Demonstrating how the growth of a midsized city can illuminate urban development issues across an entire region, this exemplary history of Corpus Christi explores how competing regional and cosmopolitan influences have shaped this thriving port and leisure city.
A favorite destination of visitors to the Texas coast, Corpus Christi is a midsize city that manages to be both cosmopolitan and provincial, networked and local. It is an indispensable provider of urban services to South Texas, as well as a port of international significance. Its industries and military bases and, increasingly, its coastal research institutes give it a range of connections throughout North America. Despite these advantages, however, Corpus Christi has never made it into the first rank of Texas cities, and a keen self-consciousness about the city’s subordinate position has driven debates over Corpus’s identity and prospects for decades.
In this masterful urban history—a study that will reshape the way that Texans look at all their cities—Alan Lessoff analyzes Corpus Christi’s place within Texas, the American Southwest, the western Gulf of Mexico, and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands from the city’s founding in 1839 to the present. He portrays Corpus as a place where westward Anglo expansion overwhelmed the Hispanic settlement process from the south, leaving a legacy of conflicting historical narratives that colors the city’s character even now. Lessoff also explores how competing visions of the city’s identity and possibilities have played out in arenas ranging from artwork in public places to schemes to embellish, redevelop, or preserve the downtown waterfront and North Padre Island. With a deep understanding of the geographic, historical, economic, and political factors that have formed the city, Lessoff demonstrates that Corpus Christi exemplifies the tensions between regional and cosmopolitan influences that have shaped cities across the Southwest.
Recipient of a Publication Award from The San Antonio Conservation Society
1. A City over Space and across Time
2. A Texas Seaport in Texas Lore
3. City on a Frontier of Peoples
4. Public Sculpture and Civic Identity
5. A Matter of Little Import
6. A Dynamic and Progressive City
This book has two agendas. First, it uses Corpus Christi, Texas—a midsized city along the Gulf of Mexico about halfway between Houston and Brownsville, significant especially for its port, petrochemicals industry, tourist sector, and military installations—as a gateway to understanding the system of cities that took shape in Texas during the twentieth century. The emergence of a dynamic network of cities between Houston and Los Angeles transformed the United States and North America in myriad ways: in politics, economics, culture, environment, and much else besides. Corpus Christi illustrates many forces that generated urban Texas and the urban Southwest.
Normally, writers on cities and city systems start with large metropolises, which in Texas means Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. They take for granted that the large cities’ economic and political dynamics, their mindsets and living patterns, apply as well to satellite or secondary places. This book looks at urban Texas from its self-conscious periphery rather than its confident core. A midsized city may reveal qualities that pervade a region more readily than the largest cities, with their webs of commerce, finance, and information that extend across continents.
The agenda just sketched will make the book useful to readers and scholars of urban history and related fields, particularly in Texas and the U.S. Southwest and West, but in other regions as well. The theme of an urban region as seen from the perspective of a secondary city will recur throughout this book. By perspective, I mean both my analytical point of view as a professor of urban history and the point of view of residents, whose ruminations, conversations, and debates have reflected an acute—perhaps too acute—awareness of second-tier status in a region whose major cities are bounding ahead.
To make a place relevant to experts on cities no matter where they are, professional historians usually move from the particular to the general. Corpus Christi thereby becomes a case study of themes in the overall urbanization of Texas and the Southwest. But I also intend this book to move from the general to the particular, to show how large patterns visible in cities across the Southwest or the United States have been at work in Corpus Christi and help to explain it. This leads to the book’s second agenda, which arises from the author’s connection to Corpus Christi and his ambition to write a book useful to people there and across South Texas and to readers in other Texas cities.
People in secondary cities—even port cities, with their far-flung commerce and contacts—are apt to consider their place merely regional, in the sense of provincial. Significant or exciting events happen elsewhere. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Corpus Christi often struggled economically and socially, falling further into the shadow of the great Texas metropolises, places renowned for energy and growth. In the years when I worked in the city and later as I visited and researched there, I came to see the resultant notion—that Corpus Christi stood out in large measure because it had failed to grasp opportunities that its regional neighbors had seized—as a cloud hanging over discussion and assessment of the city’s situation and options. I could—I came to believe—do my part to counter the perception of Corpus Christi as a place whose shortcomings set it apart by stressing that its structure, layout, economy, life, and problems arose from and illustrated large patterns among southwestern, U.S., and modern cities. The book then weaves together and balances the perspective of the urban historian—who may have an allegiance to a city but whose methods for researching cities and whose models of urbanization and urban life are not tied to the place under study—with the mindset of the local and public historian, whose goals and approach flow from personal dedication to and professional involvement with a place.
