Houston is a city whose very existence has always depended on wild speculation and boom-and-bust excess. Founded on a muddy mire in 1837 by two real estate-booster brothers from New York – their dream was to establish it as the capital of the new Republic of Texas – Houston was soon superseded by the more promising site of Austin, even while somehow establishing itself as a commercial center. Oil, discovered in 1901, became the foundation, along with cotton and real estate, of vast private fortunes, and over the next century wildly wealthy philanthropists poured cash into swanky galleries and showpiece skyscrapers. That colossal self-confidence helped Houston weather devastating oil crises in the 1980s, and more recently it has endured the Enron corporate scandal and, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike, which pounded the city and sucked windows out of downtown skyscrapers.
Houston has also developed a small but growing workforce eager to bring alternative energy to scale, while several megachurches headquartered downtown – with celebrity pastors like the non-denominational Joel Olsteen – have become powerful social, cultural, and, in some cases, political forces. Some churches draw as many as 16,000 people to their Sunday services, which are open to the public. There are also several highly regarded medical centers in the city.
The fourth-largest city in the United States, Houston is an ungainly beast of a place, choked with successive rings of highways and high on humidity. Despite this, its sheer energy, its relentless Texas pride, and above all, its refusal to take itself totally seriously, lends it no small appeal. For visitors, its well-endowed museums, highly regarded performing arts scene, and decent nightlife mean there is always something to do.