Bright Lights, Big Cities: And Getting Bigger

One man’s guide to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio.


Of Houston, the nation’s third largest port and home of the world’s largest petrochemical complex-that soulless Los Angeles of the Gulf coast-there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Houston is sinking into the sea at the rate of four inches per year; the had news is that the rate of sinkage is far too slow to satisfy civilized men in love with beauty. The largest city in the South-and the sixth ranked city in the United States (estimated population: 1,386.860)-never has enacted a single commercial zoning law. Theoretically, one may raise pigs adjoining the Astrodome or sell Jiffy Tacos from a clapboard shack snuggled against the 714-foot majesty of One Shell Plaza. Only one of forty-four sewage treatment plants meets the minimal requirement of the Texas Water Quality Board. Much of the city stinks of malodorous oil by-products, of toxic carbon monoxide clouds laid down by traffic, of sulphurs and pulpwood, and of those special greasy, funky odors indigenous to the ghetto poor. The rich, of course, have their convenient residential zoning laws protected by deed covenants swearing never to raise hogs or sell Jiffy Tacos in a given community. West Houston River Oaks, the Rice University section has preserved a restful greenbelt pleasing to the eye, a great swath of trees and grasses which, when viewed from a downtown skyscraper, appears to be Central Park ten times over. These privileged enclaves, however, do not fall under the gaze of the incidental tourist. One is more likely to remember fake Tudor and baroque semi-mansions rising out of the coastal plain as far as thirty miles from the city, $90,000 homes astonishingly built cheek by jowl, looking like a Levittown for bankers who probably collect bullfight paintings superimposed on silk. Nor can one easily forget Pasadena, across the Ship Channel, the quintessential workingman’s town, with industrial wastes, bloody bucket bars, used car lots, and storm sewers which—confused by the land’s sinkage and tiltingnow run in the wrong direction and choke on themselves. Pasadena is white man’s country; in the bars one workman may say to a pal approaching the jukebox, “Hey, play one by the nigger”: that is his tribute to Charley Pride, the nation’s only black country-western recording star, and a Dallas resident. George Wallace does well on election days in Pasadena, as in neighboring Texas City and Baytown. High school athletes in these industrialized areas grow angry and feed their competitive motivations on the careless utterances of visiting opponents who remark on the ugly or gag at the stench.

Though one knows that Houston is, indeed, very rich and makes its cultural contributions—the general impression is that of a cluttered dime store, a garage sale gone wrong, a leaking sewer pipe. There are art galleries in Houston, good restaurants, people who write books as well as read them. On my recent visit, the folk singer Joan Baez, raising money for an international organization dedicated to ending political imprisonments and political torture, drew three thousand generous Houstonians on a cold, rainy night.

Even in all the urban tangle, the city offers Montrose, sometimes called “the strangest neighborhood east of the Pecos.”or “Houston’s Left Bank.” It has European-style restaurants and sidewalk cafes, many of which operate out of renovated turn-of-the-century homes. One of these. Prufrock’s. is the hangout for free-lance hippies, students, artists, writers, and college professors who play chess in front of a fireplace attended by the customers; T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is lettered along the top of three walls, and it is here that one University of Houston professor holds final examinations each year.

Since the days when O. Henry was a reporter for the Houston Post, and crafting his early short stories, Montrose has been the center of the creative community. It has gone from a once wealthy residential section to a peeling low-rent district, back to its present mixed-bag ambience where grand old retouched Victorian mansions exist beside jerry-built shacks. People who like it call it “cosmopolitan,” while those who disapprove find it “freaky.” Here one finds the Cuban exile community, a sizable homosexual population, a few striptease joints, good Mexican or Creole cafes, health food stores, Greek sailors eager to sample the menu at Zorba’s while their ships are in port, antique stores, boutiques, sidewalk artists -you name it. Though the accepted impression is that Houston is a whiskey-and-trombone town. Montrose alone contains elements of Manhattan’s Soho area, Boston’s “Combat Zone,” Washington’s Georgetown, and Chicago’s Old Town.

The neighboring San Jacinto Battlefield is in some places chest-high in water. Indeed, another hurricane like Carla, which a few years ago accomplished $350 million in damages though passing 100 miles to the southwest of Galveston, would (if blowing hell-bent through that island city and Houston) wipe out the huge LBJ Space Center and the only highway offering escape from Galveston, and place more than 1000 square miles of coastal Texas beneath the waves.


Houston is where it is and what it is because of its geographic posture near the coast, its history as an early Texas settlement, its early agriculture and later oil wealth, and its Ship Channel making it an important port. Dallas, however, is without rational explanation. In his book Dallas Public and Private, Warren Leslie wrote: “The truth is, there really isn’t any reason for Dallas. It sits in the middle of nowhere and nothing. The land around it is dry, black and unproductive; farmers do battle with it to exist. The only natural waterway is the Trinitx River which is, alternately, almost invisible or flooding to the danger point. . . . When the city was founded, the nearest railroad was hundreds of miles away. The oil derrick is unknown in Dallas and no gas, no sulphur has ever been found there.”