My own engagement with Corpus Christi came by accident; I had never been within 140 miles of the place before 1992, when I interviewed for an assistant professor’s position at the institution soon to be renamed Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. At the time, Texas had embarked upon a loosely organized policy of upgrading public education in the southern part of the state. My new employer, hitherto a limited commuter school on the site of a defunct Baptist college, was expanding into a full university according to the urban-public model common in U.S. cities. This change meant, among other things, that education and research would emphasize matters relevant to the metropolitan area. Appropriately, the university, situated in the largest Texas city south of San Antonio, included a focus on urban affairs, one aspect of which was urban and public history. While background and training gave me the potential to add value, I knew almost nothing about Corpus Christi and its history before I went there. To the extent that my experiences inform this book, it describes on-the-job training as an urban and public historian.
Until I moved to Corpus Christi in August 1992, my thinking about cities—their growth, their economy and politics, their layout and appearance, their atmosphere and problems—was based on northeastern U.S. or European models. Having traveled in Texas and the Southwest, I was aware that their cities had their own history, structure, and atmosphere. But I had few tools for understanding the place on its own terms, and only loose preconceptions about it. Fortunately, my years in South Texas came in the aftermath of a period of burgeoning research on cities throughout the American West. That phase of scholarship on southwestern and western cities was to some degree a byproduct of the so-called Sunbelt debate of the 1970s–1980s. This research’s strength stemmed from its recognition that southwestern (and, to a lesser degree, southern) urbanization probably amounted to a significant new phase in American geography, politics, and life. Urban affairs experts and social scientists, including historians, sought to understand how and how much these newly dynamic cities and this newly influential urban region differed from the so-called Rustbelt, which stretched from Boston and Baltimore to Milwaukee and St. Louis. Since the 1980s, the varied trajectories and experiences of cities across the United States have revealed the contrast between Sunbelt and Rustbelt to be too sweeping and straightforward. Whatever its shortcomings, that period of writing on the urban Southwest and West provided me with concepts and issues, a starting point for analyzing Corpus Christi and fitting it into the sweep of U.S. urban history.
When it came to learning about my new home in particular, my mentor was Thomas Kreneck, now-retired director of the special collections department at A&M–Corpus Christi, a remarkable expert on the documentation of Texas urban history and of the history of South Texas. Tom and his assistants over the years, the late Norm Zimmerman and then Grace Charles, Jan Weaver, and Ceil Venable, helped me compile packets of documents that would introduce students—as well as me—to phases and issues in the city’s history and to sources and techniques for researching the place and its peoples. Key sections of this book start from documents that we organized during the 1990s into assignments for students. Our pedagogical agenda was to demonstrate how anyone might use sources readily available in Corpus Christi—and similar sources available in most U.S. cities—to research common themes in urban and local history. Careful readers will note that the research is built outward from two large repositories of documents that have equivalents in almost every U.S. city: the A&M–Corpus Christi archives and the local history collection (La Retama Room) at the Corpus Christi Public Library. Ideas and references encountered in those two places led me to most other sources consulted—or in the case of interviews and photos, sources that I created.
The special collections library at A&M–Corpus Christi, an archetype of a university-based, urban and regional history archive, thus provided the frame around which I constructed my knowledge and eventually this book. At the core of this wide-ranging center for South Texas research stand two huge sets of primary sources compiled by characters in this book: the papers of the civil rights leader Hector P. García; and the books, pamphlets, and other printed materials collected by the South Texas historian and bibliophile Dan E. Kilgore.
