This city has endured executive looters at Enron, hideously humid weather and the trial of a woman who killed her cheating husband by running him down with her Mercedes-Benz. Holding a Super Bowl should not be a problem.
But as 120,000 visitors stream into town for Sunday’s game, the nation’s fourth-largest city is eager to impress -- to move beyond its image as an oil town shrouded in a haze of smog.
“The Super Bowl is an exclamation point on a statement we’ve been trying to make for some years,” said Jim Kollaer, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, which functions as the city’s chamber of commerce. “That is, that Houston is a great cosmopolitan city. This is an opportunity for people around the world to see everything Houston has to offer.”
To that end, workers have been toiling to spruce up the city.
In the central business district, maddeningly irregular street signals at long last have been synchronized. More than 20,000 trees have been planted along highways where the customary view is an endless parade of billboards. City crews have picked up more than 20 tons of trash and 1,300 abandoned tires. Streets have been repaved, about 200 new street signs planted, countless potholes filled.
“I haven’t [ever] seen those guys work so hard cleaning everything up,” said Amanda Arriaga, a 20-year-old clerk who works downtown. “You kind of felt sorry for them.” She was checking out a Super Bowl souvenir stand Friday on revitalized Main Street, where live music blared from newly opened restaurants and bars and throngs of tourists wandered, sipping to-go cups of beer.
Resident Rena Hardage grinned at all who passed, supporting a campaign that Mayor Bill White unveiled this month: “Put a smile on. Company’s coming!” read billboards across the city, reminding Houstonians to put their best foot forward. “At the stores, the clerks are smiling, everyone’s trying to show some Texas friendliness,” said Hardage, 49.
And out-of-towners seemed impressed, if only mildly. “This city is better than I thought it would be,” said George Tamaris, a 32-year-old teacher visiting from Baltimore. “I thought it would be more run-down, but so far it’s been pretty nice here. It’s better than Baltimore.”
John Knox, a visitor from Detroit, glanced at the skyscrapers, expressed his approval, but wondered where the cowboys were. “It doesn’t feel like Texas here,” he said. “I haven’t seen a Cadillac with longhorns attached or anything Texan. This could be Chicago.”
The last time Houston held the Super Bowl, in 1974, the Astrodome was decked out in a Western theme, complete with saloons, frontier towns and live cattle on the stadium floor. But come Sunday, the old dome, once home to baseball’s Astros and football’s Oilers, will sit empty as the game goes on next door, at Reliant Stadium.
The stadium is one of three new sports centers that city leaders hope will bring fresh industry and tourists to Houston, envisioned as an eclectic mix of business, museums, grand opera, country music and Beyonce. A place of possibility where -- as happened at a Super Bowl event this week -- a parade of burly sports legends can share the spotlight with the musical stylings of Yanni.
The Super Bowl has helped bring Houston to a crossroads in its history, Kollaer said.
“We’ve been trying to create an environment where people will see the city for its diversity and opportunity, and to be able to have those people come back again.”