Thirty years ago, Houston was riding a boom — a boom fueled by the skyrocketing price of oil. About a million people had moved to the city in the 1970's. And more than 80 percent of local jobs were, in some way, tied to the oil industry. In the fall of 1981, Professor Stephen Klineberg was teaching a research methods class to sociology majors at Rice University. And that's when it occurred to him to create a new kind of local survey.
"(A) friend of mine had just started a survey organization. And we thought 'let's get the students involved in doing this survey of attitudes and perceptions in this incredible city in the midst of this tremendous boom with growing concerns about traffic and pollution and crime. A city with no planning, with no attention to anything. But come on down and make money — making money in a phenomenal way.'"
Klineberg says the survey was intended to just be a one-time snapshot of attitudes and perceptions. But a few months after he and his students completed the original survey in 1982, oil prices collapsed.
"And 100,000 jobs were lost in this booming city. And we said 'my God, we'd better do this survey again.' And that's the story. For 30 years now, my students and I have been taking a representative, random sample, asking people identical questions over the years — 'how do you see the world? What is happening in your life?' And we have sat back and watched the world change."
Klineberg says the recovery from the recession in the 1980's fundamentally reshaped Houston in two key ways. The old blue-collar path to success was replaced by jobs that required an advanced education. At the same time, a wave of immigration, a wave of immigration turned Houston into one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation. Klineberg says the survey also found people wanted a more attractive place to live. That led to downtown revitalization, efforts to clean the air, and the project to turn the bayou system into parks.
The survey has also caught the attention of other Sunbelt boomtowns. Klineberg says he's working with teams in Dallas and Atlanta to start similar annual surveys. He says that's no small undertaking.
"Because you gotta have the right kind of university connection. You've gotta be able to raise the moneys to do it successfully. It's getting harder to do surveys, in general, because people don't answer their telephones the way they used to. So it's a more expensive proposition. And the real challenge for people is to raise the moneys to do it and convince the people with money that this is something of real value."
But for Klineberg and Rice University, the money is on its way. Last fall, Houston philanthropists Rich and Nancy Kinder announced they would fund what will eventually be a $15 million endowment for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
"Our goal is to have Rice become one of the centers in the world that studies cities, and to have Houston become recognized as the exemplary city of the 21st century."
On Wednesday, Klineberg and his team will release the full report for this year's Houston Area Survey. We'll have a closer look at some of the results during Morning Edition Wednesday on KUHF.