It probably didn’t raise many eyebrows wherever you are, but Forbes had a headline recently that caused a bit of a ruckus in my neck of the woods. The magazine had a feature rating the “20 Coolest Cities,” and Houston was ranked first.
Now, Forbes’ ranking was a shock, but it's an understandable choice. When a magazine is trying to make some noise and move some issues, they don’t put the obvious choice atop the list, they try to find an unusual pick that’ll garner some buzz. So New York City gets dropped to the bottom of the top ten, and a city occasionally deemed “the armpit of Texas” moves into the top spot.
But the problem with the piece is that whenever you put a financial magazine in charge of figuring out what’s “cool,” you’re going to get an awfully dusty answer. The piece’s creators are fairly thorough: they give a laundry list of statistics for each city, including “diversity index,” “unemployment percentage,” and “net migration.” Because, after all, when you’re trying to track something’s coolness, the first thing you ask is “how do I quantify this?”
Here’s the Forbes quote:
“Houston is known for many things: Oil, NASA, urban sprawl and business-friendly policies.”
When I moved down here, it was all I could do to get people to stop talking about how much I was going to enjoy Houston’s business-friendly policies.
“But the Texas city deserves to be known for something else: coolness.”
“Houston has something many other major cities don’t: jobs. With the local economy humming through the recession, Houston enjoyed 2.6% job growth last year and nearly 50,000 Americans flocked there in response… combine that with a strong theater scene, world-class museums and a multicultural, zoning-free mashup of a streetscape and you have the recipe for the No. 1 spot on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities To Live.”
Only Forbes could possibly write an article on coolness and get to a city’s zoning policies by the third paragraph. They see Houston, which, since it’s mostly shielded from the recession by the oil industry’s financial halo, got fifty thousand people to uproot and move here. Houston must be the place to be! By this thinking, people must have packed up their belongings into oxcarts and rode the Oregon Trail with the sole purpose creating some sort of hipster mecca. “Sure, we’ve all got dysentery, and Ezekiel lost his foot to that rattlesnake bite*, but at least out here I can find people who really share my interests in farming, and not dying of exposure. We can stay up late and just vibe.”
*my knowledge of this section of history may be a bit over-influenced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.
“Cool” is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “very good; fashionable.”
This article reads like every freshmen term paper ever written.
“We sought to quantify it in terms of cities, ranking the 65 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Metropolitan Divisions (areas that include cities and their surrounding suburbs that are defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) based on seven data points weighted evenly.”
Because if you weighed those data points unevenly, people would just lose their minds.
Wait, let’s actually think about this for a second. If all those points are weighted evenly, then things like “Arts & Culture Index” and “Recreation Index” are weighted right alongside “Diversity Index?” Milwaukee just got way less cool than it already is.
So, let's let conventional wisdom return for a moment and take a look at this. Let’s really break down this list for a second and see if any of the cities we ranked in front of deserve to beat us (spoiler alert: YES).
20. Denver, Colorado
Oh my god, yes. Obviously Denver is cooler than us. Denver has mountains. Denver still has hippies. People go to Denver to go snowboarding for a weekend and don’t come back for three years. If you say to someone, “I ended up living in Denver for a year after college,” they will nod knowingly and try to size you up to see if you have any weed on you. If you say to someone, “I ended up living in Houston for a year after college,” they’ll tell you, “you know, you’ve really got to stick with an engineering job for two years at least for it to look good on a resume.”
19. Austin, Texas
Everyone in Texas knows that Austin is the coolest part of Texas. It has the University of Texas. Sixth street. SXSW. Drafthouses. Film companies. Art companies. Art film companies. “Friday Night Lights” was shot there. We get it. Austin’s the place you move to when you don’t know what to do with your life but you think you might be a creative person, despite a wealth of evidence pointing to the contrary.
18. Minneapolis, Minnesota
We might have Minneapolis beat. Texas, as a state, is undeniably cooler than Minnesota. Minneapolis is just cool by Minnesotan standards. It’s a lovely town and I’m sure I could find lots to do. The people there are probably polite on an otherworldly level. But it’s whiter than most polar bears and they probably also refer to soda as “pop.” It’s not cooler than Houston.
