district. The only tract located outside of Houston's city is in Pasadena, a suburb of roughly 150,000 people located between Houston and the Galveston Bay, which was the site for the movie, Urban Cowboy.

The service class entails workers in low-wage, low-skill occupations in the service sector, such as food service and preparation, retail sales, and clerical and administrative positions. This is the largest class of workers in Houston, making up 42.5 percent of the region's workforce — significantly below the national average of 46.6 percent. Service workers in the metro average $28,455 in wages and salaries, less than the national average of $30,597 and just 38 percent of what the metro's creative class workers earn.

The service class makes up more than half of all residents in roughly one in five of the metro's tracts. In the top 10 tracts, it makes up between two-thirds and three-quarters of all residents.

Top 10 Service Class Locations in Houston Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Service Class Share
Southeast Houston (3122) 75.1%
Galveston (7252) 74.7%
Southeast Houston (3124) 70.4%
Westchase, Houston (4330.03) 68.8%
Northeast Houston (2308) 68.0%
Southeast Houston (3128) 67.0%
Southwest Houston (6701.01) 66.1%
Far North, Houston (2405.01) 65.8%
Far Northeast, Houston (2415) 65.5%
Southeast Houston (3135) 65.5%
Metro Average 42.5%

 

Nine of the 10 tracts with the largest service class concentrations are in the city proper. Each and every one of them is located at the city's periphery — five in the distressed southeast and southwest areas of the city, two in neighborhoods near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, one in the northern outpost of Westchase, and one in the northeastern area of the city. There is also one in the Galveston area, where tourism still has a foothold along with the petroleum industry. 

Members of the working class are employed in factory jobs as well as transportation, construction, mechanical, and maintenance work. Blue-collar workers comprise nearly one in four (24.4 percent) of the region's workforce, well above the national average of 20.5 percent. The metro's blue-collar workers average $37,719, also above the national average of $43,015, but just half of what the region's creative class workers make.

In the 10 leading tracts (see table below), the working class accounts for between 60 and 73 percent of all residents. The working class makes up more than half of all residents in five percent the metro's tracts — the highest share we have seen in any of the cities in this series.

Top 10 Working Class Locations in the Houston Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Working Class Share
Cloverleaf (2331.02) 73.3%
Spring Branch, Houston (5206.01) 64.5%
North Houston (2220) 63.4%
Southeast Houston (3119) 63.1%
Spring Branch, Houston (5211) 62.5%
North Houston (2205) 62.2%
Harris County (2222) 61.7%
Cloverleaf (2331.01) 61.5%
East End, Houston (3116) 60.9%
Far North, Houston (2226) 59.6%
Metro Average 24.4%

 

Seven of the 10 tracts with the highest working class concentrations are in the city proper, with three in the suburbs. Seman points to Spring Branch as an example.  

Situated several miles northwest of Houston's downtown core, Spring Branch developed rapidly in the 1970's, as hastily-constructed apartment buildings sprouted next to established enclaves of middle class, single-family residences. This process was repeated in many areas throughout Houston as waves of people from across the country migrated to the city in search of stable employment in the booming oil industry.

Unfortunately, by the early 1980's Houston’s surging energy economy took a severe hit. Almost overnight, apartment construction stalled and vacancies skyrocketed. Despite this downturn, international immigration to the city continued, swelling Spring Branch's Latino and Korean populations. The area is now similar to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, its aging strip malls and apartment complexes reinvigorated by a buzz of activity in many different languages. There are a number of new gated communities in the area as well, whose upper middle class residents were attracted by its location near the city's "Energy Corridor" along I-10 and tolerable commute to the central business district.

One striking feature of Houston's class geography is the relatively large number of working class areas that remain in the city proper. Not only does this stand in sharp contrast to post-industrial cities like Washington, D.C., but also compared to once heavy manufacturing cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston. Houston has by far the largest number of concentrated urban working class enclaves of any city covered in this series. This reflects the region's history as a center for the petroleum, petrochemical and related industries, as well as blue-collar activity around Port of Houston, one of the nation's busiest.

Cranes unload a container ship at the Barbours Cut Container Terminal, one of several operated by the Port of Houston Authority, on December 3, 2009. (Chris Baltimore/Reuters)

Houston's class geography has been shaped by the historical patterns of its development trajectory. The central city's physical footprint and population are unusually large compared to many cities' due to four decades of annexation between 1940 and 1980. Houston does not have a formal zoning code; it relies instead on market forces, covenants, and deed restrictions to guide the best-use development of land. For these reasons and because of its size and automotive oriented development, Seman notes that "Houston is more similar to the sprawling, international post-modern metropolis of Los Angeles than any of the other cities within Texas' borders," adding that "the end result is a micro-juxtaposition of seemingly incongruent pockets of communities and classes"

My next post in this series will look at Philadelphia.

Prior posts in this series:

All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here