Urban Cowboys

During my 28 years at Texas Monthly, first as a writer and then as the editor, I watched (and chronicled) as the state became fully urbanized. Or so I thought.

I was born in Texas, graduated from a Texas university, and worked for Texas Monthly for almost 28 years. I began a few months before the first issue appeared, in February 1973, and didn’t leave until June 30, 2000. For 19 of those years I was the magazine’s editor in chief. I met my wife in Texas and married her here. Our children were all born and raised in Texas. I had a couple of opportunities to leave but didn’t consider them seriously and am glad now, as I was at the time, that I didn’t succumb to their lure. I have a small piece of property here, so I can truthfully describe myself the way the late humorist H. Allen Smith used to: I am part-owner of Texas. I like living in Texas and always have. All that, I think, makes me as much a Texan as the next fellow.

But my Texas is not the mythic Texas. I’ve never been to Big Bend and, at this point, don’t think I’ll ever go. I have spent a little time on the Gulf Coast, mostly when the children were little, but haven’t returned for years. Except for one or two extremely long and sleepless nights when my son was in Cub Scouts, I’ve never camped out under the Texas sky. I enjoy seeing the wildflowers each spring, but only as I’m driving between Austin and Houston. I can ride a horse reasonably well and once helped drive a herd of cattle from one valley pasture to another, but that was in northern Utah, not Texas. Besides, I’m more comfortable in an English saddle than in a Western one. I competed over fences for a while and lost most of the time. My victorious opponents were often twelve-year-old girls. I have nothing against hunting, but I’ve never shot a deer or a dove or even tried to. My experience with shooting in Texas is limited to blasting skeet at a dude ranch and trying out pistols at an urban range with a friend in law enforcement. I know less about drilling for oil than I do about wildflowers or guns. Nor do I have any affection for small towns, even pretty ones, or for midsize towns either. Nights in such places leave me eager to get up in the morning and get out.

My experience of Texas is entirely urban. I’ve lived in Austin for forty years, and I know Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, and San Antonio well, since my work with the magazine took me to those cities time and again. I enjoy driving the maze of streets in downtown San Antonio, wandering around the Bhutan-inspired buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso, visiting the mother ship Half Price Books on Lovers Lane in Dallas, or standing before Peinture (la magie de la couleur), an apparently simple painting by Joan Miró in the Menil Collection, in Houston, that becomes more absorbing the more you see it. And I love walking from my home near the University of Texas through a pleasant, mostly intact old neighborhood to Whole Foods for a latte followed by a few minutes poking around in Waterloo Rec-ords across the street. In other words, I live in an urban Texas that is familiar to readers of this magazine but that, for the most part, the world outside Texas does not know even exists.

Nor, except as a bud that was about to flower, was it a Texas that existed when Texas Monthly first appeared. I won’t try to list all the immense changes between then and now, but let one comparison speak for them all. In 1973, as we put out our first issues, construction was also under way on what would soon be the tallest building in Austin, except for the Capitol. The Chase Tower, which was completed the following year, stood 21 stories. Covered with gold-tinted glass, it was as ugly as a golden cracker box on end. Today the tallest building in Austin is almost three times as tall and it’s a residential, not an office, building. When Michael R. Levy borrowed some money from his parents to start Texas Monthly forty years ago, he was in essence making a bet that growth and change were coming, that both the growth and the change would be for the better, and that the most growth and the biggest changes would occur in Texas cities. In fact, he came close to naming the magazine Texas Cities.

Fortunately, William Broyles Jr., the magazine’s first editor, talked him out of it. The name would have been a mistake, since it would have limited us. Our subject was Texas, and we wanted to embrace the Texas of the past, which we understood to be rural, as well as the emerging Texas of the present and future, which we believed would be more and more urban with each issue we sent to the printer. The cover of our third issue, in April 1973, was the first of many barbecue covers to come. It weighed the merits of barbecue in Lockhart and Taylor, small towns both, but that was the exception. During that first year we also ran stories on the then-new breed of doctors in our cities, on the ten best and ten worst legislators, and on the three largest Houston law firms. These and many other stories were written for a sophisticated, urban audience. In the past the economy had been almost entirely agricultural, but in the early days of the magazine we felt certain that Texas had escaped from its rural roots and, with an initial boost from oil, was creating a modern economy based on businesses like electronics, services, distribution, marketing, construction, and even tourism and hospitality.

Levy’s gamble paid off. That urban transformation did come to pass, and Texas Monthly has spent forty years chronicling this vast change. Yet the work of chronicling our urbanization was so important and so interesting and,

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