In my first months at the university, Tom made a stack for me of every significant published historical account of the city to that time. I could then absorb what themes writers on Corpus Christi perceived in its history and what issues they stressed. What I found in reading this stack of books and articles puzzled and fascinated me. I right away hit upon a mindset and outlook—a tension in most writing about Corpus Christi—that became one of this book’s overarching themes and key analytical points.
While Corpus Christi had produced its share of regional historical writing, almost none of it qualified as urban history, not simply by professional or academic standards, but even by good local or amateur standards. That is, little of what had been written about Corpus Christi’s history took as its central task the explanation of how the physical city, its institutions, and its life came to be what they were by the late twentieth century. Events and developments since the 1870s–1890s, and above all since the 1910s–1930s, formed the contemporary city. But into the 1990s, writing about the place was preoccupied with people and events before 1880, when Corpus Christi was still a marginal coastal town of around 3,250 people, a far cry from the port and regional metropolis of 300,000 that I came to. This disjuncture arose from the basic way that Corpus Christians have discussed, reflected upon, and taken lessons from the South Texas past.
Corpus Christi’s portion of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the so-called Coastal Bend, which straddles the mouth of the Nueces River, played a significant role in two grand, competing stories of the founding of Texas. The area figures in the south-to-north Tejano saga of explorers and conquistadores, missionaries and empresarios, vaqueros and carters, invasion, expropriation, and borderland violence. The area also looms large in the east-to-west Anglo-Texan epic of frontier settlements, ranchers, vigilantes, and rangers, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and railroads. These two stories help a great deal in understanding the origins of the region, its role in the formation of Texas, and its basic ethnic loyalties, preoccupations, and conflicts. Neither story in its customary form devotes much attention to the modern, urban environment in which people live.
Texas’s founding stories offer drama, grandeur, heroism, and tragedy. They impart—in the manner of most epics—unforgettable lessons about group identity, personal character, and standards of behavior. The enduring power and pervasiveness of the Texas frontier epics, then, should not surprise a newcomer. What caught my attention was the tepidness of the follow-up into the era of urbanization and of influential cities. It was clear to me that the urban transformation of the twentieth century amounted to a new Texas epic as large as the story of the revolution, ranchers, and rangers. Corpus Christians, however, showed little sustained interest in the forces and events that directly shaped their contemporary environment. This changed in a tentative way only around the turn of the twenty-first century, with the retrospection and reflection that moment prompted. In South Texas, newcomers from every direction absorbed the practice of deliberating over regional history and character by drawing upon frontier and wilderness lore, even though the relevant phases of regional history were long past by the time most migrants, drawn by twentieth-century developments, arrived.
The juxtaposition that I found between the modern city, where people lived, and the frontier place they dwelled upon in writing and art seemed at first unnerving and frustrating. From other writers, especially the urban historian Carl Abbott, I came to understand that I was observing one city’s version of a ubiquitous theme in the southwestern and western portions of the United States. As would make sense in an arid region—where people concentrate according to the natural or engineered availability of freshwater—the human geography of the American West consists of strings or zones of fairly dense settlement. The spaces between concentrations of population, however, and the sparse settlements in those spaces affect the consciousness even of those living in such all-encompassing metropolises as Dallas–Fort Worth or Denver. The everyday life of the West takes place in the city, but its imaginative life fills the spaces between.
For the most part, historians are in the business of events and trends that can be documented, not heritage or myth. And South Texas’s myths have often obscured or diverted attention from the region’s geographic, environmental, and economic circumstances and its political and ethnic conflicts. Still, I have not made it a priority to overturn or pick apart the myths and lore of Corpus Christi. For one thing, explorers and empresarios, ranchers and rangers, did create the preconditions and foundations for the modern city. In the case of South Texas’s famed ranching families—the Kings, Klebergs, Kenedys, Driscolls, and so on—the relationship was direct: they deliberately sought to build up Corpus Christi as a service town and port for the hinterland that they largely owned. On top of that, the lore and myths of South Texas are themselves documentable historical forces. Heritage stories are not as powerful as the Gulf of Mexico or the Texas coastal plain, and they did not create as much wealth or as many jobs as the oil industry or the Port of Corpus Christi. Still, they underpinned people’s discussions and arguments about the city and their competition to shape the city in image and actuality. Myth and lore even employ people to the extent that the region’s allure for tourists hinges on its distinctive intertwining of the frontier and the Gulf Coast.
