This pandemic year has left many shaken, walking wounded with a profound sense of loss, despair, and grief. Factor in the broiling summer of racial tension after the George Floyd murder, plus the recent political polarization, and it all seems too much to bear.
But Houstonians are nothing if not resilient. To wit: We roll our eyes at tropical storms, smirk at hurricanes, and patiently endure floods. When crisis strikes — as it does — we hunker down, and step up to help our neighbors. This city teaches us to endure hardships, nuisances, and even disasters with grace, aplomb, and even humor.
With that in mind, we look back at the defining events for our fair city in 2020. The tragedy of this hellish year has had its day. Now, we present Houston’s greatest moments.
The George Floyd march in downtown
When longtime Houstonian George Floyd died while in police custody in June, Houstonians responded not with violence, but with peace. Houston rap legend Bun B teamed up with rapper Trae the Truth to organize a massive downtown march in honor of Floyd.
“We want to recognize his humanity and try to make sure dignity is bestowed upon his name and legacy,” Bun B told CultureMap, “...and we’re going to show the world that Houston can lead the charge in making a change.”
Indeed, Houston led the charge and set a global example. The march was notable in national news and media as there was no violence or arrest during the afternoon event.
Celebrities such as Joel Osteen and Deshaun Watson joined some 60,000 marchers for a dignified, but powerful demonstration. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo even knelt with protestors in a show of solidarity.
“The time for fear is over,” summed up Trae the Truth. “We’re standing for something.”
That something, it turned out, was unity.
Houston restaurants reopen during the pandemic
Houston is a restaurant city — perhaps the greatest showcase of 21st century dining in the nation. The global pandemic and subsequent shutdown wreaked havoc on our local eateries and establishments, some of which closed permanently.
Thankfully, restaurants were given the green light to reopen on May 1 by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Quickly, diners at restaurants such as Coppa (pictured) met plexiglas partitions, vacant valet stations, limited seating, touchless menus, and masked employees.
But, restaurants were back, and Houston was once again dining out.
The SpaceX launch
Just days after news of George Floyd’s murder spread globally, Houston was once again in the interanational spotlight.
Local astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley — known lovingly here as Bob and Doug — blasted off on Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, a Falcon 9 rocket, on May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The launch, initially slated for March 27, was scrapped due to weather conditions and flight window concerns, but the ensuing liftoff was positively joyous, especially at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control.
In a time of pandemic turmoil and racial strife, the launch was pure glee for millions across the planet.
Memorial Park opens its Eastern Glades
Houston’s beloved Memorial Park is in the midst of a renaissance. Thanks to a $70 million catalyst gift aimed to accelerate the delivery of 10 years’ worth of Master Plan projects by the Kinder Foundation, the city’s beloved green space has is undergoing unprecedented development.
On July 31, the park opened with its $35 million project including a lake, boardwalks, and re-established pedestrian entries.
Not long after, work began on the game-changing Land Bridge, meant to provide safe park passage for humans and animals over Memorial Drive. A new golf course will host the Houston Open in 2021.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston unveils the Rich and Nancy Kinder Building
Perhaps the most positive local arts and culture story of the year was the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s stunning new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in November.
Named for Houston’s biggest benefactors, the state-of-the-art structure — standing at 237,000 square feet — completed a decade-long expansion and enhancement of the museum’s Susan and Faye S. Sarofim Campus.
Viewers clamored to the building to marvel at the new works, brilliantly lighted tunnels, and myriad selfie spots.
Galas go on
Few cities in the world are as culturally and socially philanthropic as Houston. But the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns were cruel and abrupt ends to what promised to be a bustling social season.
Many organizations opted for virtual affairs, urging attendees to don their finest formalwear at home and dine on specially delivered gourmet meal kits that replicated a fine dining experience.
Generous locals eagerly donated, and society queen Lynn Wyatt even emerged to co-chair the Razzle Dazzle Luncheon.
Standouts included the Red Hot Gala, bravely chaired by Alan and Elizabeth Stein, a super-safe, in-person event honoring Houston’s firefighters.
Houston showcases reality TV stars
Completely apropos for the most diverse city in the nation, Houston’s newest reality stars hail from culturally diverse backgrounds.
In July, viewers fell for Houston’s Aparna Shewakramani, a 34-year old attorney and entrepreneur whose real talk, wide-eye reactions, and smirks stole the show in Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking.
While millions lauded Shewakramani for her refreshingly honest takes, some saw her as mean-spirited. “There will always be trolls out there, but I don’t pay heed to them,” she told CultureMap. “I could read their comments or I could sleep for four to five hours a night. I’d prefer to sleep.”
Later, in December, HBO Max debuted House of Ho, starring a wealthy Vietnamese Houston family.
The show features local landmarks and is a sharp examination of the immigrant — especially Vietnamese — experience: “At the very least, the show will prove that not all Vietnamese are frugal or have small aims. Some of us do get to a point where we live in River Oaks and are driven in Bentleys,” a local expert told CultureMap.
Bill O’Brien is fired
Let’s be clear: No one celebrates the loss of income for anyone during a global pandemic.
However, watching the Houston Texans head coach and general manager display such abject incompetence at work while deriving a hefty paycheck was furiously troubling for many Houston Texans fans — especially those unemployed due to COVID shutdowns.
“How does this guy get a paycheck but I don’t?” became a common cry for fans, while national media and football pundits called O’Brien “staggeringly incompetent.”
The last straw was team's 0-4 start, though some might point to the still-head-scratching trade of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins for little in return. In a city famous for football, this bad news for O’Brien in October was welcome news for many.
Dave Chappelle surprises Houston
If ever Houstonians needed a laugh, it was in 2020. To the rescue came comic legend Dave Chappelle, who has long professed a love for the Bayou City.
Known for popping up on small, local stages to try out material, Chappelle stopped by Rudyard’s in 2019, then added bigger shows at House of Blues.
He returned in November 2020 for three wildly buzzy, socially distanced performances. The comedian even made sure to stop by the beloved Turkey Leg Hut between shows.
Soon after the Houston stops, Netflix pulled Chappelle’s Show from its streaming platform due to Chappelle’s Houston rant that he later posted on Instagram.
David Chang wins $1 million for Southern Smoke
In late November, CultureMap was the first to report that celebrity chef David Chang made history — for a Houston cause.
The chef — and founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire — became the first celebrity in the 20-year history of Who Wants to be a Millionaire to win the $1 million prize. The question? Chang correctly identified that Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have electricity in the White House.
The chef’s noble efforts benefitted the Southern Smoke Foundation, the nonprofit started by Houston chef Chris Shepherd that provides cash assistance to restaurant workers in crisis.
“This couldn’t have come at a better time," Shepherd told CultureMap. “Hopefully people will see it and go, ‘what is Southern Smoke? How can I help out?’”
Houston hospitals welcome the COVID-19 vaccine
Good news regarding the pandemic came to the nation's best medical city in two doses in December.
MD Anderson Cancer Center was among the first sites in the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of a national rollout on December 14.
The next day, six other Houston-area hospitals received the inoculation. Valiant health care and front-line workers received the vaccine first; the general public is now receiving injections.
Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in a press conference that getting vaccinated is helpful to both individuals and their communities:
“The thing about everyone pitching in, do it for yourself because it will help protect you, but when you get the herd immunity it will help protect people who are unable medically to get the vaccine.”