A Tale of Six Cities

Forty years of urban Texas, as told through the archives of Texas Monthly.

February 2013By Comments

A steady stream of books about Texas is published every year, yet to date no one has written a history of the transformations that our cities have undergone in the past forty years. But perhaps no one needs to. That history can already be found in the archives of this magazine. Looking through the first 480 issues of Texas Monthly in chronological order, one can witness the profound shifts of the past four decades in vivid detail. In the early years Austin and San Antonio were portrayed as sleepy hamlets that occasionally roused themselves to argue about Barton Springs and the Alamo; in later issues they emerge as world-class boomtowns. Over time, Dallas and Houston go through the predictable expansions and contractions of the banking and oil industries and find themselves transfigured into international cultural centers and unlikely bastions of liberalism. Fort Worth and El Paso—both of which have received less coverage in our pages than they deserve—vie, year after year, to hold their own with the state’s more famous metropolises. Neither has quite pulled that off yet. But as the following selection from our archives demonstrates, no one ever got rich betting against a Texas city.

The First Decade (1973–1982)

The boom begins, for some.

In early 1973 publisher Michael R. Levy, editor William Broyles, and eight staffers launched Texas Monthly in a small office near Guadalupe and Fifteenth streets in downtown Austin. Many were skeptical that the state could support it, but by the end of the year paid circulation stood at a respectable 40,000.

Our orientation will be towards the city dwellers; we’re an urban state now, with three of the ten largest cities in the country (sixth, eighth, and ninth). Texas Monthly is specifically for the increasingly large numbers of urban-urbane Texans.

Michael R. Levy, From the Publisher, February 1973

As remarkable as [Willie] Nelson’s act that night [at the Armadillo World Headquarters] was his audience. While freaks in gingham gowns and cowboy boots sashayed like they invented country music, remnants of Willie’s old audiences had themselves a time too.

Jan Reid and Don Roth, “The Coming of Redneck Hip,” November 1973

[Leon] Jaworski surveys his [law] firm as a benign father might contemplate his happy family. “I have never seen a team work together like these boys do,” he beams. . . . “We’ve got men going all over the world,” says the man who began his career when Houston was just another provincial city never dreaming that it might one day sit in the seats of the mighty.

Griffin Smith Jr., “Empires of Paper,” November 1973

Dallas–Fort Worth boosters are convinced that the [new Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport] will mean as much, if not more, to their region as the ship channel has meant to Houston. They compare 20th-century Dallas to 19th-century Chicago. As the 19th century moved by rail, so the railroads meeting in Chicago made it a world center. The 20th and—who knows?—the 21st centuries are going to move by air. Air routes meeting in Dallas–Fort Worth should, the reasoning goes, make that area a world center in its turn.

William Broyles, “Airport!” December 1973

To appreciate the stark desert beauty at its best, drive up Rim Road to Scenic Drive at dusk, stopping at the scenic overlook on Mt. Franklin to look down on El Paso and its Mexican counterpoint, Juárez, lying in a horseshoe before you. On the left, Fort Bliss and suburbs; across the river in front, Juárez, a jumble of pastel tones climbing up the hills; to the right, downtown El Paso. When the sun sets, it’s like fire sweeping across both cities, bathing houses and buildings in saffron stain.

Richard West, “Border Towns: What to Do and Where to Do It,” December 1973

Dallas has no natural advantages, its soil is relatively poor, there are no concentrations of minerals, no outlets to established trade routes, nothing to fall back on. Beyond the confidence, the boosting, the incantations of greatness chanted across the plains, lies . . . what? It is a question Dallas leadership has not felt comfortable asking. In fact, several generations of Dallas leaders have ignored such limitations, and combined extraordinary vision and hard work to create a city from a town otherwise destined to be about the size of Nacogdoches.

William Broyles and Alex Sheshunoff, “How First National Passed Republic,” May 1974

[Joseph] Judson speaks about the Alamo like a son who’s just been cut in on the family business and has some great ideas for expansion. . . . He tells me about a new city plan to block off all traffic on Alamo Plaza and plant grass where the pavement is now, a plan opposed by the [Daughters of the Republic of Texas] because it would limit the Alamo’s frontal accessibility to pedestrians and divert tourists from the sales area, the Alamo’s lifeblood.

