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Power Moves

Power Moves
Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston

Adding an important new chapter to the history of postwar metropolitan development, this book investigates how struggles over transportation systems have defined both the physical and political landscapes of Houston.

December 2017
Active (available)
342 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos, 9 b&w maps | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket |

Since World War II, Houston has become a burgeoning, internationally connected metropolis—and a sprawling, car-dependent city. In 1950, it possessed only one highway, the Gulf Freeway, which ran between Houston and Galveston. Today, Houston and Harris County have more than 1,200 miles of highways, and a third major loop is under construction nearly thirty miles out from the historic core. Highways have driven every aspect of Houston’s postwar development, from the physical layout of the city to the political process that has transformed both the transportation network and the balance of power between governing elites and ordinary citizens.

Power Moves examines debates around the planning, construction, and use of highway and public transportation systems in Houston. Kyle Shelton shows how Houstonians helped shape the city’s growth by attending city council meetings, writing letters to the highway commission, and protesting the destruction of homes to make way for freeways, which happened in both affluent and low-income neighborhoods. He demonstrates that these assertions of what he terms “infrastructural citizenship” opened up the transportation decision-making process to meaningful input from the public and gave many previously marginalized citizens a more powerful voice in civic affairs. Power Moves also reveals the long-lasting results of choosing highway and auto-based infrastructure over other transit options and the resulting challenges that Houstonians currently face as they grapple with how best to move forward from the consequences and opportunities created by past choices.

  • Introduction
  • 1. Building a Highway Metropolis: The Origins and Advent of Houston’s Postwar Growth
  • 2. Whose Highways? Planning, Politics, and Consequences
  • 3. “Only You Can Prevent Another Freeway”: The Harrisburg Freeway and the Struggle to Shape a Neighborhood
  • 4. Infrastructural Elections: Transit Referenda in the 1970s
  • 5. By Road or by Rail? The 1983 Transit Debate
  • 6. The Legacies and Limits of Infrastructural Citizenship
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index

“In this fascinating study, Kyle Shelton examines the increasingly contentious processes by which the residents of postwar Houston participated in a series of vigorous debates about their city’s transportation infrastructure. By focusing on the frequently messy and nearly always heated politics surrounding these debates, Shelton teases out a variety of important insights—not only about the tangible consequences that big transportation projects have had for urban growth, but also about the ways that the debates affected the citizens who participated in them. An original and important book.”
—Christopher W. Wells, author of Car Country: An Environmental History

“Highways remade the landscape of Houston and most other American cities after World War II. In this marvelous book, Kyle Shelton shows how they also remade urban citizenship and public culture in Houston’s inner city and suburbs alike. Power Moves is as important as it is timely.”
—Andrew Needham, author of Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest

“A superb and relevant examination of transportation battles in Houston since the 1950s. The book makes significant contributions to the fields of post-1945 US urban and suburban history, southern/Sunbelt history, the history of Houston, the history of citizen and community activism, and transportation and mobility studies. It also shows why scholars of social and political activism in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s should pay attention to contests over the building and use of urban infrastructure, clearly illustrating how these battles can reveal the role of citizen activism during these tumultuous decades.”
—Wesley G. Phelps, Sam Houston State University, author of A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston

Power Moves effectively shows how Houston’s built environment was the product of contestation among diverse interest groups, each of which attempted to wield the power at their disposal to shape megaprojects to their own ends. In a moment when such large-scale infrastructure projects are again entering our political debate, this book could not be more timely. An important contribution to Texas history and US urban history more broadly.”
—Max Krochmal, author of Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era