Up and Away

What happens when a small town becomes a big town, when its population grows and its economy takes off? Much is gained—but much is lost.

September 2004By Comments

EVERY TEXAN HAS A FAVORITE small town. I would be hard-pressed to choose among Hunt, near Kerrville, where the forks of the Guadalupe join and I spent three summers as a camper and a counselor; Hallettsville, halfway between Houston and San Antonio on a forgotten highway, with its grand courthouse and square; and Fort Davis, which still manages to be quaint in the face of creeping chicness. But if I could take some liberties with the definition of “small,” I would choose Georgetown, thirty miles north of Austin on Interstate 35, for the nobility of its struggle to remain a small town in the face of the economic and social trends of our time.

In 1890 Georgetown had around 2,400 people. It grew almost imperceptibly, taking six decades to double in population, to around 4,900, and another three decades to double again. Since that benchmark of 1980, though, its population has more than trebled, to an estimated 37,000, as the great metropolis that begins more than a hundred miles to the south in San Antonio has enfolded it.

What difference does the “small town” designation make? A big one, actually. The numerical battle between country and city was long ago decided in favor of the city: In 1900 more than 80 percent of Texans lived in or near small towns, but today more than 80 percent live in metropolitan areas, either in the city itself or close enough to fall under its influence. But the emotional battle still hangs in the balance. The farmer and the rancher moved to the city and the suburb, but they did not cease to be country folk. They still wear jeans and boots, still drive pickups, still prefer country music, still pine for the wide-open spaces when stuck in traffic—and so do their urban cousins who have never set foot on a farm or a ranch. Longtime readers of this magazine will recognize these as familiar themes, as fresh as last month’s cover story on the pickup as the new national car of Texas. The state may be urban, but its soul remains rural.

This issue of Texas Monthly pays homage to that rural soul. Every article is set in a small town or touts the amenities offered by small towns—”small” being defined as a population of fewer than 15,000. So Georgetown doesn’t qualify. But don’t tell that to Georgetown, for nothing is so important to its residents as their desire that it remain a small town in its values.

This too is a familiar theme: The hold of the countryside on the Texas mind has more to do with roots than boots. It survives due to the persistence of the notion that the country way of life is better than the city way of life—and that something has been irretrievably lost in the process of urbanization. But moving away is only half of what has happened to small towns; the other half is moving to. As the countryside emptied out and the cities filled up, small towns on the urban fringe—which were once just dots on the map, no different from the places featured in this issue—became big towns. Places like Georgetown can tell us what was lost in the transition from country to city, from little to big.

From the highway, it has that could-be-anywhere-on-Interstate-America look. But if you venture into the old town site that was all there was of Georgetown until new subdivisions vaulted across the interstate in the seventies, the town’s charm becomes apparent. It is a county seat, with a black-domed courthouse dating from the days when such buildings were designed to impress and a lively town square with a number of well-preserved nineteenth-century buildings. It’s a college town too (home to Southwestern University, an upwardly mobile liberal arts school), though locals lament that it is less of a college town than it used to be. Two forks of the San Gabriel River run through Georgetown, their tree-lined channels crossing under the interstate. North of town, the metropolis comes to a surprising and sudden end, and you reenter rural Texas.

Virtually all of the growth has occurred west of the interstate, most notably in Sun City, a subdivision for seniors, where kids are allowed to visit but not move in. Around five thousand people live there, in one-story homes on ample lots that front gently curving streets. My wife’s aunt and uncle, Elsie and Pat, moved there a year ago, and we drove up to meet them at a restaurant on the square.

“Georgetown is really a small town for us,” Pat said. “Everybody is so nice. In Houston, the so-called help at the stores was so abusive. The last time I got my driver’s license renewed, my photograph was the worst-looking thing I ever saw. I couldn’t get it changed. The woman absolutely refused. Here, the lady told me, ‘Smile. You want to look good on your driver’s license.’ Then she let me come behind the counter to be sure I liked the one she had taken.”