17. Bethesda, Maryland
Oh, hell yes we’re cooler than Bethesda. It’s Bethesda. Or, “the greater Bethesda-Frederick-Gaithersberg region.” It snuck onto the list by virtue of its infinitesimal unemployment percentage, which is not the best way to land on a “coolness” list.
I don’t know anything about Bethesda. It sounds like a place that rich politicians retire to. I already resent it with a Holden Caulfield-like intensity.
16. Oakland, California
If we have a chance against any Californian city, it would be Oakland (okay, Sacramento. We could beat Sacramento). Oakland has no buzz. It’s a bay town. It has the Raiders and the A’s. It has a good music scene. Does that put it ahead of Houston?
Yes, it does. Think of it this way: if someone told you “check out this new band, they’re fresh out of Oakland!” or “check out this new band, they’re fresh out of Houston!”, which one would you want to listen to?* I thought so.
*possible exceptions for the following genres: country music or gansta rap performed by white people.
15. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The fact that Philly is in Pennsylvania drags its score down, but no, we’re not cooler than Philadelphia. Philadelphia has heaps of history, a rival city not far to the north, and a definable cuisine. I’ll take the Liberty Bell, Eagles and Phillies games, and cheesesteaks over the San Jacinto monument, Texans and Astros games, and Tex-Mex. And I dig Tex-Mex and don’t even like cheesesteaks.
I mean, if Nicholas Cage was here hunting for more national treasure, I don’t even know where we’d send him.
14. Baltimore, Maryland
Oh, we’re cooler than Baltimore. I’ve seen “The Wire.” No one wants to go there. There’s dead people on the wharves like, every day.
13. Fort Worth, Texas
Interesting. Dallas is separated from Fort Worth for this issue, leaving Fort Worth to stand on its own two feet. Dallas is going to make this list, right? Because Dallas is also cooler than Houston.
Not Fort Worth, though. Not by itself. Just picture someone saying to you, “hey, let’s go down and hang out at the Fort Worth stock yards!” See? You’re already bored with Fort Worth.
12. Chicago, Illinois
Last year, 22,000 people migrated out of Chicago, surely fleeing its legendary uncoolness.
This ranking is so ridiculous it's obscene. Chicago is obviously cooler than us. Chicago has a cool nickname. It has deep-dish pizza so good no one else even tries to make it the same way. It has tons of good sports teams. And the Cubs. It has politicians so shady there’s one murdering someone in broad daylight right now, probably with a tommy gun. Everyone knows what Chicago is. Yet somehow it’s down here with the Bethesdas of the world.
11. San Antonio, Texas
Texas’ second-coolest city also fails to make the top ten and ranks incredibly low on the Arts & Culture index, despite the fact that thousands of people flock there to gape at the Alamo daily. It has history so cool people fly in to see it. Not to mention the Riverwalk, and whatever that thing is that’s exactly like the Space Needle. San Antonio has culture. You can sense it when you walk around the place. The only thing you can sense when you walk around Houston is a vague aroma of urination, which is likely why there’s no one else out walking besides you.
10. New York, New York
Let’s take a minute and look at the picture Forbes used to indicate what New York looks like:
Could you find a worse picture to indicate New York? I bet you couldn’t. I bet the web guy at Forbes was so worried that readers would see the New York skyline and their heads would snap back as they suddenly realized, “wait, is Houston supposed to be cooler than New York?” Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra sang about New York. If Houston was going to choose someone to write a song about it, we’d have to pick Kenny Rodgers.
I’m not even convinced that’s New York there. That honestly could be Bratislava.
9. San Francisco, California
By their own metrics, Forbes listed San Francisco with an Arts & Culture score of 98 out of 100. Recreation? 99 out of a 100. Dragging it down? A median age of 41. The average citizen must be so depressed! “So, there’s tons to do and see, but you might run into, like, A PROPORTIONALLY LARGE AMOUNT of old people. Do not want, you guys. DO. NOT WANT.”
