'I Wanted to Be Successful, and I Could Do That in Houston'

Young professionals see the Texas boom town as a bastion of the traditional American Dream.

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Aaron Cassara

Dena Washington isn’t the sort of Millennial we tend to read about in scary trend pieces about a “doomed” generation. She’s 28 and married, with a son in elementary school. She’s college-educated and has a good job servicing business accounts at Reliant, one of the largest energy companies in the Houston area. She’s been working there for the past seven years, has excellent benefits and a 401k. Two and a half years ago, she and her husband bought a house in Spring, a suburb that’s technically inside Houston’s city limits.

In other words, she’s living the American Dream—or at least the retro dream many of us still clung to before the recession hit.

Fast-growing Houston is now the fourth largest city in the country. It rakes in money from its energy and medical industries, which in turn trickles down to the arts and restaurant scenes. While many of the cities in this series are still slowly bouncing back from the downturn with the help of enthusiastic young people, Houston was barely ever dinged.

Dena Washington. (Photo by Aaron Cassara)

"There’s always another job here," says Washington, who grew up in the Third Ward, a working-class—but gentrifying—African-American neighborhood (from which Beyoncé also hails). “Before I even graduated, I was doing work in the energy field and working in tech support and picking up all these side gigs. There’s tons of money here."

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A city flush with cash and professional opportunity is attractive to people like Washington, who don’t particularly want to rehab a warehouse or dive headfirst into a risky startup, but instead seek what their parents had: a stable nuclear family with a steady income. “Having a family was very important to me, but I also wanted to be successful," she says. "I could do that in Houston, so I stayed."

Washington is a member of HYPE, one of Houston’s many groups for young professionals. “There’s a big networking culture here,” she says. Larry Ting, 27, who grew up in Houston and now works for the Anti-Defamation League, says the city “definitely has a professional atmosphere” and that “so many businesses are looking for smart, innovative college-educated people.” Ting, who’s a first-generation American from a Chinese immigrant family, has contemplated moving to other big cities like Los Angeles or Chicago, but remained after graduating from the University of Houston because it seemed like a good place to become upwardly mobile.

"I know in the past [young people] may not have asked themselves, ‘What’s the best city that can really provide for me financially?’ You really just want to explore.” Nowadays, though, that question is relevant for risk-averse twentysomethings. For Ting, Houston still promises “the idea of ‘if you work hard, you’ll reap the benefits.'"

Larry Ting. (Photo by Aaron Cassara)

Like Washington, Ting lives in a part of town with a suburban vibe: a diverse, middle-class neighborhood called Spring Branch. He pays $450 for his own room and bathroom in a house with two other people. Because of its sheer size and lack of zoning laws—huge office buildings can be built next to quaint townhouses—it’s difficult to discern where the city starts and the suburbs begin.

That’s not to say Houston’s buttoned-up culture doesn’t have its funkier pockets. The Montrose neighborhood boasts the Museum of Fine Arts and the Houston Center of Photography, as well as several cool bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. Young people have also been flocking to Mid Main, a two-building corridor on the border of Montrose and Midtown—one person I met there called it “the rockabilly oasis”—with a barber shop, vintage record stores, and a café by day, craft cocktail bar by night called Double Trouble. The area is a hub for visual artists, and not necessarily the starving kind. Nancy Douthey, 24, moved to Houston from east Texas not only because it has a “wonderful community of artists” but because “there are people who actually buy art and support the art organizations.” She lives in a combination house-gallery space called SKYDIVE, which also provides residencies for artists. She pays $250 a month for her modest room upstairs. (Though that’s cheap for Montrose: Douthey says some of her friends are finding more affordable places in the downtown warehouse area and Houston’s east side.)

Houston is also in the middle of a restaurant renaissance. A collection of fine dining establishments like The Pass, Hugo's, and Oxheart have recently received James Beard nominations and made their way onto national “Best of” lists. Yet, the scene is small enough that if you’re employed at one of these establishments, you can easily move up the ranks rather than languish for years behind the bar.

Justin Vann stocks shelves at D & Q Beer Station. (Photo by Aaron Cassara)

Two years ago, Justin Vann, 28, had just accepted a cushy job as the wine director at a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, when his friend Justin Yu called him and said he’d found a location for his new venture (which later became Oxheart). “I said, ‘you’re out of your mind, you’re too late! I’m going to start a new life on the West Coast,’” Vann recalls. But eventually he decided to stay and contribute to Houston’s growing food culture rather than “become a part of someone else’s program. Here, you can try to be the driving force of what’s happening.”

Vann eventually broke off from Oxheart and started his own business, a wine consulting company called PSA Wines. He’s been working with mom-and-pop restaurants around the city to help beef up their lists. When I visited Houston, he was stocking the shelves of D & Q Beer Station, a low-key mini-mart for “beer nerds,” with his curated list of interesting and not-very-cheap wines. Even though Houston is financially stable, there are still opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to take risks, he says, for a simple reason: everything costs much less here than in other cities of similar size. Vann, for instance, splits $850 in rent with his roommate in Montrose.

Yet it’s still a cautious, sensible entrepreneur who opens a business in Houston, since it offers a reliably large professional class. Ting is working toward his MBA and eventually wants to start a restaurant or small business like his immigrant parents. He seriously thought about moving to Austin, given its young population, but to him, “the city just feels like a college town.” Next to Austin’s revelry, Houston is the mature, moneyed older brother: “It has the resources and the population I’m going after.”

About the Author

  • Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and cofounder of Tomorrow magazine.