The thing they like best about Georgetown is the square. After lunch, Elsie ushered us down the street to The Escape, a gift shop where almost everything in the store is made locally, and then to the Hill Country Bookstore. She mentioned the new mall, the town’s first, that was recently approved by the city, to be located just west of the interstate near one of the east-west crossroads. “We’re concerned about its impact on the square,” Pat said. “We don’t want to see these businesses disadvantaged.”

The seniors contribute to the town. Elsie and Pat support the Palace Theatre, which long ago stopped showing movies regularly but puts on plays and concerts, and they plan to join the Symphony Society, which brings in the orchestra from Temple, 35 miles to the north, for concerts. And everybody in town talks about the Georgettes, an organization of Sun City women who were twirlers in their youth and strut their remaining stuff at high school football games. But there is also tension. A recent state law gives cities the power to freeze the property taxes of seniors, and a group of Sun City residents asked the city council to do just that. But the council resisted; seniors own 27 percent of the city’s taxable property, which means that the people who own the remaining 73 percent would probably face a tax increase. The seniors organized a petition drive and forced an upcoming vote on the issue.

Sun City isn’t the only reason that politics is a lot more intense than it used to be. Growth brings conflict. New schools create fights over boundary changes; as small as Georgetown is, nobody likes sending their kids across the interstate to school, in either direction. Different factions offer competing ideas about what Georgetown should be: a bedroom community for Austin? A competitor of nearby Round Rock, where Dell is based, for industry? A place that preserves its small-town feeling? Recent battles have been waged over a proposal for a large Walgreen’s (it was defeated), a bond issue for a new library (likewise), and a restrictive design code (it passed, but only after the mayor, who irritated townspeople with her outspoken advocacy of the code, had been ousted by a recall vote).

“Everybody here used to have a sense of joint ownership of the town,” Clark Thurmond, the publisher of the twice-weekly Williamson County Sun, told me, explaining the recall fight. “You could walk up to any city council member and say, ‘Fix my street,’ and it would get done. You’d know them and they’d know you. Your voice was heard. That tends to go away when a town gets big, but people here still expect it.” Clark is married to Linda Scarbrough, whose family has owned the Sun since 1948 and whom I have known since we were at the University of Texas in the sixties. When I asked her what she missed from the Georgetown she knew when she was growing up, she mentioned two things: the river and the university.

“We’ve lost the river,” she said. “It used to be easy to get to low-water crossings. We would throw rocks, collect fossils, wade, and fish. Traffic demands have just about shut off access. There are still parks and hiking trails, but the openness of the landscape is lost.”

The other thing she misses is the involvement of the university in the town. On the way to dinner at a new restaurant called Wildfire—one of the advantages of size is that residents who want to go out for a good meal no longer have to go to Round Rock—we detoured by a public-housing project called Stonehaven that dates from the sixties. As Linda related the story, the city was going to build a typical low-budget project until a Southwestern professor named Bob Lancaster got involved, backed by Linda’s father and the Sun. Almost forty years later, the attractive stone-and-wood units still look more like apartments than a housing project.

Linda remembers when most professors lived in Georgetown and sometimes served on the school board and the city council. But as the university has gotten more ambitious academically, town and gown have gone their separate ways. One of the complaints at Southwestern is that Georgetown is dry, so there is nowhere for the students to go in the evenings except Austin. “Southwestern has pulled themselves out of this community,” a friend from Georgetown who works in Austin told me. He mentioned a now-departed president who “would have built walls and a moat around the school if he could.”

Walls and a moat: Georgetown would love to do the same. It would love to keep out the metropolis (but keep the proximity to high-paying jobs), keep out the traffic (but keep the interstate), keep out the seniors, at least on Election Day (but keep their tax dollars), keep out the competition for the businesses on the square (but keep the convenience of the mall). The paradox of growth is that something is lost, but something is gained, and as much as people feel the loss, most are unwilling to sacrifice the gain. This is why small towns in the path of the metropolis ultimately become big towns. To Georgetown’s great credit, that hasn’t happened yet.

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