The way Houstonians talk about Houston has changed since 2007. Among many of those I know, there’s a more familial affection these days for Houston’s unique characteristics. We rave about the Vietnamese crawfish; we rail about the intractable flooding problems; we display the shape of the city’s 6-way central freeway junction on T-shirts and tattoos. Meanwhile, the mainstream conversations about how to move our sprawling city forward are getting more and more interesting.
Swamplot can’t take credit for all of these changes, of course, but the website unquestionably helped shift those conversations during its 12-year run (which ended in March of this year). As one of five editors to have taken a turn driving the blog over that period (and, until very recently, a lifelong Houstonian), I got a direct view of what Swamplot meant to its most dedicated readers and the way it influenced the city’s news coverage. When I assumed editorial duties there, most of our readers didn’t seem to realize that the website was run by a skeletal staff coordinated by only a single full-time employee. We nonetheless published between six and 10 posts daily — sometimes responding within minutes of an event — and we were regularly cited by major publications across the city. The blog was a tiny, fast-paced platform that cast an enormous shadow.
Twelve years ago, internet news was still fairly new. Experimental multimedia formats and websites like Gawker were quickly making earlier static models of online journalism obsolete. Neighborhood social media hubs like NextDoor were still just a sketch on a California whiteboard. And a new-ish blog called Curbed was attracting attention for its hyperlocal reporting on developments in New York and a few other cities.
Houston, however, wasn’t the kind of place that Curbed could have easily caught the rhythm of. Despite being the fourth largest city in the country, Houston didn’t have much of an established national identity, compared to the likes of Chicago and L.A. Perhaps the name Houston carried with it vague impressions of an asphalt-laced oil town, the staticky voice of Mission Control emanating from somewhere between a Wild West desert and Hurricane Alley. Out-of-state bands on tour still skipped straight from Austin to New Orleans, to my endless teenage chagrin.
Swamplot founder Larry Albert — a journalist-turned-architect with an eye for both fields — arrived in Houston in 1993 to find a landscape of wild and fascinating contradictions. Expansions to Houston’s jammed freeways fueled cycles of free-for-all suburban housing development (which made congestion problems even worse). Floodwaters rose faster and higher as more concrete was poured into wetlands, bayous, and coastal prairies (sometimes in an attempt to reduce that flooding). World-class medical institutions cured cancer a few miles from the Ship Channel and refinery districts (arguably both the city’s economic heart and its highest-profile cancer contributor.)
Houston was also growing in the feverish, unscrutinized manner characteristic of both the pre-Recession real estate bubble and the city’s own laissez-faire culture. Poorly built townhomes and stucco McMansions went up as fast as older bungalows and historic structures were torn down. Investors snapped up properties in momentarily-hot neighborhoods, fueling the bubble that was about to burst. All the while, thousands of newcomers arrived annually, many having no idea what kind of place they were landing in.
Albert saw an opportunity to shine light on this wealth of oddities, using his dual professional background and drawing inspiration from the formats developed by Gawker and Curbed. Swamplot launched in September 2007 when Albert published a cache of short, casual posts under the carefully guarded pen name Gus Allen — a low-key nod to one of the real estate brothers whose heavily embellished 1830s marketing materials helped found the city.
The goal was simple, and stayed constant over the years, even as the pace of publication picked up: highlight the city’s absurdities, major and minor. Albert’s driving vision (and, um, exacting style standards) kept Swamplot’s voice remarkably consistent, even after the first new editor (Allyn West) took the reins around early 2013. (After I took them in late 2015, Albert and I celebrated the first time I was referred to as “Allyn” by a commenter, declaring it a sign of successful integration into the voice.)
Swamplot’s topics ranged in scale from the fight to demolish the Astrodome, to the seasonal threatening signage warding off would-be collectors from fruit trees in a West University yard. Geographically, the stories were as central as the emptied family crypt beneath downtown’s Franklin Street Bridge, and as far-flung as the feral hog food-banking operation taking place near the outermost of Houston’s Outer Loops.
The site picked up a reputation for snark, but irreverence would be a more accurate descriptor. The site tried very hard simply to do the opposite of what marketers do. Words like iconic, luxurious, and beloved were banned — except when they lent comic flavor. The quasi-annual Swamplot Awards for Houston Real Estate celebrated reader-selected champions in categories like “Favorite Houston Design Cliché” and “Special Achievement in Parking.” If we spotted an upscaled replacement of a landmark local lunch counter in the architectural renderings for an anti-gentrification think tank in Third Ward, we pointed it out. If the land beneath a planned townhouse farm was a former Superfund site, that fact went in our headline.
Before long, Swamplot developed a cult following for its meticulous — and, yes, sometimes ridiculous — documentation of details that no one else would have covered (the appearance of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license request sign, for example, or those weeks of updates on the disassembly of Louisiana Street’s secret, rotting — haunted? — pecan tree). The engaged readership eventually became Swamplot’s extended eyes and ears, acting as the network of reporters Swamplot didn’t have and fueling the site’s coverage with tons of submitted photos, tips, rumors, anecdotes, questions — and sheer enthusiasm.
Just as important, those same tipsters and readers added commentary to each article that vastly expanded the value of the published pieces. At its height, the site regularly drew between 75 and 140 thousand unique monthly views, and a thoughtfully engaged community of thousands furthered Swamplot’s reach. Readers added historical context, insider knowledge, rants from across the political spectrum, and hilarious takes on whatever was in the spotlight.
At the top of its form, Swamplot was a curator, providing a lens and amplifying conversations. And the site’s quick-hit format — most posts were only 100-250 words — masked a larger purpose: Through snapshots of individual changes to the built environment, Swamplot was telling larger stories about the trajectory of Houston. Individual pieces wove into broader narratives that long-time readers would notice and call out — the impact of the oil crash; the shifts in land values; flood after flood after flood.
I think of the archive now as a sort of forest, assembled from uncomfortably intimate portraits of leaves. It’s not yet clear how that archive will be preserved, or how directly what Swamplot tried to do will be carried on by others. Likely the next iteration will come in a format that better fits a media world that has moved far beyond 2007. But Houston becomes better when hard lights are shined on the weird realities that shape its past and will define its future. And Houstonians can’t help direct that future by pretending our city is anywhere but where, and what, it is. If Swamplot was successful in helping Houstonians recognize that, then it served its purpose.
The cessation of that function would be a loss for the city. But I suspect Swamplot leaves behind a Houston better equipped, and more eager than ever, to speak for itself.
Christine Gerbode recently graduated from Duke University with a master’s in environmental management. She is a former editor at Swamplot.