Sunday, August 28, 2011

Happy 175th birthday, Big Greasy

An outstanding essay by Lisa Gray.

In 1836, the place that would become Houston wasn't much of a place. The land was swampy, flat grassland, part of the low-lying Fever Coast. Buffalo Bayou wasn't deep enough to handle big steamships. And the parcel of raw land along its banks wasn't even the founders' first choice for the town they intended to develop. But the land was available immediately, and brothers John Kirby and Augustus Chapman Allen were in a hurry to start making their fortunes.

From the very beginning, in other words, Houston was the city we know today: an unlikely place; a city created as much by accident as by planning; a city in a hurry.

Somehow John Kirby Allen persuaded the young Republic of Texas to make Houston its capital. (It helped that the Allens had been clever enough to name the place after Sam Houston, the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, soon to be elected president of the Republic.) But the little boomtown didn't last long as the republic's capital: Even by the standards of the Texas frontier, Houston was too raw, too muddy, too prone to mosquito-borne plagues. Disgusted, the legislators packed up and moved in 1839. And thus was established another of Houston's patterns: In the blink of an eye, it went from boom to bust.

Over the next 60 years, Houston fashioned itself as an agricultural center, a place where cotton was processed and shipped, a Southern town not unlike other sleepy little places that peppered the state. When Houstonians hungered for culture and urban life, they traveled to Galveston, a bigger city with a bigger port.

But at the turn of the century, again more by chance than by planning, two world-shaking events in other places changed everything about Houston. First came the Great Storm of 1900, the hurricane that struck Galveston, killing an estimated 8,000 people; it is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Businesses grew leery of shipping into Galveston.

And there, Houston saw its chance. Houston's businessmen had already made sure the city was crisscrossed by railroads, and now they hurried to make it an even greater business hub, to dredge out Buffalo Bayou on a grander scale, to make Houston into that strangest of things: an inland port.

The second world-shaking event came only a few months later, in 1901, when oil was struck in Beaumont, at Spindletop -- a gusher like nothing the world had seen before. Suddenly oil seemed plentiful, a fuel not just for lamps but for cars. Suddenly Texans were rich. And suddenly Houston -- with its railroads and growing port -- was an oil town, hub of a brand-new industry.

And that's how we acquired another of our habits: We began seeing the town as a connection, not a destination. The city proclaimed itself "where 17 railroads meet the sea." From Houston, you could go anywhere. It wasn't a town where people sat still.

By 1930, Houston was Texas' biggest city. And after World War II, fed by demand for all things petrochemical, it grew even faster.

Unlike older cities, it was a place shaped largely by cars - a spread-out, sprawling megalopolis, full of single-family ranch houses with big grassy yards, not tight-squeezed apartment buildings. The roads were wide and smooth; sidewalks, when they happened, were an afterthought. When a brand-new highway (like U.S. 59), plowed through a long-established neighborhood (like the Fifth Ward), that was counted as the price of progress. Speed and movement were everything.

The city continued to defy the elements. Houston prided itself on vanquishing nature, in triumphing over actual conditions on the ground. Bayous were channelized and paved, the twisty, slow-moving rivers turned into fast-moving drainage ditches. The city air-conditioned itself on a scale that amazed the rest of the world -- most gloriously, in the Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium, a place where even the grass was synthesized from petrochemicals. We called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

Read the rest here.

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