The person who most effectively demonstrated to me the benefits of treating with respect South Texans’ sense of the grand and dramatic was Joe B. Frantz, former director of the Texas State Historical Association and first holder of the Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History and Ideas at the University of Texas. Semiretired in Corpus Christi, Frantz befriended me in 1992–1993, near the end of his life. He retained enough health to explain the city as he understood it and to introduce me to a number of people in this book, especially Oscar Flores and the Westside Business Association. As his biographer and former student David McComb explains, Joe had a facility for discerning what might catch someone’s attention and for drawing that person into what he cared about most, Texas’s history and culture. He sensed that he could spark a durable interest in Corpus Christi and other Texas cities if he could demonstrate to me what intricate, intellectually challenging cities these were.2 Joe prized South Texas’s heritage and lore for what they revealed about the mindsets and concerns of different groups of people he worked with. Later in this book, I recount episodes when Joe went too far in accommodating people’s penchant for lore at the expense of history, with costly consequences, literally and figuratively.
Epic or heroic versions of the past make historians wary in part because they often amount to winners’ history; they validate triumph and power. To its critics, the Anglo lore of Texas counts as a conspicuous example of this pattern. Into the 1990s, triumphalist versions of Anglo South Texas lore were certainly manifest in Corpus Christi, though usually expressed in a less brazen manner than in the early and mid-twentieth century. Anyone familiar with South Texas anticipates that ethnic tensions will play out in competing versions of history and heritage. Beyond that, I became curious about ways that people measured the heroic past against the mediocre present. As I encountered it in Corpus Christi, part of the attraction of the epic past related to a sense, expressed to me continually and in many different ways, that the present did not measure up.
In 1992, on one of my first days in my Corpus Christi job, a colleague in the middle of an admirable career remarked ruefully, “Now you’ve reached the end of the road. You can’t get any farther away from things than here.” Anyone who has been around professors knows that they are inclined to this species of gloom, except at Harvard or Oxford, and sometimes there. But I learned that many people shared the sentiment that Corpus Christi had become an end of the line. I also learned that there was a historical and geographic basis for this frame of mind, even if the mood went beyond what a fresh observer might concede was justified.
From my urban-history perspective, Corpus Christi did not seem peripheral. The urbanization of Texas and the Southwest reshaped the country and continent in the second half of the twentieth century, so (it followed) places such as Corpus Christi had profound historical significance. Much of this significance came from the city’s being the Gulf port at the northeastern gateway into Tejano South Texas and, beyond that, into the vast Mexico-U.S. borderlands. Corpus Christi stood near the edge of the United States, but it was near the core of a new version of North America. Much of this book explores the tension between Corpus Christi as an edge place within the United States of the industrial era and as a potentially pivotal place within a system of cities and commerce oriented more toward Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.
For a century, the United States, not the borderlands or the Gulf of Mexico, did the most to form Corpus Christians’ geographic as well as historical frame of reference. The city grew at a remarkable rate between 1920 to 1960 on account of its position within the Texas urban network and its commercial and industrial links to the U.S. urban system beyond. In the city’s most dynamic era, little of its economy—other than, of course, labor—hinged on ties with Mexico. Moreover, local accounts stressed the city’s role as a Texas seaport, but only occasionally expressed a common identity or interest with other Gulf ports. In a political-economic and political-cultural sense, Corpus Christi thrived as an outpost and manifestation of Anglo America, channeled through Texas. For decades, being the city where Texas meets the sea—as a booster slogan from the years after the 1926 opening of the deepwater ship channel put it—seemed to present only opportunities. As recently as the mid-1950s, it seemed reasonable for Corpus Christi to aim to emerge as one of Texas’s metropolitan centers. By the 1970s, such a prospect had bypassed the place. The city ranked among the continent’s leading ports and functioned as an indispensable processing center for the petrochemical industry. Yet within Texas, Corpus Christi had settled into a second-tier or satellite status. Houston and San Antonio above all, but also Dallas–Fort Worth and Austin, not only overshadowed Corpus Christi but also delimited it.
