Of Quirk and Ingenuity: Why the Art Car Parade is the perfect expression of the Houston experience
The 25th Annual Art Car Parade has come to a close, and it was the largest and perhaps the most fabulous one ever. I think I say that every year, but I have lots of company in bragging about this one.
I’ve loved the Art Car Parade ever since I stumbled upon it during an International Fest in the early ‘90s and especially after being dragged into it and pulled aboard Tom Kennedy’s bus sometime thereafter.
The parade is a fantastic display of quirk and ingenuity, a perfect metaphor for Houston—a city it took me a long time to love.
The Back Story
Our family moved to Houston in 1986, during that horrible recession. I was 15 and living in the close-in ‘burbs. It was a neighborhood rapidly and uncomfortably becoming ethnically diverse and less affluent. It’s since become even less desirable.
Houston was big, sprawling, pock-marked. Several times as an adult I left the city, hoping to find a place that better suited my sense of what home should feel like. I lived in Plano (shudder) and worshipped Austin. Later, I moved to Portland, Oregon, but I missed the ethnic diversity (read: Tex-Mex, yum) of what I realized had become my home.
The Current Story
So in 2010, I returned. And I returned to find a place transformed. The Inner Loop aesthetic I’d always loved
seemed to have escaped its boundaries and seeped into the surrounding communities and cultures. I returned to Discovery Green, farmer’s markets springing up like weeds, a conservative lesbian mayor with a multi-ethnic family, a city that’s making room for bikes, one that appreciates its multitude of ethnicities and cultures while retaining its damn-good climate—for business, that is.
And it’s got bats under bridges too, y’all. Who knew?
Last year, Houston surpassed New York City as the most ethnically diverse city in the country. It also was named Fast Company’s City of the Year in a story that highlighted the city’s knack for reinvention. And as this article by CultureMap explains, 1987 was a pivotal year for Houston, the start of all this “culcha shifting”—with the opening of the Wortham Center, the Menil Collection, the George R. Brown, and the official launch of the Art Car Parade.
Ahh, The Art Car Parade
Houston — a city built around the love of gas-guzzling automobiles, sprawling beyond the expanse of whole states (Its square mileage is the largest and population the least dense of any U.S. city in the nation) — experienced an oil boom and then a huge bust.
The ’80s were hard on Houston. And hard economic times engender angst and rebellious expression. It’s the stuff of punk rock. It’s the stuff of Urban Animals. It’s the stuff of art.
So it’s no wonder then that the Art Car movement was born during those years.
But a great underground culture must always succumb to its fate: It becomes popular. And popularity leads to being co-opted by the very people you were either rebelling against or indifferent to.
Thus, the Art Car Parade became a Houston event.
And this Houston event has become a phenomenon, one that reflects the dynamic qualities of the city itself:
- It retains its rebellious political aesthetic while coexisting with big business, just as the city does.
- It accommodates religious expressions as diverse as Hare Krishnas and Quakers and ethnicities across the globe.
- Pride is apparent. Don’t tread on me political persuasions prominent. And patriotism abounds.
As Rice University Professor Stephen Klineberg says in his annual Houston Area Survey, Houston is an example of what the United States will become.
If that’s the case, the Art Car Parade is a fun house mirror depicting some of the best in American expression.
Did you attend this year’s Art Car Parade or Ball? Comment on my blog and share your favorite moment.