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The Houston Arrow

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I was listening to Houston Matters this morning, and they were talking about the “Houston Arrow”, this area of Houston that starts out about Highway 6, and runs between I-10 and US-59, where the “head” of the arrow encompasses a large part of the western part of Houston inside 610. This arrow can be consistently seen when you color code zip codes and/or superneighborhoods in the Houston area for things like median income, median home values, percent of college graduates, percent of white residents, and even things like rates of childhood asthma, locations of waste facilities, facilities that handle hazardous chemicals, etc.

The guests on the show included a writer who had published a four part series on the Houston Arrow for a social/environmental justice NGO called the One Breath Partnership, and he referred to the series a lot, and encouraged people to read the series for more information, which I did (each part is pretty short). Both the Houston Matters discussion and the articles focus on what a symbol this arrow-shaped area is for the inequity in Houston. I detected a strong “eat the rich”-flavored insinuation that the people in this predominately white, upper-class stretch of land had somehow nefariously concentrated wealth and power, putting their thumbs on the scales to make sure the City of Houston invested in them at the expense of other areas, and made sure undesirable features like chemical plants and waste facilities were redirected to other parts of the city.

I found this analysis myopic and ill-informed. First I couldn’t help but note that a significant portion of this arrow is composed of land that isn’t actually IN the City of Houston. It’s governed by the City of Bellaire, the City of West University Place, the City of Southside Place, and the Memorial Villages, all independent cities that were incorporated long before the City of Houston’s boundaries grew to encompass them. At the time they were incorporated, they were mostly surrounded by farmland, not the urban sprawl that now surrounds them. The City of Houston had no legal right to dictate what kind of housing, or what types of businesses were put in these municipalities, nor did these municipalities have any control of what happened outside of their boundaries.

Even the parts of the Arrow that are in the City of Houston simply benefit from their proximity to the politically independent enclaves. The Uptown/Galleria area, for instance, was originally farmland that had the good fortune of being sandwiched between Bellaire and Hunter’s Creek and Piney Point.

Next, a lot of the mapping variables, like concentration of facilities that handle hazardous chemicals, waste facilities, and even childhood asthma, have nothing to do with wealthy white people in the Arrow keeping this out of their communities; our petrochemical facilities are located in the southeast quadrant of the Houston area to be near the Port of Houston and on the bays where tanker ships can steam right up load and offload, and minimize the cost and needed infrastructure of land transportation like rail and HC routes. And it makes logistical sense to locate waste facilities close to the industrial facilities that produce a lot of waste. The western part of Houston is nowhere near the bays. And it doesn’t take a degree in epidemiology (which I don’t have) or environmental science (which I do have) to understand why childhood asthma rates might be higher near refineries than elsewhere.

All in all, the authors of this series spent too much focus inside the Arrow looking for moustache-twirling machinations, when they should have been looking at what has been happening outside the Arrow for the past 70 years. While the enclaves governed development within their boundaries with the quality of life of the community members in mind, the City of Houston took advantage of the Municipal Annexation Act of 1963 to expand rapidly for tax revenue purposes, with no strategy that involved urban planning, no zoning, etc. COH neglected infrastructure expansion and actively resisted making mass transit grow with the city.

In parallel, Houston Independent School District grew to become the massive, ungainly, underperforming and embattled district it is today, also neglecting people in its newer outer territorial acquisitions for a long time. In the meantime, Spring Branch Independent School District, which not coincidentally makes up most of the “shaft” of the arrow, managed to maintain its high academic standards and reputation because it remained a manageably sized district. These massive, sprawling urban school districts like HISD, Dallas ISD, and Los Angeles United School District, are simply way too big to be efficient or avoid corruption. And bad schools, low property values, urban blight, and endemic poverty are a vicious cycle.

Again, pointing the finger at areas that maintain a high standard of living through conscious planning as exemplars of “inequity” while ignoring the lack of competent planning and management of the “unequal” areas outside them is so wrong-headed.






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