This spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome to the blogging crew, Harriet Riley, a freelance writer living in Houston. When she is not enjoying the museums, parks, great food and baseball in Houston, Harriet works for Writers in the Schools and volunteers at Memorial Assistance Ministries.  She also has a Book Blog and her own website at

I moved to Houston, Texas five years ago kicking and screaming. I never liked Texas, even though I once lived in the ultra hipster town of Austin for a few years in the mid-eighties. I left Texas at the wise old age of 26 because I feared I would marry a Texan and end up sentenced to live in that deep dark red state for the rest of my life. Texans had big personalities. Texans ignored the rest of the country, the world for that matter, thinking their way of life was the ONLY reality. Texans were conservative in ways I couldn’t abide. So it was with great reluctance that I returned to Texas 22 years later with my new Australian husband on my arm and we started our married life, with three children in tow. Slowly, ever so slowly, a real admiration for Houston has grown within me. In fact, I’ve come up with ten reasons why I love this city (but maybe not the state):

[dropcap]1[/dropcap] Houston is an international city. Thanks to the oil industry and the healthcare complex, Houston draws residents from all over the world. My children have made friends from Nigeria, England, Germany, Greece, Iran and Mexico while living in Houston. This rich multi-cultural climate encourages lively debate and increased educational opportunities. In fact, my feelings were confirmed recently when the Houston region was named the most ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the country, surpassing New York City.

[dropcap]2[/dropcap] Houston is a little island of blue in the sea of red that is Texas. Houston voters strongly supported Obama in 2008, winning Harris County for our Democratic President. The city also elected a Democratic mayor in 2010 – Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. I’m not afraid to put my Obama bumper sticker on my car here in Houston, which is not the case in most Southern cities. Even though the occasional truck driver with a gun rack yells “Commie” at me, I know I’m not alone in supporting a liberal candidate.

[dropcap]3[/dropcap] Houston is awash in truly great art and culture. Houston’s world-class museums have everything from fine art to folk art. My personal favorite museum is The Menil Collection, a real treasure in Montrose, with contemporary art from the large collection of John and Dominique de Menil. The art is offered free to the public without comment to encourage original thought. I visit the Menil several times a year with inner city elementary students through Writers in the Schools and am always impressed by the creative writing this collection inspires in my young writers. Houston has professional companies in the four disciplines of the performing arts – ballet, opera, symphony and theatre. This rich cultural life is one of the best aspects of living in Houston. Houston also honors folk art and the quirkier aspects of our culture. I can’t leave out the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, which includes Art Car Museum (and annual Art Car Parade) and the Beer Can House, two of the more colorful venues in the city, which honor self-taught artists.

[dropcap]4[/dropcap] Houston welcomes and nurtures some of the best contemporary writers in the country. The Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the University of Houston is widely recognized as one of America’s premier writing programs. The city also encourages writers through Inprint Houston with its workshops, readings, and classes. Young people in inner city schools are empowered in their creative writing through Writers in the Schools (WITS), which is at the forefront of a national writers alliance. Being lucky enough to work for WITS and participate in Inprint readings and workshops enriches my own writing life. I’ve just started a new blog to honor the books and writers in my life.

[dropcap]5[/dropcap] Houston is a major league city. I’ve always wanted to live in a city with major league sports and we have it all. While our teams have not won any championships since we moved here, Houston has the best sports arenas. My favorite is Minute Maid Park, with its downtown location, retractable roof and Friday night fireworks. While our baseball team, the Astros, is currently last in their league, we remain ever optimistic. To stand up at the seventh inning stretch and sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” always puts a huge grin on my face. Then there is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a three-week extravaganza of rodeo competition, agriculture events, country music and Western heritage at Reliant Center. Everything is bigger in Texas and you have to see this rodeo to believe it. I am amazed every year and have surprised myself by becoming a huge fan of The Rodeo, as we fondly call it.

[dropcap]6[/dropcap] Houston is a green city. Driving through Houston on my way to Austin all those years ago, it seemed to me that the city was just endless miles of billboards, highways and ugly strip shopping centers. Yet, Houston boasts of some the best parks in the world. In fact, Houston has more than 50,000 acres of total park space. Memorial Park and the neighboring Arboretum suffered enormously in our recent drought, but hundreds of Houstonians came out on Arbor Day to replant and renew these treasured resources. The sub-tropical weather – warm almost all year – increases the enjoyment of the bike trails and picnic spots scattered throughout the city. Houstonians love their parks and green spaces.

[dropcap]7[/dropcap] Houston has world class restaurants and they are not all Tex Mex. Don’t get me wrong – Houston is a fabulous place to visit for meals from south of the border, but the variety of cultures represented in the dining establishments here is mind-boggling. Belgian, Bosnian, Brazilian, British – just to mention the B’s. And the amazing thing is that these culinary gems are more often than not housed in an ordinary storefront in a sterile strip shopping center. I recently discovered Ethiopian food at Blue Nile located in a grungy strip shopping center in a dubious part of town. The wait staff was helpful and friendly as they taught us how use the spongy pancake bread to pick up the delicious food served family style on a large platter. I could write many more pages about my food adventures in Houston, but you’ll just have to see for yourself.

[dropcap]8[/dropcap] Houston is a cheap place to live. As the fourth most populated city in the country, it is also the most affordable. Our house would cost three times as much in any other large city in America. Housing costs are 19 percent below the national average here. In fact, Houston has the lowest overall cost of living among 27 metropolitan areas with more than 2 million residents. Don’t get me wrong — this doesn’t solve everything. We still have large numbers of families living in poverty in Houston. I work with those families every week at a local agency, Memorial Assistance Ministries, helping them with basic needs such as rent and utilities. But they have so many more options here than the families I worked with at a similar agency in Pensacola, Florida. We have jobs and helping agencies to fill the gap for families in crisis. In the midst of a recession, Houston has thrived and cared for its residents.

[dropcap]9[/dropcap] Houston is a great place to be sick. When you live in Houston, you can’t help but be grateful for living near the largest medical complex in the world. Texas Medical Center has 49 member institutions, including M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which is recognized as the number one cancer hospital in the country. The leading physicians in the world seem to be here. People flock to Houston from everywhere for medical treatment. I don’t know about you, but the great medical care offered here is a big benefit for me as I approach my “older” years.

[dropcap]10[/dropcap] People in Houston are genuinely nice and some of them really do say “howdy.” My family has been amazed by the friendliness of the people of this city, as they have welcomed us into their homes and clubs. Native Texans may still think that they are superior to the rest of us, but Houstonians are very accepting of outsiders and are extremely generous. In fact, Houstonians are among the biggest givers in the country. They share their money with the arts, all manner of helping organizations, education and scholarships and much more.

And, most importantly, Houstonians sincerely welcome people who weren’t born in Texas…

…But, at least we got here as fast as we could.

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