Corpus Christians fretted that their city had failed to take advantage of the Sunbelt era of urban growth of the 1960s–1980s, when Texas’s system of cities asserted a national and international presence. That was the background of the disappointment that people expressed to me in the 1990s. In the 1930s–1950s, entrepreneurs and professionals from across Texas and around the United States sought opportunities in the “fastest growing city on the coast,” as one author observed in 1955, “by far the most versatile, the most progressive, and the most promising” of the Texas Gulf Coast cities outside Houston. By the 1970s, civic and business leaders were worrying about statistics indicating a steady outmigration of ambitious young people to other Texas metropolises. By the 1990s, the city’s the oil and gas sector relied on Houston, Dallas–Fort Worth, and San Antonio, or Wichita and Oklahoma City farther afield, for finance, corporate management, and technical and professional expertise.
The city’s niche within tourism in an odd way reinforced its self-image as second tier and dependent. Corpus Christi carved out a position as an accessible, relatively inexpensive waterfront resort town for middle-class Texans from the state’s inland cities. People from Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio viewed Corpus Christi as a relaxed place to hang around on the beach, go fishing or sailing, watch birds, maybe surf. Corpus Christians expressed appreciation for this recreation-oriented, Gulf Coast way of life. But a waterfront vacation atmosphere has drawbacks if a city’s goal is to attract people who thrive there during workdays, the creative-class types driven to challenge themselves amid a large concentration of innovators and entrepreneurs. An unkind epithet that I heard applied to Corpus Christi expressed this particular frustration: “mecca for underachievers.” Few would have said that about Houston or Dallas in the 1990s or about Corpus Christi in the 1940s–1950s.
It was in this context that the frontier epics of South Texas seemed a judgment upon Corpus Christi’s present. Frontier myths and borderland lore were unfamiliar to me, but I knew a lot about medium-size cities fearful of stagnation and decrepitude. Sympathy for Corpus Christi’s sense of disappointment and provincialism gave an impetus to my teaching and writing that I hope comes through in this book. Still, I confess that much of the book was researched and nearly all of it written after I, too, left the place in 2000 for professional opportunities elsewhere.
This book’s content and organization, therefore, arises from its mix of agendas and audiences. I have not recounted Corpus Christi’s history step-by-step. I have instead examined juxtapositions and interactions between Corpus Christi’s historical sensibilities, which have their roots in the nineteenth century, and the city’s development, geography, appearance, and social, cultural, and political dynamics, products mostly of the twentieth century. The book is less a history of Corpus Christi than a consideration of different ways that the city reveals and relates to its history. It dwells upon regional and historical crosscurrents that shaped the city, along with varied, often conflicting local understandings of city’s history, character, possibilities, place, and role in South Texas and along the Gulf of Mexico.
Among urban historians, there has long existed a division of opinion—mostly friendly, with opposed sides not always clear-cut—over the extent to which regional history and culture matter in understanding cities such as Corpus Christi. In what substantive ways might cities in Texas, the Southwest, and the West differ from cities in other regions, and to what extent did the regions themselves generate these differences? These differences have proved difficult to measure, so supporters of the regionalist position—the view that a region’s cities have distinctive qualities—often resort, as I have in this book, to impressionistic observations about the legacy of history; about practices, quarrels, and sensibilities inherited from the past; and about atmosphere and the power of the environment. The antiregionalist side of the case has the advantage of being easier to support with specific evidence. Most traceable differences between southwestern cities and those elsewhere, this argument roughly goes, result from the timing of the region’s urbanization. Southwestern and western cities might be better understood as twentieth-century cities; their institutions, politics, economies, geographies, and living patterns illustrate a distilled form of twentieth-century urbanism, with fewer holdovers or survivals from previous eras to distract attention. Call to mind familiar images of Chicago versus Dallas–Fort Worth, or Philadelphia versus Houston, to grasp the point being made. I remain attached, more or less, to the distinctiveness position. But this book will underscore the rationale for also considering Corpus Christi a product of twentieth-century urbanization and urbanism.