Somehow, Dallas attracted men determined to build a great city: go-getters and can-doers, men of ambitious fevers. In the 1870s, when the town had only 4000 people and seemed destined to go nowhere, it bribed one railroad company with $5000 to bend its tracks through Dallas; when a second railroad company refused a bribe, community leaders marched on the Texas Legislature and by hook or crook convinced that body to require by law that the railroad run through Dallas. By the early 1920s, the town had become headquarters for financial institutions and insurance companies. When Texas celebrated its centennial in 1936, Dallas aggressively attained designation as the official centennial site, even though no battles had been fought in Dallas, no treaties signed there, and visitors had few sights to see unless they admired paved streets and tall buildings. Today it is the third most important fashion center in the United States, bowing only to New York and Los Angeles. And its World Trade Center covers many acres.

But I never have liked the place. Admired its hustle, yes, especially in my younger days. Appreciated that it wasn’t an industrial wasteland, like Houston, and yet managed to grow and prosper in a more orderly fashion. But it seemed cold and impersonal when one visited, its people a little too smug and sure and conforming. By the early 1960s, its reputation as a hothed of right-wing extremists had soured me. I was embarrassed when an angry mob spat on and cursed Senator Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird in downtown Dallas (for his Democratic crime of running for Vice President), and again when street kooks shoved, hit, and heckled the visiting Adlai Stevenson. On hearing a TV flash that President Kennedy’s motorcade had been fired on there, I pounded a table and shouted: “Those goddamned Nazi bastards!” After the shock died down, I appreciated a dark joke: “I don’t think the Dallas police department is so bad look how quickly they caught Jack Ruby.”

Many say the city has mellowed; one cannot encounter a Dallas friend without being so assured. Doug Zable, a free-lance journalist, insists: “Really, it’s changed. People leave you alone now. There’s not all that pressure to conform. You can live any life-style you want hippie, young executive, swinging singles. Nobody challenges your political views just because they disagree, or how you dress or act. You can choose your culture, and lose yourself almost as in New York or any other city.” Certainly the city’s leadership for many years a closed oligarchy has attempted to erase the assassination image of the city; many individual Dallasites have undergone soul-searching since their hometown came to prominence as the most hated in America. I cannot forget that Dallas juries, however, continue to be among the hardest in a strict law-and-order state, showing small understanding of man’s limited time in handing down sentences of 1500 years . . . 1800 years . . . 2200 years; a former editor of The Iconoclast. an underground newspaper, is doing ten years and one day for being caught in the company of three or four joints of marihuana: the sophisticated jury knew the added one day would prohibit parole for the young radical.

Fort Worth

Give me, instead, the live-and-lel-live attitudes in neighboring Fort Worth. It remains a big ol’ country town, ambitious enough to get along but loose enough to leave you alone. Even its police department is tolerant enough to permit Mafioso types to settle their scores by gangland wars, saving the taxpayers money and themselves much grief. Fort Worth is the only large town in Texas where one’s friends— lawyers, politicians, writers, even businessmen— may be counted on, almost to a man, to drop whatever they are doing and go reveling should you call at 10 A.M. from an airport phone booth and suggest that it’s play time. Fort Worth’s night life may not be much more exciting than that of Indianapolis, but its wateringholes are friendly so long as one avoids whore bars on the Jacksboro Highway, where reign greed and macho values, 1 like the city’s flawed old neighborhoods with their cracked sidewalks, great trees, and casual airs. People in Cowtown appear happy; they grin and clap you on the back as if they mean it; their laughter has a merry ring. They can even laugh at themselves. Sheridan Taylor, a lawyer, tells of taking visiting friends or clients to view a flowing series of waterfalls—some of them undergroundestablished as part of the recent inner-city face-lifting, and highly advertised for its tourism value: “And. sonofabitch, half the time they don’t even have the water on; all you see is this big mess of concrete.” Taylor enjoys the community joke; he would never think of raising hell with city hall: live and let live. On a crisp day last fall I heard one Old Grad of TCU say to another, “Hey, Don, I slept plumb through the damn football game. How’d the ol’ Horned Frogs do?” Lost to Texas, he was told. 81 to 16. Now, you must understand that Texas football continues to be serious business indeed; many continue to identify with Baylor or SMU or Texas A&M well into their dotage, bank presidents and big ranchers and former beauty queens somehow managing to feel humiliated should their colors suffer even a one-point defeat. But. popping open a beer can, the TCU Old Grad said cheerfully, “Well, by God-looks like we finally got our of-fense going.” Everybody laughed; soon four or five agreed to take off on Wednesday for a little midweek fishing, and nobody consulted an appointments calendar. As far as cities go, Fort Worth has a good feel.

