Grande Dame of the Gulf

A belle among the roughneck cities of Texas, Galveston is caught between a relentless ocean and an imperious past. If one doesn’t get it, the other will.

When strangers ask me where I’m from, I automatically answer, “Galveston.” I never gave the matter a second thought until my wife suggested that since I have lived in Austin for twenty years and last resided in Galveston in 1959, there might be a more appropriate answer. Upon reflection, I realized that it didn’t change a thing. I live in Austin — but I am from Galveston.

Galveston is a place that stays with you. The attitudes one acquires there are as alien to the rest of Texas as those of New England are. Of the mythic elements that shaped Texas — the endless expanse of land, the frontier, the quest for water, rugged individualism, cultural isolation, cattle, oil — not one applies to Galveston. When Texas ranchers were still driving their cattle to market over the Chisholm Trail and Houston was a quagmire hardly fit for habitation, Galvestonians were $250,000 houses, sipping French wines, and hearing their city called the New York of the Gulf. In recent years Galveston’s estrangement has been of a different sort: the economic boom that has transformed the rest of Texas has hardly touched Galveston at all.

A hundred years ago Galveston was the biggest and most important city in Texas. Today the rest of the state seldom thinks about Galveston at all, unless there is a hurricane like Alicia in the Gulf. Galveston ranks thirty-first among Texas cities in population and, by most of the measures dear to modern Texas, even lower in importance. As a port, it handles less tonnage than pestholes like Texas City or Freeport; as a resort, it has gray, eroding beaches and murky green water that are no match for the whites and blues of South Padre Island. Galveston, in short, has not been a winner.

But that is precisely why it remains one of the most important cities in Texas. Galveston has the same relationship to the rest of the state that the American South has to the rest of the country. It has had to face defeat, despair, and the invalidation of its fondest illusions. As in the South, the weaknesses of its own institutions contributed to its downfall. But if there is a moral to the tale, it is that winning isn’t everything.

The combination of glorious past and humble present is the soul of Galveston. Alone among the state’s cities, Galveston is a hostage to its own history. In other cities, the expectation is that the future will be better than the past. Galveston knows that its future can never equal its past. The days when Galveston was the second-richest city in the country (only Providence, Rhode Island had a higher per capita income in 1900) or the most important city between New Orleans and San Francisco or even a worthy rival to Houston, are irrecoverable.

Galveston even looks different from the rest of Texas. It is next to impossible to find a strip shopping center, a species as common to Texas as the bluebonnet. It is almost as hard to find a new house — and in Galveston that means anything built after 1950. Most of the homes are raised on pilings, and not just to escape hurricane tides: built before air conditioning, they were elevated to catch the precious afternoon breeze from the sea. Many neighborhoods still have their own taverns and family groceries. A few streets are paved with concrete, but most are an old-fashioned pebbled asphalt, wavy and uneven. The motorist who cuts across the island (in Galveston, the I is always capitalized) to get to the beach will in all likelihood drive through blocks that look exactly as they did twenty or thirty years ago. For that matter, the same people may be living in the same houses; on my block, for example, only one of eight houses changed hands between 1950 and 1978. Now it’s up to two, but at least the Burkas are not to blame.

Like modern Egyptians and their pyramids, Galvestonians are condemned to live alongside the monuments of a greater, vanished civilization. Three-story houses with turrets and spires, balustrades with geometrically intricate designs, and columns topped with the carved heads of European rulers sit next to houses with rotting timbers and peeling paint. Downtown, massive commercial structures with ornate brickwork, relics of an era when Galveston’s main commercial street, the Strand, was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, adjoin empty storefronts. These colossi were designed by and for people who had a sense of destiny about their city — a sense that turned out to be wrong.

This proximity to faded glory has had a peculiar effect on Galveston. The past matters mightily, but not in the way you might think. Galvestonians have not fought to preserve every artifact; more often, they have done the opposite. After Hurricane Carla in 1961, the local trustees of the Ursuline Academy seized upon the pretext of storm damage to raze that grandest of all works by the renowned Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, replacing his gothic masterpiece with a one-story modern atrocity. When Houston lawyers succeeded in pilfering the regional court of civil appeals in 1957, the noble courthouse that had housed it was fed to the wrecker’s ball, as if to eradicate the defeat. Old Ball High School, which with its rotunda, dome, and wings bore more resemblance to the state capitol that to the typical high school, was sold to a local insurance company and mutilated beyond recognition. I can remember from my childhood a civic campaign to exorcise every watermark remaining form the 1900 storm. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, thanks to a historic preservation movement that is the most important development in the city in decades, but any Galvestonian will tell you that the impetus was provided by outsiders and newcomers.

And why not? Galvestonians haven’t needed buildings to preserve the past; they keep it alive in their minds. Once a friend asked me for help in paring down the guest list for her daughter’s wedding reception.

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