Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One Hundred Years of Sugar-tude (Or Maybe Half Of That)

"Ain’t no more cane on the Brazos,
They ground it all down into molasses."

-- Traditional song by anonymous, long-dead author

As you may not be aware--especially if you’re one of those high-hatted types who never ventures beyond the confines of Houston’s Inner Loop--this year is the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of the rapidly metastasizing suburban burg of Sugar Land, and to mark the occasion the city fathers have planned many special activities: In addition to the always-popular “Butt-Naked Women’s Gator 'Rassling” (ummm ...) tourney, residents can participate in a special “Sugarland Express” competition in which they will be allowed to track and capture specially outfitted “escapees” from the city jail (only inmates being held for the alleged commission of non-violent crimes will be “set free” for this family fun run).* The country-poppish duo Sugarland, which may or may not be named after the city (we dunno), may or may not be on hand (we dunno) at the “finish line” to play their shimmery-slick version of that hallowed local favorite--the one you and I learned at the knee of Johnny Rivers--Leadbelly’s Midnight Special.

But seriously: We occasionally find our self in and around Sugar Land (it took us many years of corrections by the copy desk before it dawned on us that the city’s name consists of two words), usually lost and searching for some elusive residential or commercial address and disoriented not just by the lack of identifiable natural or manmade landmarks aside from the Brazos (usually a “sign” we’ve “gone too far”) but also by the sheer overwhelming newness of the place (Houston being ancient Athens by comparison). Of course, the “new” has just been tamped down atop the “old”--we always get a chuckle out of those posted signs across from the shopping centers warning motorists not to pick up hitchhikers 'cause there are prison units in the vicinity. (It must be hell to be an actual non-escapee hitchhiker in Sugar Land--perhaps Sugarland, the musical combo, would like to record a song about such an ordeal, and it so happens that we’ve written one just now, although we’ve never been hitchhiking in Sugar Land and never intend to.)

Then there’s the ghastly, traffic-choked Town Center (Or is it Town Centre? No, it’s Center.), with it’s indistinguishable buildings--that big, fine, pillared City Hall looks to us like a slightly more substantial version of the la Madeleine across the street--and all of them brick and stone and bearing that same light dusty red color (is it ocher?), a likely result of the same mildly cypto-fascist impulse toward uniformity that led to all those little frame houses around the Inner Loopy Menil Collection being painted the same shade of grey. The last time we were out that way we came across some godforesaken newly built subdivision--they looked to be still bulldozing the nearby former cane fields into tract-home-ready flatness--entrance to which was framed by a looming faux-suspension bridge (or so it looked) with giant COLUMNS built over some piddly little fake manmade LAKE (“Awww, mama, can this really be the end?” is what we were thinking).

But lest you mistake us for some SWPL snoot who actually cares about old buildings and such shit--we’re not; well, not too much--we must acknowledge that Sugar Land is WHAT THE PEOPLES WANT. And not just the white and black middle classes, who began their migration Sugar-ward years ago, but also the many, many--beaucoups!--Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Vietnamese who seem to be skeedaddling away from Houston and into Sugar Land by the veritable busload. Sugar Land has become the default destination for southwest Houstonians, particularly newly or nearly affluent immigrants who first settled into the cheap housing of the Great Southwest and then saw the handwriting on the wall (it usually said “Southwest Cholos” or “Los Tercera Crips”) and headed further southwest for more residential square footage and better schools, mostly the latter.

We recently had several conversations about this New Face of Sugar Land with one of those new faces, a lad we’ll call Abdul (not his real name, but close enough). A Pakistani Muslim by birth, if not practice, Abdul has second-generation written all over him: He’s restless and bored (particularly by school); somewhat dismissive of his old-country parents, who, according to him, sell “fake” merchandise out of an “import” shop off Harwin; knows everything there is to possibly know about the NBA and bristles with a sort of mock rap-artist hostility--talking a lot with sharp jabs of his hands, the way rappers did 10-15 years ago, and employing ghetto-centric locutions such as “Where you stay at?” (Meaning “Where do you live?”, to which we answered “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” to which he replied “Oh.”) We had occasion to speak on the phone with Abdul’s sister, who teaches high school physics, and when we mentioned the conversation to Abdul the first thing he said was, “She sounds like she’s white, right?” In other words, Abdul’s assimilated, if maybe not to the things we used to think of as constituting “assimilation.” Anyhoo, Abdul, a recent graduate of a Fort Bend ISD high school, is highly conscious of racial, ethnic and class differences out in the New Territory subdivision, where his family moved to escape the Cholo-choked Alief school district. “Yeah, you know,” explained Abdul, emphasizing his rap with short chops and forward thrusts of his open hands, “it’s like, you know, the Indians live with the white people, y’know, or right next to ’em, and then us”--meaning the Pakistanis of New Territory--”all live together, with nobody else. So it’s the whites, the Indians, and then us, by our self.”

We’d rather not think too much about what this may bode for the future, although we do hope that Abdul takes up our suggestion that he embark on the study of sociology when he enters community college. In the meantime, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the city of Sugar Land, we hope all residents, whatever their skin tone and no matter which deity they declare allegiance to, join hands and sing together that great ballad of yeaning and escape: “Let the Midnight Special/SHINE ITS EVER-LOVIN' LIGHT ON ME.”

Praise be to Allah and amen.

*Just joshin'.

1 comment:

The Fishing Musician said...

Sugar Land was once a cool place but it's been gentrified and ethnicified and absolutely become the Mecca (if you will) of the sprawl of Houston.

Years ago, there was some good living to be had in the land of the Sugar. Once Cleburne's Cafeteria and the Sugar Plant closed, it was all over. As late as the early 1980's, it was a tolerable place to be.

Now it's just crimey as hell and whether you go east, south or north or any variation thereof from it's borders, it's ghetto city. 90A running into Richmond has become a big suburb and has had random violent murders in the recent past, but the other areas surrounding Sugar Land, like Alief, Missouri City, Fresno, Rosenburg and the ever-popular Southwest Freeway corridor just suck and are full of gangsters, theives and crackheads.

Once upon a time, I lived in a wonderland called Sharpstown. It was a great place to grow up. It was, at least for my family, suburban nirvana for awhile, until white flight kicked in and we moved WAY OUT.

I long for the glory days of Southwest Houston, mournful that they are never to return. Like Sugar Land, what is lost cannot be found.