Austin, El Paso and San Antonio

Give me Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, and San Antonio in that order. For all their growths, changes, and upheavals, these retain vestiges of individual character; one is not so likely to awaken in them not knowing whether one is in Cleveland, Atlanta, or Oshkosh. Their people, if one may risk the vagaries of generality, seem at home with themselves in that special way, signaling a sense of community and a shared culture. They have not yet burst their seamsthough San Antonio threatens to, and the Fort Worth-Dallas metropolitan area is some 400,000 people larger than Houston’s—or gone beyond that invisible border of place, time, and caring, into that inevitable, regionless tomorrow when all of America will be a paved parking lot with coast-tocoast people standing on each other’s feet, eating Jiffy Tacos, probably, and paying coin machines in exchange for the right to answer nature’s call.

Austin is blessed with a hard core of citizens, growing in awareness, who may have decided, though a bit tardily, that mindless growth isn’t worth it; the ecology-conscious have begun to challenge the “builders” who must, of course, first destroy. West Austin, with some of the finer homes and parks, is threatened by a new freeway nobody but the city council seems to want; law suits and restraining orders are in the works. People there, and in the Hill Country area, seem to have put the brakes on a Pentagon plan to establish some giant subterranean nuclear plant; the University of Texas has decided to limit its Austin campus student population to 46,000; serious citizens are seeking ways and means to discourage Austin’s growth beyond a half-million. They’ll lose, in the end, but here’s a loud cheer for the slowing processes. With its academic community, political intrigue, artists and writers colony, and surrounding hills and streams, Austin makes good music to my ear.

El Paso, now at 350,000, is the westernmost of Texas cities; its obvious influences come from Mexico and its newspaper editorials often grouse that the city is so isolated from the rest of Texas. and so ignored by its state government, that perhaps it should secede and join New Mexico. There is a joyful rawness to FI Paso affairs: a prominent newspaper editor once smacked a prominent county judge with a whiskey bottle in the most public of circumstances; its governmental units often provide as much fun and corruption as Newark or Chicago; its leftists and rightists stage gleeful blood battles, as do its competing newspapers. Malcolm McGregor, a lawyer and former state representative, who lives in a great house full of dark oak paneling and stained glass on a hill affording a view of Juarez, Mexico across the Rio Grande-once said, “If Jesus Christ and a redassed baboon ran against each other in this town, the El Paso Herald-Post would back one candidate and the El Paso Times another. And it wouldn’t make much difference to them which one was their candidate: they’d go all out for him.”

In El Paso one also enjoys the green, fertile, irrigated valley farms; the rugged rocky hills providing a city backdrop; roller-coaster streets swooping up and down in imitation of San Francisco, and a swashbuckling, frontier attitude. Though adjacent to the oldest settlement in Texas Ysleta, the first Spanish mission it has the good wild odor of the untamed and a sense of adventure, ft is not, of course, the perfect city: its traffic snarls, showy shopping centers, and peas-in-a-pod housing developments intrude; South El Paso, where the poorer Mexicans live, is as scabby and discouraging as anything you’ll find in the ghettos of Washington or Trenton; a section called “Smeltertown” gives off noxious, sulphuric, industrial odors. Ideologically it is split, the extremes being composed of retired military officers, large in community business affairs, and young Chicanos weary of a system ignoring their needs and leaving them to rot: there is much exploitation of “wetback” labor in the fields, and of Mexican women who work for shameful wages as domestics or factory robots making boots, slacks, or widgets.

San Antonio knows this same split between the Haves and Have-Nots; it is a characteristic common to Mexico, which virtually has no middle class. San Antonio, of course, has. but in the wealthy or the poor sections it’s difficult to recall them. The “old rich” in San Antonio live graciously, almost like feudal barons, with their cheap help and well-barbered estates. These are people who dress for dinner; they parade in their finery to each other’s lavish house parties during holidayseasons. Close and clannish, they tend to intermarry; a visitor will encounter and re-encounter the same faces on his party rounds. More than most closed societies, it seems to me, San Antonio’s leading lights welcome the stranger so long as he comes recommended from one of their own.

The city has dressed itself up during the past decade; one may loll under shady trees at riverfront cafés, watching paddle boats pass through the heart of downtown, lulled by good wines and mariachi music to the point of forgetting wretched slums not all that far distant. Brackenridge Park has for years been threatened by a new freeway, but survives. I like about San Antonio its graceful old Minger Hotel, out of another time. Not all that much of the past is preserved, however; even the Alamo has been much doctored and must make do with refurbished legends—a huge department store now stands where much of the blood was spilled. Increasingly—as with the Alamo itself—I find San Antonio’s legend more attractive than its reality. It recently has known some of the bloodier drug wars in the Southwest, it hosts the usual ugly commercial tangles, and its officials are slow in answering the needs of its poor Mexiean-Americans. There is an unattractive paternalism toward them, a sense that they are somehow “different” and may be due benign neglect: an aged former mayor embarrassed the city a few years ago by making the network news with his declaration to the effect that “they” arc happy people who sing and dance a great deal and don’t have much ambition. San Antonio has a military tradition and a military society, making it a bit stiff-necked and standoffish unless one is well connected. Perhaps it covets money and power and continued wild growth more than my other favorites. □