Corpus Christi’s status as a significant yet secondary Texas city makes it an appropriate place from which to contemplate cities and urban systems in the state and the Southwest. While indispensable to Texas, Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth transcend it. Such highly networked cities absorb and thrive on a multitude of cultural influences; their forte is exchange and interchange. Meanwhile, the smallest cities, those that function merely as local markets and service centers, tend to reflect a narrow range of influences; for the most part, they absorb and embody the culture of their hinterland. Corpus Christi is a medium-size city that manages to be both cosmopolitan and provincial, networked and local. It is an indispensable provider of urban services to its region and at the same time a port of international significance. Its industry and military bases—and increasingly, its coastal research institutes—give it a range of connections throughout North America. Yet the city has evinced a keen self-consciousness concerning its perceived small-town atmosphere and its lack of power relative to Texas’s four main metropolises. Such a place illustrates tensions between regional and cosmopolitan influences shaping southwestern cities more clearly and distinctly than larger or smaller places.
While a book examining an urban region from the perspective of a medium-size city will have value to scholars of cities everywhere, I have also worked to create a tool for people in the Corpus Christi area and its portion of South Texas. An emphasis on how Corpus Christi illustrates patterns evident in many other places and shares difficulties with those other cities can help counter the city’s sense of distinctiveness and provincialism. Corpus Christians often talk about their city as though it is alone at the end of the road. They express the worry that their city might have special defects of circumstance or character, that in addition to being midsized, the place might be destined for mediocrity, permanently unattractive to people with large goals. Books cannot solve problems, but they can make misconceptions untenable. History and geography have infused the place with distinctive features. Even so, the city is a product and illustration of large trends. The problems that have made Corpus Christians anxious about its viability are partly local but not only so. To some degree, they reflect limitations attributable to its place and role within the urban system of Texas. Yet in part, the city has confronted issues typical of midsized cities across the United States and indeed around the world.
The first half of the book revolves around the tension that I perceived in a twentieth-century city with a nineteenth-century regional, historical sensibility. Chapter 1 sketches the city as an analytically inclined newcomer—such as I was initially—might describe it. I offer an outline of the city’s geography and spatial structure and then divide the city’s history into plausible set of phases. Chapters 2 and 3 turn the perspective of chapter 1 on its head. They elaborate on competing bodies of regional lore that molded the city’s outlook and self-presentation: the east-to-west epic of Anglo South Texas and the south-to-north saga of Mexican South Texas. Southern Texas’s experience as disputed territory—a place where frontiers came together violently—has meant that ethnic, nationalistic disputes often take the form of conflicts embedded in frontier heritage and lore. The Mexican heritage of South Texas hinges on an alternate or stolen frontier process. Pioneer ancestors—from south of the area, not east of it—were steadily building a Hispanic region when Anglo intruders arrived, suppressed and blighted what Mexicans were creating, and imposed a new frontier.
Chapter 4 examines how competing outlooks on the city and its place in South Texas appeared in local quarrels over sculptures and monuments. As in many cities, diverse groups have used public art—sculptures, monuments, murals, and such— to put their stamp upon the city and shape its identity. Of the crosscurrents that made Corpus Christi’s public art raucous, ethnicity caused division and suspicion to be sure, but it was not the most persistent source of argument. The bitterest, most enduring disputes revolved around differences in education, social class, and outlook: cosmopolitan versus regional orientation, elite versus popular taste, professional versus amateur influence. In this, Corpus Christi again illustrates the divergent reference points and aspirations that one might expect in a city with a strong regional sensibility but also with manifold connections to national and international networks.
Chapter 5 concerns downtown Corpus Christi and decades of schemes to embellish, redevelop, or preserve it. An unforgettable physical setting, with its prolonged, crescent-shaped bayfront and forty-foot bluff, downtown defined the city’s image for residents and visitors and embodied its sense of history and civic identity. As in most U.S. cities, the central city had come to seem a problem by the mid-1960s, when the consequences of outlying shopping centers and office strips became clear. For the next half century, plans for the central business district were surrounded by tensions over the motives of pro-revitalization interests, the sincerity of their assurances that even as they plotted to attract tourists and conventioneers, they intended to protect downtown and the bayfront for local people to use and take pride in.
