I grew up in a little box at the end of some Sugar Land cul-de-sac. Now, as a senior at Rice University, I live in the moldering attic of a pleasantly gnarly bungalow in Montrose. But with a view of the Menil Collection and HEB from my window (if my room had a window), I would say the whole arrangement is really quite nice. One month here and I already feel I’m in Jane Jacobs’ utopia — pedestrians, bicyclists, and local haunts for company. Still, every time I bike over 59 and all those cars tapping their brakes back to their perfectly tended quarter-acre plots, I momentarily drift downstream to my childhood in Sugar Land.
Despite spending the first 18 years of my life there, everything I know about Sugar Land’s demographics was presented to me in a lecture by Dr. Stephen Klineberg my freshman year. According to the Kinder Institute’s 2016 Houston Area Survey, Fort Bend County (of which Sugar Land is a part) is nearly perfectly split between the four main racial categories: Anglo, Asian, Black, and Latino. This finding is often cited in various awards and rankings that put Sugar Land in the “glow of a national spotlight,” luxuriating in titles like the “best place to” live, raise a family, migrate, etc. To have a scholar tell me I am from this highly acclaimed and well-researched community (with my own family background fitting the part) was mildly unsettling.
The Sugar Land I know is not some proverbial melting pot of multiculturalism and American dreams. The way I remember it—and the way I see it every month, per my mother’s demands—is like a strip of beige stucco pulled quickly past me at 75 MPH and undulating lawns smeared across my car window. As it turns out, exceptional diversity looks pretty unexceptional. The Whataburger across the highway was the closest thing I had to a neighborhood bar. An Astroturf football field was my public park. The only bus was the dreaded one to school. Common in all these environments is a lack of human interface—we start our days in single-family homes and get through it in our single-occupancy vehicles—that limits any physical or social manifestation of Sugar Land’s well-documented diversity.
Even in what Sugar Land calls public space — namely, Sugar Land Town Square — I got real weird vibes. Every couple of weeks, to take in a concert or kill a few hours, we would wind our way up a parking garage, peruse the gaudy boutiques, and halt in a granite-laden plaza where exclamatory palm trees would guide us to designated sitting areas or a posted schedule for “community Zumba.” Spaces like these — the suburban master plans of the world — suffer from unconscious postmodernism that glues nostalgic edifices of the American rural typo(mytho)logy onto a pseudocity of developer schemes. As Rives Taylor has written, “These are the made-up worlds that nevertheless want to impart some history of place.” And I, the consumer, was tossed in a dizzying game of suburbanism.
Containing all this programming is a cavity that we, the walking statistics of Sugar Land, could step inside but never own. The Town Square’s directory and materiality carved out trenches of racial and classist segregation that would not intersect. To borrow from another Rice sociology professor discussing another Fort Bend public amenity — public schools: “They celebrate that they are diverse … but they are not integrated” (Emerson 8). I suppose that is why I was taken aback when Dr. Klineberg quantified Fort Bend’s diversity — I never found a place where I could observe and experience a real coming together of what those statistics are purported to represent.
Now I live in Montrose — well inside the Loop — where I sprawl across the lawn of the Menil Collection, digesting some box wine and Picasso. I choose my place in the park not by the didactic commands of freshly poured pavement and corporate beacons, but by the invitation of trees and sculptures and open space. My liberty to move about the lawn reminds me why I love Houston — where Sugar Land constructs its culture from presumed wants and needs, Houston’s “culture” is simply a two-million-piece coincidence of individuality, contained in a bubble of highways. Here, without storefronts and signage obstructing or instructing my view, I pay attention to my fellow Houstonians who share with me a place and a calmness but, outwardly, little else. And I am proudly among them.