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The Newcomers

With more jobs than other cities—and cultural and culinary cool putting the world on notice—H-Town is luring new professionals and entrepreneurs by the thousands. Meet 12 of those helping make Houston go boom!

Mike Oster

Kevin Messenger

Outsiders scoffed in July, when Forbes named Houston the nation’s coolest city, beating out usual suspects like New York and garnering international attention. “From the outside, people have this dated image that it’s cow and Bush country, and that it’s fat, hot and ugly,” says Rice sociology prof and researcher Stephen Klineberg. “Once on the inside, people find that it’s a wonderful place.”

Forbes considered many factors in its ranking, including a youthful median age of 32.9, and a low unemployment rate—a remarkable 5.8 percent as of November. Houston rose to the top with its vast cultural and entertainment options, enviable diversity, number of indie restaurants and, perhaps most significantly, the availability of good jobs for young professionals eager to relocate to enjoy it all.

“We’ve been adding jobs for three years, 252,700 of them since January 2010,” says Patrick Jankowski of the Greater Houston Partnership, estimating more than 95,000 last year alone. “We’re seeing growth in just about every industry.” It was Houston’s strong showing in fields as diverse as hospitality, health care, education, foreign trade and, increasingly, construction that merited its Brookings Institution distinction as the continent’s fastest-growing metropolitan economy.

And with the ample employment opportunities come transplants. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the metro area gained 110,000 new residents between July 2010 and July 2011, which Jankowski says means greater Houston is on pace to grow by more than half a million over the next five years; the city proper alone will add 225,000, or roughly the entire population of Baton Rouge.

So Houston—with its jobs story and newly renowned cultural and culinary scenes, not to mention its cost of living well below the national average—has become a magnet for the best and the brightest around the globe. People like the 12 featured in this photographic portfolio, shot on location at West Ave. Say hello to a dozen daring newcomers who have made the leap and moved here within the last two years, and see the changing face of the coolest city in America.

Model Citizen

After graduating Santa Barbara’s Antioch University, Mike Oster, now 25, was all over the map,  splitting time between L.A., where he was modeling, and Seattle, where he helped market snowboards—all while working to become a firefighter. But something was missing. And someone, then ex-girlfriend Kelli Durham, a photographer. Having stayed friends since college, Oster found his interest piqued, not only in reuniting with Durham but also in checking out her hometown of Houston. “Kelli had so many job opportunities,” he says, “and she was so happy living here.” He came in June. “Houston is not what I expected,” he says. “It’s way more urban than I thought it would be, like L.A. with its big-city feel, highways and cultural diversity, but at half the cost. And I love how big football is here!” The 6-foot-2 Oster, whose modeling credits include a Bruce Weber ad campaign for Abercrombie, signed with the Neal Hamil agency here and has had twice as many bookings as out West. He also locked a day job in marketing for Edible Earth Resources, a home-gardening support firm. “Houston also has the third-largest fire department in the country, so my firefighting opportunities have increased significantly, too.” And about that rekindled romance? Oster and Durham will wed next month. 

Soldier of Fortune

An Akron, Ohio, transplant and former sergeant in the National Guard, Kevin Messenger relocated for a consulting job and dealt with some culture shock when he first moved to steamy summertime Houston. Maybe that’s because he arrived in August 2011 on the hottest day of the year—109 degrees. But the 29-year-old bachelor has since fallen for the city. “The people down here are always moving forward, but seem to find time to enjoy life along the way,” he says. “Everyone seems to have more passion in Houston, and there are more attractive people in Houston compared to my hometown!” Since leaving the struggling workforce in his Great Lakes city—Messenger lost his job with an independent film and photography studio there—the 6-foot-2 Montrose resident has found a niche as a territory manager for Ecolab, a global company that specializes in clean water and safe-food technologies. His clients are in the health-care industry and he travels “from Austin to Dallas and Baton Rouge each month,” he says. “My position is a cross between a field chemist, engineer and consultant.” When Messenger isn’t on the road or working, he explores the museums and parks and enjoys weekend trips to Galveston. “Houston has so much to do and see, and I’m just getting started.”

Click here to read more of "The Newcomers" in Houston's digital edition!