Historic preservation efforts, meanwhile, concentrated on the central city, and not just because of its visibility and prestige. Until World War II, Corpus Christi had not spread beyond the limits of this diffuse area, so nearly every structure that residents considered worth preserving was located there. Buildings cherished by historical activists in the 1970s–2000s were intended when new—whether early in the century or after World War II—to convey the impression that Corpus Christi was no longer a crude outpost but a component of modern, urban America. Except for a few instances that, I argue, prove the rule, Corpus Christi’s record in using history to reinvigorate the central city was meager. In keeping with the city’s self-consciousness, preservationists were apt to blame their disappointments on special defects in Corpus Christi’s historical or civic sensibilities, but, I further argue, the real culprits were geographic and practical obstacles and, at times, bad luck. The illustrative case was the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse, subject of a decades-long preservation battle that, rightly or wrongly, disheartened preservationists while discrediting preservationism with local government and the public and adding to the city’s sense of its own incapacity in comparison with Galveston or San Antonio.
The final chapter dwells upon ways that Corpus Christi’s place within Texas and the Southwest infused the city’s political economy and shaped its responses to the stagnation evident by the mid-1960s. In the 1940s–1960s, apex of the city’s aspirations, the port, petrochemicals, and related industries attracted a cohort of ambitious, talented entrepreneurs, engineers, and professionals. Self-confident and close-knit, this generation of Anglo commercial and civic leaders organized a political alliance that stressed business-government cooperation as the key to maintaining the city’s dynamism and its reputation (at the time) for progressive planning and policy. Urban affairs experts label such alliances “progrowth” or “commercial-civic” coalitions. Common in U.S. cities, these alliances took on an especially organized form in the mid-twentieth-century Southwest, where they worked through quasi political parties such as Corpus Christi’s Better Government League and where self-perpetuating civic groups such as Corpus Christi’s Area Development Committee oversaw planning and set priorities for public works and services.
The results seemed to justify this oligarchic approach until economic stagnation undermined deference to the elite, as well as its own self-confidence and capacity to perpetuate itself. Hispanic and black activists demanded an open, responsive political system, even as middle-class Anglo neighborhoods expressed more and more resistance to the commercial-civic leadership’s emphasis on big-ticket, civic-engineering and public-building projects. This atmosphere generated fractiousness, recrimination, and self-defeating policies. But as in much of Texas, the city’s political and civic leaders—increasingly Hispanic as well as Anglo—adapted to this more pluralistic, contentious environment well enough to avoid paralysis most of the time.
Most political and civic activists conceded that the city was better off with a more open style of politics. Still, they hankered for the midcentury elite’s self-assurance, coherence, and sense of direction. The city’s politics retained its progrowth orientation, though of necessity in a less coherent way. After the 1970s, it was hard to discern what direction the city should take, let alone how one might rally support for and pursue a particular vision coherently. The circumstances within Texas and along the Gulf of Mexico that caused Corpus Christi to prosper between the 1920s and the 1950s now seemed to limit and hamper the city. In effect, by the 2000s, Corpus Christi sought ways partially to secede from a Texas urban system in which it was stuck in the second tier, an instrument of other cities’ endeavors. It sought autonomous political, economic, and cultural ties, ones that did not go so often through Dallas, Houston, or Austin. Yet in its regional identity and historical sensibility, the city remained, to be sure, firmly and proudly Texan, the place where Texas meets the sea.
I drafted this preface in the summer of 2011. I redrafted it in mid-June nearly a year later. The weather was clear and pleasant for the first draft, gray and chilly the second time around. I was not in Corpus Christi, but in a city of comparable size and status nearly seven thousand miles away. Bielefeld, Germany, where I finished the first draft of this book while a guest scholar during 2010–2011, also had a population of a little over 300,000, though its hinterland, as one would expect for fertile Westphalia as opposed to arid South Texas, consisted of a dense network of towns and a large aggregate population. Both cities showed signs of emerging from periods of drift, their recoveries sparked by the resurgence of sectors that had seemed stagnant or even in decline: energy production and processing in Corpus Christi’s case, specialized manufacturing in the Bielefeld region.
