Back in another lifetime, when we drew a meager (very) paycheck from a since-discontinued publication that operated out of a building at Highway 59 and the West Loop in southwest Houston, we were summoned to attend a news conference early one morning at a hotel near Hobby Airport. The holder of the news conference was John Tower. We’ve long forgotten the topic, and we can’t remember if Tower was then still the lone Republican U.S. senator from Texas or had taken leave of that office and was on his way to the public humiliation that capped his career. We do remember one thing he said, though.
Tower was way late to his own event---we’re probably embellishing this faint memory, but we seem to recall that from close-up he still reeked of the previous evening’s consumption---and when he finally tottered up to the dais, he spread his arms, grinned broadly and declared, “Well, it’s good to be back in this very erudite city once again.” *
That was the first time we had heard Houston referred to as a “very erudite city.” And it remains the only time.
We weren’t sure what Tower intended by that throwaway remark, and we didn’t have the opportunity to ask that morning, as there were notes to be taken and supposedly more pressing questions to be posed. We figured that he probably was just kidding, giving a hung-over wink to his pals in the small audience, but we also considered the possibility that he was being wickedly sarcastic. After all, he was something of an erudite fellow himself, or had pretensions thereof (with his Savile Row suits and detachable collars, etc.), having attended the London School of Economics and Politics and been a professor of political science for a long spell. And although Tower was born in and raised a bit in Houston and graduated from high school in Beaumont, he chose to base himself in Dallas, where to this day the locals look down their long thin noses at the yokels in Baghdad on the Bayou, as newspaper columnists of days past called our town (how come nobody calls it that no mo’?).
Or maybe he was being sincere, in a chummy and early-morning woozy way, and through his long years of public service had recognized something in our town that had escaped the attention of less discerning observers.
We had occasion recently to again ponder Tower’s salutation when we learned of Houston’s showing in the annual literacy rankings of cities with populations larger than 250,000 as compiled by John J. Miller, the president of Central Connecticut State University (“the Harvard of central Connecticut,” as Jon Stewart called it). The survey weighed several factors to formulate what Miller calls “one critical index of our nation’s health” (don’t ask us how a university president has time to compile a study).
Baghdad on the Bayou was ranked 53rd, sandwiched between No. 52 Mesa, Az. (“The Little Phoenix of Maricopa County”) and No. 54 Phoenix (“The Big Mesa of Maricopa County”) out of 69 U.S. cities (in 2004 Houston came in 63rd among 79 cities ranked).
This year’s Top 10 was populated by the usual suspects associated with books and computers and other manifestations of “literacy”---Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington and San Francisco---but also included Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, smallish tank towns that usually call to our mind “National League,” not “literate.”
In Texas, Austin was tops at No 16, followed by Fort Worth (tied w/ Las Vegas for 44th) and Dallas at 48th.
Houston ranked behind Jacksonville, Fla. (“The Birthplace of Hooters”), but ahead of No. 63 Arlington (“The City With Plenty of Parking Spaces”), No 64 San Antonio (“The Heavy Metal Music Capital of North America”), No. 67 Corpus Christi (“We’ve Got a Nice Beach”) and No. 68 El Paso (“Welcome to the End of Earth”), which barely escaped its last place finish of 2004, thanks to Stockton, Cal.
Most of the cities in the lower third of the rankings are in California or Texas and have large immigrant populations, which we would surmise accounts for their poor showings (Los Angeles clocked in at No. 60). Survey compiler Miller did not see fit to include “a large supply of cheap labor” as a criterion.
What he did consider were the number of a city’s bookstores per capita, the educational attainment of its residents, its Internet and library resources, the newspaper circulation in the metropolis and the number of magazines and journals published there.
We’re generally suspicious of these type of ginned-up surveys (“Fattest City,” etc.), especially one that proposes to quantify something as seemingly intangible as a city’s literacy, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the categories and how Houston fared:
Bookstores, based on both retail outlets and rare and used bookstores, as well as the number of members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 population: Houston managed a tie at 39th with Nashville, ahead of Dallas but behind Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. According to Miller, “The presence of retail book stores is positively associated with quality of libraries. So, it is not a question of whether people buy books or check them out: they do both or neither.”
Education level, based on the percentage of adult residents with an educational level of 8th grade or less, the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or higher and the percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher: Houston showed up, barely, in 51st place. No. 1 was Colorado Springs.
Internet resources, based on the availability of library Internet connections and commercial and public wireless Internet access, the number of Internet book orders per capita and the percentage of adults who have read a newspaper on the Internet: Here Houston scored best, tied for No. 24 with very erudite Colorado Springs.
Library resources, based on the per-capita number of branch libraries, volumes held in libraries, circulation of material, library and school media professionals: Houston again nailed down the No. 51 slot; St. Louis (!) and Cleveland (?!) were ranked Nos.1 and 2.
Newspaper circulation, weekday and Sunday, divided by total city population: No. 50, alhtough the Houston Chronicle has retained its ranking, as you may have read.
Periodical publishers, based on number of magazine publishers with circulations over 2,500 and the number of journals published with circulations over 500 per 100,000 population: We’re No. 49!
Hmmm … there does seem to be a pronounced consistency to Houston's place in the pecking orders.
We must now conclude that in all likelihood our man Tower was poking fun at us.
Or else he thought he was in Fort Worth.
*Writing this led us to muse on how unlikely it would be for someone like Tower to be elected to a statewide office in Texas today.