Best Texas Books: ‘Where Texas Meets the Sea’ by Alan Lessoff

How many observers would have predicted that the finest urban history to date about a Texas city would take as its subject Corpus Christi? Permanently perched on the state’s periphery, Corpus, a city of 316,000 — 442,000 in the metro area — seems always consigned to secondary status.

NOTE: This story first ran in the Statesman June 9, 2015. We’re reviving it for our Best Texas Books series.

In “Where Texas Meets the Sea” (University of Texas Press), Alan Lessoff explains how a place with such sterling advantages — gorgeous beaches, a striking bayfront under a natural bluff, a man-made deepwater port, proximity to Mexico and to the ranching, oil and gas empires of South Texas — has been stuck in virtual neutral for the past 50 years. Despite the current fracking boom, young people still leave in droves, as they did when the glamour spotlight followed other cities in the state: Houston during the space race, Dallas during the run of “Dallas,” and Austin pretty much ever since.

Lessoff is unswervingly fair. He doesn’t point fingers or assign guilt. Yet he makes it clear that Corpus has squandered opportunity after opportunity, especially in those years since an elite group of mostly Anglo businessmen ran the city from the 1920s to the 1960s. A necessary and salutary diffusion of power followed, but consensus has been fleeting.

BEST TEXAS BOOKS: “The Cedar Choppers.”

Preserve historic buildings in context, as Galveston and San Antonio did, or bulldoze them and start over? Run a major thoroughfare along the bayfront, or make it more amenable to tourists and pedestrians? Cluster civic buildings on the bay? Or maybe on the bluff? Or somewhere in between, as urban designers have urged?

Corpus Christians can’t even agree on whether explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda named the bay because he arrived there on the Feast of Corpus Christi. (Lessoff finds no evidence to confirm the popular notion.)

Civic dithering might sound awfully familiar to Austinites, but here a lingering sense of optimism, a sense that problems eventually can be solved, tends to bolster old-timers and attract newcomers — including young people — in multitudes.

Corpus lost the headquarters of H-E-B and Whataburger to San Antonio. It missed out on Sea World. In the book’s most squalid passages, Lessoff describes how the city allowed Spanish-built seagoing replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria — sent on a somewhat tone-deaf diplomatic tour during the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, and intended as tourism supermagnets — to rot. The Pinta and the Santa Maria replicas were quietly destroyed in August 2014.

“They had become a monument not to interethnic pride,” Lessoff writes, “but to the perils of community building through generalized symbolism.”

The city was founded in 1839 — same year as Austin — as an Anglo trading outpost on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico, the Nueces River, by Henry Lawrence Kinney. It was nurtured as a market town, banking center and supply depot for South Texas ranching families. Its Hispanic residents — who finally began to share power after World War II through groups such as the G.I. Forum, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Westside Business Association — were generally descended from rural families long settled in the region.

The town was vulnerable to tropical storms. A 1919 hurricane swept many buildings off its low-lying bayfront. Corpus built a seawall, lower than the one in Galveston, which, after all, juts directly into the Gulf of Mexico rather than resting behind a shallow bay.

Two big things lifted Corpus from backwater status in the 20th century: The discovery of oil and the completion of the port in 1926. A naval air station cemented its longtime military character. As in San Antonio, many veterans chose to stick around after their service.

A few rail lines were added, and for a while it seemed as if Corpus could duplicate the success of Houston or other booming Gulf cities. Its downtown — crowned by hotels and the streamlined Lichtenstein’s department store — seemed as bustling as anywhere in Texas at the midcentury mark. (My father, grandfather and grandmother worked in that grand store.)

Many of those downtown landmarks are gone or remain unreclaimed.

It isn’t as if Corpus hasn’t made big plans: It built the vaulting Harbor Bridge. Another is on the way. Periodically, fabulous developments are planned for the waterfront or the barrier islands. The expanded port continues to boom.

But too often city leaders can’t get it together. Lessoff includes an entire chapter on the symbolic fights over public art. Elites centered at the Art Museum of South Texas — its Philip Johnson building is among the city’s few distinguished pieces of architecture — feuded bitterly with locals who felt that their tastes and their favorite artists were ignored.

Among the few local artists who were able to find backers in both camps was Swedish-born sculptor Kent Ullber, whose “Wind in the Sails” represents “an evocation of the awesome Gulf,” according to Lessoff, and “came closest to providing a symbol for the city.” A statue of Tejano idol Selena gained public acceptance after an uncertain start.

Preservationists find it hard to win any battles. In a halfway gesture, some older structures were moved to a central spot called Heritage Park, stripped of their contexts. The nonprofits housed in the buildings struggled to make a go of it in the odd village.

Lessoff sees a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — anchored on a thrice-reinvented bayside campus — imports and trains a creative class for a city that has relied too heavily on services to inland farms and ranches, on energy-hungry industry and on in-state tourism.

One of the most confounding and persistent blind spots for the city: Its relatively weak ties to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Instead, that role in has been usurped by San Antonio, Laredo, Houston and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, an urban agglomeration of 1.2 million residents strung along one smooth freeway. That whole, linear region from Mission to Brownsville seems plugged into the border in a way that Corpus does not.

A buddy who spent part of his youth in Corpus Christi and I recently explored the Valley, which, in the past few decades, has evolved from a rural patchwork into one vast, buzzing, low-rise landscape. We departed the region on a workday morning at what should have been rush hour, taking a “NAFTA superhighway” north to Corpus.

No traffic in either direction. That alone speaks volumes about both urban areas.

Reading “Where Texas Meets the Sea,” one can’t help rooting for Corpus. Despite its lack of collective vision, the city has always been perched on the brink of tantalizing possibilities.