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Hurricane Harvey and Houston’s Myth of the “Wild West”

The disparate impact of Hurricane Harvey on poor neighborhoods in Houston has been the topic of much of the post-storm commentary during the past week. In one particularly compelling piece in the Huffington Post, Alexander C. Kaufman argues that the city’s “Wild West” mentality has contributed to a peculiar type of urban development marked by rapid and haphazard sprawl. That type of development leaves many low-income neighborhoods disproportionately susceptible to the devastating effects of storms like Harvey. While it is certainly the case that Houston’s lack of urban planning and land zoning ordinances has put these poor neighborhoods at increased risk, the fact that the city finds itself in this reality is not because of happenstance. For several decades, Houston’s boosters have actively promoted a free-market image for their city that has created the “Wild West” myth. The history of antagonism toward urban planning and land zoning in Houston, however, reveals an image not of the Wild West but of a systematic policy designed to insulate certain areas of the city from risk while leaving others vulnerable.

Efforts to promote city planning and to enact zoning ordinances began in Houston during the 1910s and 1920s. Local real estate developers and an organization called the Houston Property Owners’ League waged a concerted campaign against the idea, arguing that “such planning was discriminatory, arbitrary, and damaging to small property owners and real estate interests.” Not for the first time, city officials promptly rejected a planning and zoning ordinance. Proponents of planning launched a second drive to enact a zoning law during the 1930s and once again met organized resistance. Anti-zoning advocates argued that “zoning would throttle city growth and would interfere with the constitutional right to hold property.” As the debate lingered into the next decade, the voices of those opposed to urban planning in Houston grew louder and more alarmist. Zoning laws, according to opponents, would “create a dangerous club in the hands of any dictatorial administration.” One prominent leader of the anti-zoning faction proclaimed that “a zoning ordinance is an exercise of the police power of government. . . . Houston was built by men of vision, not by slide-rule experts armed with an omniscient egotism and a pocket full of silly statistics.” Another anti-zoning activist exclaimed that zoning “just goes back to the idea of Joe Stalin, that one man can figure out everything – the whole plan.” Hugh Roy Cullen, a reactionary but nonetheless influential voice in city politics, stated that Houston was “doing too well to try this un-American, German plan.” A few months later, Houston voters defeated the planning proposal in a public referendum.[1]

The next time the issue of urban planning and land zoning came up in Houston was during the 1960s when Mayor Louie Welch was trying to secure a Model Cities grant for the city. In 1967, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) blocked funds for Houston because the city lacked the proper zoning laws to make sure the money would be spent in accordance with the requirements of the federal program. Welch came from the elite business community and was never willing to support a zoning ordinance. In response to the HUD ruling, he appealed the decision and argued that Houston’s network of deed restrictions was sufficient to secure the funds. This argument was quite a stretch. Houston’s deed restrictions were primarily confined to the city’s more affluent neighborhoods whose residents wanted to block industrial development, particularly by the region’s growing petrochemical companies, and prevent the construction of chemical plants near their homes. Many of them also barred the placement of other “undesirable” businesses and individuals, such as gas stations and residents of color. The deed restrictions in the affluent River Oaks neighborhood, for example, “restricted the land to allow only one resident or family per lot, no hospitals, no duplexes, no apartments, only Caucasian ownership, no livestock, no dumping, and no signs.” Deed restrictions were clearly not intended to aid in urban planning. If anything, deed restrictions were a way to shun planning by offering affluent Houston residents a way to control their own neighborhoods without forcing them to approve citywide zoning laws.[2]

During all of these battles over urban planning in Houston, wealthy elites, their political allies, and even a majority of voters successfully blocked the enactment of zoning laws and other land use regulations. Real estate developers, oil production and refining industries, petrochemical companies, and others like them have been the beneficiaries of this absence of land control while the city’s poor residents and communities of color suffer. Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey expose these disparities in a dramatic way. Because residents of low-income neighborhoods have fewer resources at their disposal to pressure city officials to build protections against flooding like dams and levees or to use deed restrictions to prevent petrochemical companies from building plants near them, these poor neighborhoods bear the brunt of a disaster’s devastation. In the days during and after Harvey, it has been low-income neighborhoods that have disproportionately experienced catastrophic flooding and endured toxic leaks from chemical plants. To make matters worse, in the days of recovery to come it will also be residents of low-income neighborhoods who have fewer resources to survive while they await the arrival of emergency assistance.

As the attention of the national media and of most Americans shifts away from the Texas Gulf Coast in the next few weeks, it is imperative to remember that the forces that have placed Houston in its current state of inequality have deep historical roots. Far from being the Wild West, elites in Houston have worked deliberately to construct a land use system that benefits the few over the many. If there is any hope in changing this situation before the next devastating storm hits the city, it is in the idea that since the system had to be built, it can also be unbuilt and a design for urban planning can, if enough Houstonians so desire, replace it.

Wesley G. Phelps is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, just north of Houston. He is the author of A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014).

[1] David G. McComb, Houston: A History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 139-144, 217-220.

[2] Larry Temple to Blair Justice, October 19, 1968, Box 16, Folder 1, White House Central Files, Local Government (Gen LG), Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas; McComb, Houston, 221.