This contrast suggested that renewed prosperity might present the two cities with differing prospects for autonomy and self-generated growth over a period of years. The shale oil boom that took hold in South Texas during the 2010s signified multinational enterprise; capital came from around the world, and a large share of the profit would flow whence investment came. It would be decades before the vast Eagle Ford field to the northwest of Corpus Christi petered out, but when that happened, how much shale oil wealth would the city retain for its own use? In seeking to explain the resilience of German manufacturing after the 2008 recession, the Economist in April 2012 told the story of a family-owned Bielefeld firm that paid high wages to skilled workers who manufacture complex lighting control systems. Revenues from contracts for Italian opera houses and Las Vegas casinos flowed into the city and stayed there. Like many of Germany’s midsized metropolitan regions, the Bielefeld area featured a web of such firms that supported one another, the magazine explained.
Just as Corpus Christians look toward San Antonio and Austin, Bielefelders look westward to the Ruhr region, the cluster of cities surrounding Düsseldorf, Dortmund, and Essen. Corpus Christi, with its sweeping bay along the Gulf of Mexico and its high bluff set back from the shore, has a dramatic setting. Bielefeld defines nondescript; it does not even have a river, which Germans assume is essential to a proper city location. An elaborate joke known throughout Germany as the “Bielefeld Conspiracy” asserts that the city is so nondescript that it must be an illusion concocted for some untoward purpose. The plausible grounds for the conspiracy start with pointed questions, “Do you know anyone from Bielefeld? Have you ever been there?” The place sits in a pass in the Teutoburg Forest, which, like the Nueces Valley, has profound, even disturbing associations with national history and nationalistic lore.
So far as I know, other Texans have never suggested that Corpus Christi does not exist. Texans often express affection for and ties to Corpus Christi, something one rarely hears from residents of the huge German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen regarding Bielefeld. Art and photographs depicting Corpus Christi are spread throughout the state; it figures regularly in Texan and Tejano popular songs. Texans worry in summer and fall when hurricanes threaten it. It is easier to amuse oneself by alleging the disappearance of a city with no river than one along the Gulf of Mexico. What ties the two cities together is the reality of the urban life that takes place in them. In Dallas or Dortmund, in Essen or Austin, big-city dwellers would profit from understanding these midsized cities not as lesser versions of themselves, but as their own types of places and as places with which their fates are intertwined.
“Lessoff’s call to recognize the rise of urban Texas is valuable and rewarding for both historians and local residents.”
Western Historical Quarterly
“This book is a model for other historians to test in other places—in Texas, the Southwest, and other regions. It is a great urban history and an excellent source for readers both familiar with and new to the city’s history.”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly
“An important contribution to the growing body of work on Sunbelt cities. . . . [It] proves that the history of successes, anxieties, and new starts in ‘peripheral’ cities might be just as important, if not more so, than the urban monoliths of history and historiography such as New York and Chicago.”
Pacific Historical Review
“A well-researched and interesting addition to urban history in an understudied region. The author incorporates environmental history nicely and demonstrates why Corpus Christi has not been able to achieve long-term success like many of its neighboring cities.”
Journal of Southern History
“Superb…the finest history of a Texas city to date.”
Austin American Statesman
“This is the most sophisticated and compelling urban history set in Texas, and an excellent contribution to the growing body of literature that traces the sometimes-bloody meeting of Anglo and Mexican cultures along the borderlands. A meticulously researched, gracefully written work of considerable originality and importance.”
Benjamin Johnson, Loyola University Chicago, and author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans and Bordertown: The Odyssey of an American Place
“An important contribution to the growing body of work on Sunbelt cities. . . . [It] proves that the history of successes, anxieties, and new starts in ‘peripheral’ cities might be just as important, if not more so, than the urban monoliths of history and historiography such as New York and Chicago.”
W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Studies, Pomona College, and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest
“Where Texas Meets the Sea is the definitive history of Corpus Christi. In this expansive and nuanced portrait of place, Alan Lessoff charts the captivating life of a dynamic and often misunderstood city. He tracks the storms—meteorological, political, cultural, and economic—that have shaped Corpus, and he renders the area and its people with rare insight. The city has long been overlooked by historians, and it’s rarely been put in its deserved larger context, but in Where Texas Meets the Sea, Lessoff ends the silence. It was worth the wait.”
author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This