Stephen Harrigan, “The Alamo? Sure. Two Blocks, Turn Right, and It’s Right Across From the Five and Ten,” September 1975

The Barton Springs swimming pool . . . is the universal symbol of what there is to love about Austin. . . . It’s an eighth of a mile long, fed by cool natural springs and banked with shady lawns, a democratic summertime hangout for students, hippies, lawyers, bankers, housewives, little kids—in short, everybody in town. If anything should happen to Barton’s, the feeling is, something precious will have been irretrievably lost to Austin.

Nicholas Lemann, “Up the Creek,” September 1979

After the International Style became established downtown . . . [Philip Johnson] returned to Houston to sow the seeds of its destruction with a series of buildings designed in the seventies. These buildings elevated Houston to its current exalted status as (maybe) the architectural capital of the United States, the place where the styles are set.

Nicholas Lemann, “The Architects,” April 1982

This is not just the usual neurosis of the American city center. Fort Worth’s civic condition is specific to itself. When I came here first, this town seemed altogether independent, self-sufficient, and, indeed, self-satisfied, but for years now it has been living not so much under the shadow as in the dazzle of Dallas, Big D, thirty miles along the freeway and glamorized alike by political assassination and television folktale.

Jan Morris, “Foat Wuth, the Eternal City,” June 1982

People from the oil-producing nations of the Middle East, Africa, and South America come because Houston is the capital of the oil business; people from nations that are poor, or totalitarian, or at war, or all three, come because Houston is now the best place for a person with no money and no friends to find a job. . . . Because Houston is so spread out, because it doesn’t have a singular great immigrant neighborhood like the old Lower East Side of New York, even Houstonians don’t realize how many different people have moved there because they regard it as, in the short run, the most desirable spot on earth.

Uncredited, “Immigrants,” July 1982

The Second Decade (1983–1992)

The new Texas economy (and its discontents).

When the oil bust came, our writers were there to cover it in devastating detail. And when the state’s new, more-diversified economy rose again, Texas Monthly, now edited by Gregory Curtis, wasn’t afraid to expose its contradictions. By 1983 the magazine’s offices had moved to more centrally located and expansive lodgings at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue; circulation had risen to a quarter of a million.

If there’s any stretch of turf in Texas that’s worth worrying about and perhaps fighting over, it’s the Fort Worth Stockyards. There’s so little left to preserve in most Texas cities that preservationists end up fighting some pretty nit-picking battles; the Stockyards, though, is one that really matters. The area, which has slowly been coming back to life over the past eight years, may finally be reaching a critical mass.

Peter Applebome, “How Now, Cowtown,” July 1983

In the midst of the frenzy, the old Austin dream died. The city started growing faster than it ever had. Many of the old politicians didn’t recognize it, but there was a new electorate in Austin, and the newcomers didn’t share the dream of first love at Barton Springs, cold beer at Scholz’s, and picnics under the pecans. . . . Ten years ago FM 2222 was where the boondocks began, and the only people anyone knew living north of it were dope dealers. Now it was Main Street for high-tech migrants who had moved to Austin to work for IBM, Tracor, and Texas Instruments.

Gary Cartwright, “High Noon at the Circle C,” May 1984

For years the prevailing myth of Dallas has been that it has no reason for being—no river, no port, no natural resource—and only the inspired leadership of the city fathers has kept the town alive. Even if that were true once, it’s not any longer. Today Dallas has every reason for being. It’s a regional hub for commerce and transportation, home to numerous businesses, seventh-largest city in the country. It’s not all going to just blow away.

Gregory Curtis, Behind the Lines, August 1984

When the bust first took hold, in the spring of 1982, it seemed a furtive secret, the city a stunned organism that didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. But as the intoxicating cash flow dried up, the reality sank in, and out went the city’s self-satisfied identity. For the first time practically since the Allen brothers, Houston began questioning its most basic assumptions. Was it just possible that Houston’s economy was too dependent on oil? That Houston might have to shine its shoes and go courting business that had nothing to do with energy? That the freeways had become a mite too crowded, that the lack of parks was disgraceful, that the sewer hookups were a mess? Was it even possible that the no-zoning-no-controls-unlimited-growth-anything-goes gospel had actually contributed to the bust?

