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

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