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.

February 2013By Comments

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, frankly, so exhilarating that we didn’t often notice that the change was embraced by much of Texas but not all of it.

Over the past forty years, two competing visions of our urban landscapes have emerged. While many, myself included, see museums and concert halls, libraries and universities, nightlife and fashion, sophisticated people and meaningful jobs, others see little but choked freeways, welfare chiselers, abortion, strident homosexuals, drug addiction, relentless government meddling, and a general sense of purposelessness and lost values. The last election was virtually a poll on these two visions of our cities, and the results in Texas were clear and definitive. With the exception of Tarrant County, President Obama carried every one of the counties that contain our six largest cities. He was barely victorious in Houston, but he won 61 percent of the vote in Austin and 57 percent in supposedly conservative Dallas. Yet in Texas as a whole, Governor Romney trounced the president. Romney took 57 percent of the vote, winning the state by more than 1.26 million votes, out of about 7.9 million cast. Texas has great cities, but in the hearts of its citizens Texas is not an urban state.

I will confess that I am surprised to find myself writing that. By the time this magazine celebrated its tenth anniversary, I figured that urban Texas had already prevailed or would very soon. The next twenty years seemed to prove me right. The boom in the seventies, the bust in the eighties, and the recovery in the nineties all hinged on the cities. And the politicians were changing as well. After the six-year gubernatorial term of Dolph Briscoe, a Uvalde rancher, ended in 1979, from then until 2000 the governors were William Clements from Dallas, Mark White from Houston, Clements again, Ann Richards from Austin, and George W. Bush from Dallas. They did their jobs in different ways and had differing degrees of success or failure, but none of them questioned that Texas, while remaining Texas, deserved to and should take its place in the larger world, that our cities could become the envy of other states and equal, each in its own way, to cities anywhere. After the bust, new businesses flourished, often founded and run by mavericks who were nothing like the titans of earlier generations. Intellectually and artistically there was great confidence that significant work and long careers were possible here and that Texas itself would not be a hindrance but a strong propelling force. At Texas Monthly, we saw ourselves as part of that force. In writing, photography, and illustration, this magazine helped launch many people whose names are familiar today.

Much of this growth was thanks to none other than the government of the state of Texas. A vibrant movie industry sprang up when the Texas Film Commission spent our tax dollars to lure filmmakers to the state. Our public schools improved because the state was willing to pay for improvements. Higher education improved so dramatically that suddenly out-of-state students were vying to come to Texas for college and students in Texas had first-class schools in their backyards. Again, money from the state was a crucial factor. To me, those years, from the late eighties to 2000, were the time when Texas was not only at its best but also most like the Texas of legend—open, confident, capable, fun, unique, and free. And also urban, proudly and productively so.

But that spirit hasn’t lasted. For the past twelve years we have elected and reelected a governor who is defiantly rural in all the unfortunate ways. With a visage made for Hollywood, a definite rustic charm in person when he’s just being Rick Perry, the governor has a lust for power unequaled in Texas since Lyndon Johnson. But while Johnson wanted to build, Perry wants to dismantle. His targets include a vast array of social programs, education, taxes, and pretty much anything else that can be labeled government. He is not a governor in the style of John Connally or even George Bush. Instead, he is like Pappy O’Daniel and Pa Ferguson, living proof that that strain of country obstinacy and willful unenlightenment has not disappeared from the Texas character.

Now the governor, the lieutenant governor, and leading legislators are all pledging that the Eighty-third Legislature will produce more cuts in government. There is a kind of undeclared war on public education, whose real agenda is to take apart the whole school system. And the universities have been warned. Social programs, which are mostly urban in terms of the people they serve, will be squeezed to death.

This reverse social engineering will affect our cities first and most. Those cities have matured and improved over the past forty years. Much as I liked them back then, I like them more now. In my better moments I believe that their upward path is inevitable, that not even years of misguided public policy can stop them. I hope so, but it will be a long time before the heirs of O’Daniel and Ferguson are out of power. The clash of rural and urban values will be the dominant theme in Texas in the coming years. It should make for interesting reading.

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