Houston was founded on August 30, 1836 by brothers Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen on land near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The city was incorporated on June 5, 1837 and named after then-President of the Republic of Texas—former General Sam Houston—who had commanded at the Battle of San Jacinto, which took place 25 miles (40 km) east of where the city was established. The burgeoning port and railroad industry, combined with oil discovery in 1901, has induced continual surges in the city's population. In the mid-twentieth century, Houston became the home of the Texas Medical Center—the world's largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions—and NASA's Johnson Space Center, where the Mission Control Center is located.
Rated as a beta world city, Houston's economy has a broad industrial base in the energy, manufacturing, aeronautics, transportation, and health care sectors and is a leading center for building oilfield equipment; only New York City is home to more Fortune 500 headquarters in the city limits. The Port of Houston ranks first in the United States in international waterborne tonnage handled and second in total cargo tonnage handled. The city has a multicultural population with a large and growing international community. It is home to many cultural institutions and exhibits—attracting more than 7 million visitors a year to the Houston Museum District. Houston has an active visual and performing arts scene in the Theater District and is one of few U.S. cities that offer year-round resident companies in all major performing arts.
Houston is a diverse and international city, in part because of its many academic institutions and strong industries. Over 90 languages are spoken in the city. Houston has among the youngest populations in the nation, partly due to an influx of immigrants into Texas. The city has the third-largest Hispanic and third-largest Mexican American population in the United States. An estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants reside in the Greater Houston area. Houston has one of the largest communities of Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans in the United States. The Nigerian community in Houston, estimated to be over 2 percent of the city's population, is the largest in the United States.
According to the 2007 U.S. Census estimates, Houston's population was 55 percent White (28 percent non-Hispanic-White), 24.7 percent Black or African American, 0.6 percent American Indian and Alaska native, 5.5 percent Asian, 0.1 percent native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, 15.2 percent some other race, 1.1 percent two or more races, 41.7 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race (mostly Mexican).
As of the census of 2000, there were 1,953,631 people and the population density was 3,371.7 people per square mile (1,301.8/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 49.27 percent White, 25.31 percent Black, 5.31 percent Asian, 0.44 percent American Indian, 0.06 percent Pacific Islander, 16.46 percent from some other race, and 3.15 percent from two or more races. Persons of Hispanic origin—who may be of any race—accounted for 37 percent of the population while non-Hispanic whites made up 30.8 percent.
Houston has a large population of immigrants from Asia, including the largest Vietnamese-American population in Texas and third-largest in the United States, with 85,000 people in 2006. Some parts of the city with high populations of Vietnamese and Chinese residents have Chinese and Vietnamese street signs, in addition to English ones. Houston has two Chinatowns: the original located in Downtown, and the more recent one north of Bellaire Boulevard in the southwest area of the city. The city has a Little Saigon in Midtown and Vietnamese businesses located in the southwest Houston Chinatown. A "Little India" community referred to as the "Harwin District" exists along Hillcroft.
Houston has a large gay community concentrated primarily in Montrose, Neartown and Houston Heights. It is estimated that the Houston metropolitan area has the twelfth-largest number of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals in the United States.
Houston's freeway system is made up of 739.3 miles (1,189.8 km) of freeways and expressways in a ten-county metropolitan area. Its highway system uses a hub-and-spoke freeway structure serviced by multiple loops. The innermost loop is Interstate 610, which encircles downtown, the medical center, and many core neighborhoods with around a 10-mile (16 km) diameter. Beltway 8 and its freeway core, the Sam Houston Tollway, form the middle loop at a diameter of roughly 25 miles (40 km). A proposed highway project, State Highway 99 (The Grand Parkway), would form a third loop outside of Houston. Currently, only two out of eleven segments of State Highway 99 have been completed.
Houston also lies along the route of the proposed Interstate 69 NAFTA superhighway that would link Canada, the U.S. industrial Midwest, Texas, and Mexico. Other spoke freeways either planned or under construction include the Fort Bend Parkway, Hardy Toll Road, Crosby Freeway, and the future Alvin Freeway.
Houston's freeway system is monitored by Houston TranStar—a partnership of four government agencies that are responsible for providing transportation and emergency management services to the region. Houston TranStar was the first center in the nation to combine transportation and emergency management centers, and the first to bring four agencies (Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Texas, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas and the City of Houston) together to share their resources.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, or METRO, provides public transportation in the form of buses, light rail, and lift vans. METRO's various forms of public transportation still do not connect many of the suburbs to the greater city.
METRO began light rail service on January 1, 2004 with the inaugural track ("Red Line") running about 8 miles (13 km) from the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD), which traverses through the Texas Medical Center and terminates at Reliant Park. METRO is currently in the design phase of a 10-year expansion plan that will add five more lines to the existing system.
Amtrak, the national rail passenger system, provides service to Houston via the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles–New Orleans), which stops at a train station on the north side of the downtown area. The station saw 14,891 boardings and alightings in fiscal year 2008.
Houston is served by two commercial airports, serving 52 million passengers in 2007. The larger is George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), the eighth-busiest in the United States for total passengers, and sixteenth-busiest worldwide. Bush Intercontinental currently ranks third in the United States for non-stop domestic and international service with 182 destinations. In 2006, the United States Department of Transportation named George Bush Intercontinental Airport the fastest-growing of the top ten airports in the United States. Houston is the headquarters of Continental Airlines and Bush Intercontinental is Continental Airlines' largest hub. The airline offers more than 700 daily departures from Houston. In early 2007, Bush Intercontinental Airport was named a model "port of entry" for international travelers by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center stands on the George Bush Intercontinental Airport grounds.
The second-largest commercial airport in Houston is William P. Hobby Airport (named Houston International Airport until 1967). The airport operates primarily small to medium-haul flights and is the only airport in Houston served by Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Houston's aviation history is showcased in the 1940 Air Terminal Museum located in the old terminal building on the west side of Hobby Airport. The airport has been recognized with two awards for being one of the top five performing airports in the world and for customer service by Airports Council International.
Houston's third municipal airport is Ellington Airport (a former U.S. Air Force base) that is used by military, government, NASA, and general aviation sectors.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the state of Texas selected the "Houston Airport System as Airport of the Year" for 2005, largely because of its multi-year, $3.1 billion airport improvement program for both major airports in Houston.