I have a buddy who moved to San Francisco a couple months back, and he’s spending essentially all his money on rent, because the markup on property is so insane. You can move to Houston for a bag of nickels. There’s a reason for that.
8. Orange County, California
I’ll answer this one right after I watch a new episode of the CW’s new hit drama, “The Houston.” Texas… Tex-AAAAAS…. Here we CAAAAAAAAAAHHHHMMMME!
7. Boston, Massachusetts.
Let me put it this way, if you set “Cheers” in Houston, it’s no longer an old English pub/sports bar. Suddenly it’s either an upscale bar where you have to wear a tie and heavyset men in suits leer at the waitresses, or a grimy faux-club with a weird, rapey vibe. And no, absolutely no one knows your damn name.
6. San Diego, California
“Man, I can’t wait until I get off this pristine beach, with its stylish downtown community and weather consistently in the mid-eighties, and get back to the land of business-friendly policies!”
5. Seattle, Washington
Intellectual vibe? Famous rock scene? Gorgeous mountain views and a crystal-clear ocean bay? Tons of local coffee shops? There’s a reason Seattle is a top-five destination for hipsters to gather and breed. In fact, Travel & Leisure just listed it as “the number one city for hipsters” (please don’t make me break down that list, too). No one besides Forbes and Oil Baron Quarterly have ever made us number one of anything. This city ranks decidedly higher than us.*
*This city’s high rank may be incumbent on you being a white person.
4. Dallas, Texas
I want to be clear: Dallas is cooler than us. It’s just not much cooler than us. Remember that Travel & Leisure hipster list from earlier? (and I promise, this will be the last point in which a connect coolness and hipsterdom) Dallas finished 35th – that is, last. Even Houston finished a vaguely respectable 26th, behind such luminaries of hipster culture as Kansas City and Honolulu, and one spot ahead of Anchorage. Anchorage? Honolulu? If there’s even one hipster in either place, I’ll eat an entire jacket made of tweed.
That ranking is probably fair, but it doesn’t matter. Dallas feels wealthy. It feels like a destination. People in Houston drive to Dallas to shop or take long weekends. People in Dallas only drive to Houston if the Cowboys are playing there.
3. Los Angeles, California
Just imagine if Us Weekly was centered in Houston. “Haylie and Hillary Duff came back to visit their parents for the weekend!” “Stars! They’re just like us! Mike Jones visits the optometrist!” “Is Lyle Lovett back together with Julia Roberts? No, he’s not!”
There’s a reason thousands of people packed a minor league stadium to watch a 50-year old Roger Clemens lumber to and from the pitching mound. We’re starved for any sort of celebrity at all.
2. Washington, D.C.
Okay, this ranking is insane, too. D.C. is not cool. It’s full of politicians. Politicians are not cool, with rare exceptions (circa-2008 Barack Obama being the most recent example). It’s full of gun violence. Gun violence is not cool. It’s built on a marsh. Marshes are not cool.
Still, there’s a mystique to D.C. All over the city, every restaurant, every coffee shop, every closed door could be concealing a massive, world-changing meeting. Is money changing hands? Are pork-barrel military supplies being promised? Dignitaries from every possible country are shuttled about behind smoked glass, with well-armed and besuited goons escorting them every step of the way. Things are constantly happening.
People in Houston still have posters up celebrating the fact the Super Bowl was held here. In 2003.
1. Houston, Texas
It looks ridiculous even seeing it here, doesn’t it?
While we’re at it, let’s review a pile of other American cities that are also cooler than Houston: Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami, Miami of Ohio (which is not a city, I know, but its mascot is “Scoop the Redhawk”), New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Orlando (14-years-old and under only), Portland, both Gotham and Metropolis (but not Coast City, and definitely not Sub Diego), Charleston (summertime only), Asheville (ditto), San Jose.
Still, let’s not go overboard. There are a lot of cities Houston is a lot cooler than. They include: Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Wichita, Tampa, Tulsa, Omaha, Pittsburg, Fort Wayne, Des Moines, Buffalo, Waco, and any city in Ohio.
And, of course, Newark.