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A Visit to Houston, Where Cowboys, Astronauts and Culture Meet


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember.  This week, explore the biggest city in Texas.  Houston is home to cowboy culture, space travel, art cars and much more.

Two brothers established Houston in eighteen thirty-six.  Augustus and John Allen were land developers from New York state.

They purchased more than twenty-five square kilometers of land in a low-lying area near a small river, or bayou.  They named the town after a hero of Texas history, Sam Houston.  The Allens wanted to build a city that would become a center of government and commerce.  They succeeded.

Houston soon became a center for the cotton trade, then later the oil industry.  The Port of Houston links the city to the shipping traffic in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

The capital of the state of Texas is Austin.  But Houston for a time in its early years was the capital of the Republic of Texas.

Texas was part of Mexico until a rebellion by Anglo-American colonists and Tejanos, Mexicans living in Texas.  After that, the territory was an independent republic for almost ten years.

In eighteen forty-six, Texas became the twenty-eighth state.

Today, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States.  Two million people live there.

The area now spreads over more than one thousand six hundred square kilometers of southeastern Texas.

Oil and gas exploration are still important to the Houston economy.  But other industries have also grown over the years.  One of these is the space industry.

Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center.  Astronauts train there.  And it is also where the NASA space agency has its Mission Control.  Controllers direct space shuttle flights from Houston, just as they did with the old Apollo flights to the moon.

Movies like "Apollo Thirteen" have only added to the image of Houston as "Space City."

Houston is also a center of culture.  For example, visitors to the Museum District can explore the Menil Collection.  This is considered one of the finest private collections of art in the world.  John and Dominique de Menil created the museum for their personal collection.

Next to the museum is the Rothko Chapel.  The Menils created this, too.  It represents a work of both religious and modern art.

The space serves as a place of worship for people of all religious beliefs.  Visitors can stand or sit in an eight-sided room with high walls.  On the walls are fourteen huge paintings that the artist Mark Rothko created for this purpose.  The paintings are mixtures of dark color that help create a calm environment.

Visitors to the Museum District can find many art museums as well as others devoted to science and history.

Tall office buildings rise in the center of Houston.  Some of these shining glass structures were designed by world-famous architects.

Downtown Houston is also home to the Theater District.  Many performing arts organizations are located there.  In fact, Theater District officials say Houston has more to offer than most other American cities.  Houston has its own permanent professional companies in all of the major performing arts: opera, ballet, music and theater.

But art does not have to be traditional to be enjoyed.  Every year in Houston, people gather for the Art Car Parade.  They come from around Texas and other parts of the country to see who has the best design for making a car into art.

In the parade, the cars are driven slowly down a main street.  People stand on the sidewalks and cheer when they see ones they like.

One winning car, for example, was covered in shining pieces of silver glass and colorful round pieces of plastic.  Attached to the back of the car were life-size sculptures of people playing music.

Another artist had a small car designed as a piece of fruit.  He painted his old Volkswagen Beetle orange and placed a big leaf on top.  This art car was called “Orange-A-Peel."

Houston is a big modern city.  But many Houstonians wear cowboy hats and boots.  They enjoy country music and dance the Texas two-step.

The tradition of the old western cowboy is a part of Texas culture that remains important to many people.  Yet there are still many cattle ranches in Texas.  So cowboy culture lives on.

Every year, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo creates much excitement around the city.  This event is described as the largest of its kind in the world.  It was started in the nineteen thirties.  People compete to see who raised the best farm animals.  At the rodeo, visitors can watch competitions based on traditional cowboy skills.

Thousands of people give their time to organize these events.  The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo raises millions of dollars.  The money helps provide financial aid to students all over Texas.

Texans have a tradition of doing things in a big way.  The Houston Astrodome is a good example.  This huge ballpark opened in nineteen sixty-five.  It was named for the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball, who have since moved.

When the Astrodome was built, some people called it the eighth wonder of the world.  They had never seen a ballpark with a roof over the playing field.  It meant that the climate-controlled stadium could be kept cool even in the heat of the Texas summer.

The roof was covered in glass.  But players soon found that sunlight shining off the glass made baseballs hit in the air difficult to see.  So workers painted over the glass on the roof.  Without sunlight, however, the grass on the field died.

A new invention called Astroturf soon replaced the real grass.  This artificial grass became popular on playing fields around the world.

Are you hungry?  Houston has plenty of different restaurants.  In fact, Houstonians are said to eat out more than people in any other American city.

There are foods from around the world.  But the city is especially well known for Tex-Mex, Texas cooking combined with traditional foods from Mexico

Texas barbecue is also popular. The smoke from burning wood gives a rich flavor to the meat.  And to clean your plate, be sure and try a piece of hot cornbread.

Houston has a large Latino population.  It also has one of the largest populations of ethnic Vietnamese in the United States.  Many Nigerians also live there.  In fact, if you listen carefully, it is possible to hear about ninety languages being spoken in the Houston area.

Houston continues to grow, sometimes in unexpected ways.  In late two thousand five, Houston received many of the people forced from their homes in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.  Officials say ninety thousand, and perhaps as many as one hundred fifty thousand, remain in Houston and surrounding areas.

To many people, Houston is a city that has it all.  In fact, it is one of the least costly cities in America.  But not everything that is said about Houston is good.

For example, the company MapQuest has declared Houston the most difficult of major cities in the United States for visitors to navigate.  The Houston Chronicle reported this under the headline: "It's easy to get lost in our big, fat, hot, polluted city."

The story said: "In survey after survey, Houston has been picked on for being the fattest, the hottest and the most polluted of U.S. cities."  The newspaper noted that a public opinion study had even just found Houstonians terrible at cleaning up after their dogs.

Yet some people do not seem to mind too much that Houston appears on lists like these.  A city spokesman told the Chronicle: "Houston is fast becoming the third-largest city in the United States, so somebody is not reading the bad lists."

Our program was written by Dana Demange and produced by Caty Weaver.  Read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com.  I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember.  To send us e-mail, write to special@voanews.com.  We hope you listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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Source: A Visit to Houston, Where Cowboys, Astronauts and Culture Meet
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