Alison Cook and Peter Elkind, “Is This All There Is?” December 1984

The mayor’s view reflects a tradition of placidity among El Paso’s wealthy—a tradition that is slowly changing as bank mergers and the influx of national retail chains, maquiladoras, and airlines dilute the power of El Paso’s most-influential families. “The mayor is being dragged kicking and screaming from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth,” says Thomas Lee, a business consultant who calls himself the town Cassandra.

Tina Rosenberg, “The Prophets,” February 1987

[Henry] Cisneros’ obsession with retrofitting San Antonio as a high-tech capital is fueled by his nightmare vision of the city as a place where Mexican Americans were kept down by low-paying industry, a backwater resistant to ambition and stagnant with unshared power. Some of his critics, though, contend that he has gotten carried away, that in his quest for research parks and tourist attractions and sports stadiums he has lost touch with the essential rhythms and needs of the city.

Stephen Harrigan, “The Time of His Life,” September 1987

In hindsight, it seems clear that San Antonio never really conceived of itself as being as large as Cisneros did and that the past eight years of frenzy were an aberration. Yet in its soul, San Antonio isn’t a retirement community either. The basic citywide crucible that created a need for a leader like Cisneros is still there. The city still has a large minority community, a business community that is divided between the genteel old-timers and the hustling newcomers, and a pool of young professionals who are attracted to the town’s rich, multifaceted nature. Until a leader emerges who can sell the city on both a vision and a comfortable pace, San Antonio will remain stuck in the past.

Jan Jarboe, “Back to the Past,” April 1990

At first, Mayor Lee Cooke tried to keep order by asking the audience not to applaud, but finally he gave up, recognizing that the [hearing] had turned into theater. Midnight passed. Another member of Earth First! opened a backpack and dumped out golf balls he had collected from Barton Creek. A man in a green shirt led the audience in cheers of “Hold that line.” It was impossible to imagine this sort of thing occurring in Houston or Dallas. “Barton Springs is a sacred area,” said a woman in white shorts and a purple blouse. “I use it personally for my own religious experience.”

Paul Burka, “The Battle for Barton Springs,” August 1990

The Third Decade (1993–2002)

The boom is back—and weirder than ever.

By 1993 the magazine had moved to a large suite of offices on the top floor of the Austin Centre building at Seventh and Brazos and employed more than one hundred people, including sales reps in locales as far-flung as San Francisco, Toronto, and Mexico City. Circulation had hit 300,000, and in 1999 Levy sold the magazine to Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, though he remained publisher. In 2000 Curtis turned the editorial reins over to a new editor, Evan Smith. Now as slick-looking as Vanity Fair or Esquire, the magazine was a reflection of the state’s rising self-confidence.

Of all the symbols of modern Houston—the oil derrick, the building crane, the designer skyscraper—the breast is the most unlikely. The ultimate emblem of femininity—it yields, it nurtures, it entices—the breast would appear to have no more than decorative use in a place that has always been known as a man’s town of big deals and big deeds, where self-invention has achieved the status of religion. Houston, it has always seemed safe to say, isn’t soft on anything. But whether locals recognize it or not, Houston is in the grips of one enormous breast fixation. . . . In Houston, you see, the breast that has invigorated the economy is not real but man-made, one that perfectly reflects the city’s obsession with sex and commerce, technology and individuality.

Mimi Swartz, “Silicone City,” August 1995

You might say that the strong reaction to the [new San Antonio Public Library] has as much to do with social trends as architectural ones. What Santa Anna couldn’t do at the Battle of the Alamo—and what Henry Cisneros didn’t do in his ten years as mayor—[Ricardo] Legorreta did with his design: He affirmed San Antonio’s past as a proud Mexican village.

Jan Russell, “Seeing Red,” November 1995

I am well aware that no Texas city is ridiculed the way Dallas is. Everybody makes fun of our ostentatious love of big hair, glittery clothes, and expensive restaurants; our great mansions with no front porches; our blinking, phallic Reunion Tower; our bad television shows (the most recent being Walker, Texas Ranger); our professional football team; and of course, our professional football cheerleaders. If [my daughter] turns out to be a blonde, my wife and I will have to sit her down and solemnly inform her that even if she ends up teaching at Harvard, it won’t matter; she will forever be labeled a blond Dallas bimbo by the rest of the country.

