A Tale of Six Cities

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

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.

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