Easily considered one of the staunchest proponents of Houston and its history, James Glassman is taking his hometown love to another level with a comprehensive index of the people, places, dates and terms that define this city.
Glassman is the founder of Houstorian, an education and advocacy group "committed to telling the story of Houston, preserving its cultural and architectural history, and supporting the landmarks that make Houston fun and unique." Whether it's with his "Today in Houston History" Tweets, the T-shirts he designs that feature iconic images of all things Houston or his newly released book, The Houstorian Dictionary: An Insider's Index to Houston, Glassman promotes the Bayou City with every chance he gets.
Released earlier this month, Glassman's new "dictionary" is both entertaining and informational, containing an extremely comprehensive index of definitions ranging from downtown bar La Carafe ("widely considered to be Houston's oldest commercial building") and the Azalea Trail ("annual late-April home and garden tour hosted by the River Oaks Garden Club") to "Screwston" ("Houston nickname from fans of local hip-hop act DJ Screw") and late TV personality Marvin Zindler ("known for his white suit, blue-lensed glasses, cosmetic surgery and signature line, 'Slime in the ice machine'"). CultureMap has an entry of its own, too.
In light of his recent book release, Glassman spoke with CultureMap about his definitions, "cultural amnesia" and what it means to be a Houstonian.
CultureMap: How did you compile all this information about Houston’s history?
James Glassman: Little by little. It started when I joined Twitter. I thought I could do a definition every day, but that's hard to do with so few characters. Then I thought I could do a Houston history tweet of the day. I use my iCalendar to write it down and have it repeat every year. I got sort of compulsive about it and I wanted to fill up my calendar to have something every day. It took about two years to get every single day covered. I'd be reading books and find a date that this had the groundbreaking or when they decided to annex this part of town and it just grew.
I kept a list of terms, people, slang, events, dishes, movies, books and songs about Houston. I wrote them down and started writing definitions. For example, my entry on The Menil Collection — well, now I have to talk about Dominique de Menil. Now I need to talk about Schlumberger, and then I need to talk about oil and gas. So you can see how it grows. Each of those get their own entry.
CM: Do you feel like Houstonians are in touch with the city’s history?
JG: Well, Houston has a history problem and I want to fix it. That's why I founded Houstorian. It was to cure this sort of cultural amnesia that we have. Steven Fox, the author of the Houston Architectural Guide, first coined that term in relation to Houston — that we have amnesia, that we forget our past. But I think we can fix it. I think we've grown dramatically as a city in the past 15 years and there's a greater respect for our history and telling the story of Houston.
It's why I'm doing this project of mine, which is telling the story of Houston and getting people to be more boastful about the city. Even if you live in Cy-Fair, you can be proud of Houston. This is hopefully an expansive idea that includes everybody, all the commuters and suburbanites.
CM: What is something you especially love about Houston?
JG: A term I love is "misfit-tinkerer" — all the misfit-tinkerers that come out of Houston. Whether it's Howard Hughes, who was never much of a Houstonian but he's from Houston and he's about the most misfit-tinkerer who ever was, or even someone more conventional like Wes Anderson. He's a very Houston guy.
This city is filled with people like that. We do it our own way. When you look at the things that we have, like the Art Car Parade or even the Astrodome — what a weird idea it was at the time to build that. But that was a Houston idea, we invented indoor baseball. There are a lot of really neat ideas that have come out of Houston. I love bragging about that.
CM: What does being a Houstonian mean to you?
JG: That's an impossible question to answer because there're so many different ways to be a Houstonian, there's not a perfect one. I think it comes with a willingness to embrace the "misfit-tinkerer." We celebrate the Art Car Parade. Even the Rodeo is sort of a weird thing. You know, we aren’t a cowtown but we invented this stereotypic "Texan" sort of party. You can't find anyone alive who can remember Houston without the Rodeo, it's over 75 years old now. It's part of who we are, even if we aren't much of a cowtown to begin with.
We're scientists and experimenters, we've got the oil and gas industry, the energy industry, we've got the Medical Center, we've got this great arts culture. We have this enthusiasm for doing it our own way.
There's no such thing as a typical Houstonian. I say I'm a fifth-generation Houstonian, which is true, but I sometimes hesitate to say that because Houston's about what you do when you get here, not how long you've been here. They talk about that in old cities like New York and Savannah, but people don't really talk like that in Houston, we don't value how long you've been here, we value what you do when you're here and how you make your mark here. Look at Mattress Mack. He's not from Houston, but can you imagine Houston without him?