Skip Hollandsworth, “Babes in the ’Hoods,” April 1997

To out-of-towners especially, Austin’s leisurely pace, cheap beer, and ample barbecue seemed like paradise. The city welcomed SXSW’s tourism dollars, while Austinites welcomed the music; locals have always had the opportunity to participate in the conference by paying a modest price for a wristband that gets them in to all the clubs. All things must pass, however, and in the past few years SXSW has lost its homey innocence. . . . The conference never fails to inspire a certain amount of defensiveness and sarcasm from the locals. Take the Wannabes. The Austin band, which has played at eight SXSWs, had T-shirts printed for this year’s gig. They read “Don’t Move Here.”

Jason Cohen, “5,707 Schmoozers, 750 Bands, 29 Musical Cars, and 250 Gallons of Cream Gravy,” May 1997

Downtown Fort Worth has become Texas’ liveliest urban environment. The redbrick streets are lined with restaurants, nightclubs, and shops, most of them new. There are twenty movie screens, four live-theater venues, and four exhibit spaces. There’s a corner deli. The streets are jammed on weekends, and they bustle with activity from Monday through Friday. “Last week, I took my wife to the movies, and it took us forty-five minutes to find a place to park,” a cabdriver told me, beaming with pride. “It’s just like New York City.”

Joe Nick Patoski, “Wowtown!” April 1998

In truth, this isn’t just [DJ] Screw’s story. It’s also that of the gritty urban subculture around him, one in which young black men struggle daily with the pathologies of drugs and violence. But here on the south side of Houston, you’ll also find astonishing creativity, powerful dreams, and an unrelenting capitalistic spirit that fits right in with the city’s long wildcatting tradition.

Michael Hall, “The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw,” April 2001

[Jeffrey Skilling’s] eyes flash as he talks about new technologies. “The first wave never gets it right,” he says. “The stand-alone dot-coms didn’t work, but the technological applications will create a second wave that will change the world.” Houston, he promises, will become the world’s center of commodity trading, and he intends to be a part of it. In fact, he is already shopping for office space.

Mimi Swartz, “How Enron Blew It,” November 2001

Since the election of populist mayor Raymond C. Caballero last year, the [McKelligon Canyon Quarry] has been the pluperfect symbol of his crusade to transform this sprawling, poverty-ridden border city into a smoke-free, smart-growth, high-wage, ecologically pristine health mecca. (Think Portland, Oregon. Or Austin—at least the Austin of myth.) . . . The mayor is, in effect, trying to force developers and businesses back into the city’s core, the same sort of “urban infill” strategy that places like Portland and Austin have employed with mixed success. But out here on the free-market frontier, it’s a deeply divisive idea. No El Paso politician has ever dared to suggest it, let alone try it.

S. C. Gwynne, “Ray’s Quarry,” August 2002

The Fourth Decade (2003–2012)

The state of the twenty-first century.

The downturns of 2000 and 2007 didn’t spare Texas, but the state weathered the bad times better than most and is now regarded as the nation’s economic powerhouse, its cities growing more rapidly than ever. The magazine saw more changes this decade, as Levy retired in 2008 to be ultimately replaced by current president Elynn J. Russell, and Smith resigned a year later, in 2009, to be replaced by current editor in chief Jake Silverstein. The offices also moved twice, ending up on the seventeenth floor of the former Frost Bank tower, a building that, in 1988, we declared to have the world’s worst parking garage. Circulation held steady at 300,000, while readership reached an all-time high of 2.6 million.

As a friend has noted, if Willie hadn’t been forced out of Nashville and if dope hadn’t been so cheap in Austin, and if Michael Dell hadn’t dropped out of UT and started selling computers from his dorm room, and if Whole Foods founder John Mackey hadn’t believed he could make a buck selling sprouts and granola bars, who knows where we’d be today? When you think about our current crop of Texas heroes, you think about those three individuals, along with Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, and filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. What do they have in common? All of them are rebels, and they all live in Austin.

Gary Cartwright, “My Blue Heaven,” February 2006

“No one seems to have any idea what is happening down here,” says Amanda Escobedo, a 65-year-old community advocate in southwest Houston who has spent nearly twenty years holding workshops and speaking at schools, trying to persuade kids to stay out of gangs. “The nice Houston people who live in the nice Houston neighborhoods and who come shop at the nice Galleria don’t have any idea—or don’t care—that the apartments that they all used to live in have now become a war zone. And it is a war zone, make no mistake about it. Every week, I hear about a stabbing or a shooting or a drive-by that doesn’t make the newspapers. It never, ever stops.”

Skip Hollandsworth, “You Don’t Want to Know What We Do After Dark,” December 2006

Stuck in the middle of flyover America, the Metroplex has transformed itself into a globalized, fly-to destination, with the world’s third-busiest airport as its entrepôt and a cosmopolitan population that stands on its ear the oft-heard, covertly racist rubric that our nation’s multicultural coastal metropolises aren’t the “real America”—the implication being that a more homogeneous heartland presumably is. Yet here in the heart of real-deal Texas, the nation’s largest red-state megalopolis is actually a showcase for all-American diversity.

Michael Ennis, “The Mighty Metroplex,” January 2007

In case you haven’t been stuck in one of its newfangled traffic jams, San Antonio is now riding the crest of a broad, diversified boom that is unlike anything Texas has ever seen. Corporate campuses of granite and travertine blossom like bluebonnets on the city’s undeveloped outer edges. Vast residential subdivisions bearing names like Redbird Ranch march north and west across parts of the Hill Country that until recently housed only rock quarries and raccoons. Roads are being torn up and rebuilt, pipelines and power lines laid, limestone ridges blasted with dynamite and sculpted by Caterpillar tractors. It is hog heaven for builders, boosters, and developers and a slowly gathering nightmare for environmentalists, residents of old core neighborhoods left behind by the skyrocketing growth, and a lot of folks who liked San Antonio as it was.

S. C. Gwynne, “Boom With a View,” December 2007

Corruption is a betrayal of civic virtue, and this particular scandal could not have come at a worse moment for El Paso. For the first time since the old industries began shutting down, the city’s economic prospects are on the rise. . . . Fort Bliss is booming, with billions of dollars in new construction under way and thousands of troops scheduled to relocate there, along with their dependents. The Texas Tech medical school, which was recently accredited, will begin admitting four-year students next year. . . . The University of Texas at El Paso is rapidly growing as well. Perhaps these developments will jolt El Paso’s somnambulant business community, whose leaders have been generous with their philanthropy but largely indifferent to improving the lot of the minority population here. They have shown little interest in encouraging and embracing future leaders, as their counterparts in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio have been doing since the eighties.

Paul Burka, “Fed Up,” April 2008

The names of Houston’s governing couple, in fact, have been on everyone’s lips since [Annise] Parker became the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. . . . Many Houstonians heard from other incredulous observers outside the state, receiving correspondence similar to an e-mail I got from a friend in Washington, D.C. “How did this happen???” she asked. “I don’t understand.” Of course, if you lived in Houston, you did understand, and you found yourself hauling out the same tired saws about Houston that local boosters have been pushing for decades . . . : Houston is the fourth-largest city in the nation. Houston has one of the largest gay populations in the U.S. Houston is sophisticated and diverse; the fourteen-member city council features a Mr. Hoang, a Mr. Rodriguez, a Mr. Gonzalez, several black men and women, and a white lesbian, Sue Lovell, along with the assorted plain vanillas, and that’s not a particularly recent development.

Mimi Swartz, “Out and About,” March 2010

Over the clatter of cutlery, [Julián] Castro laid out his audacious vision for his administration: to create 20,000 new jobs in 2010, go to war against the city’s 50 percent high school dropout rate, build a new streetcar system, invest in renewable sources of energy, rebuild downtown, and forge relationships beyond our borders with, of all places, Shanghai. San Antonio has long envisioned itself as sleepy and insular, slightly removed from the center of action, so Castro’s hip, urban, and expansive style represents, well, something new.

Jan Jarboe Russell, “Alamo Heights,” May 2010

Envisioned as the “signature” of the twenty-first-century city, the elegant arch [of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge] is a letterhead-ready icon of soaring aspirations. Already as you drive by the futuristic, shimmering fractal construction . . . it’s hard to escape the metaphor of Dallas’s ascent, in little more than a century and a half, from a lone log cabin on the Trinity to a metropolis intent on becoming one of the world’s great places.

Michael Ennis, “Arch of Triumph,” August 2011

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