Authors: Lawrence Wright
“Everybody got hit,” Judge Ed Emmett told me when I visited him again, this time in his county office in downtown Houston. “Geographically, demographically—it doesn’t matter whether you were rich or poor. If we’re going to continue to have this large urban area on the Gulf Coast, we’re going to have to deal with flooding.”
Houston had come into its own after the Great Storm of 1900 wiped out Galveston, then the major seaport in the state. “The Ellis Island of the West” was the point of entry for tens of thousands of immigrants, especially European and Russian Jews. Wealthy and complacent, Galveston refused to address the hazards of its location—for instance, by building a seawall. The city was only eight feet above sea level at its highest point. The weather bureau did not heed the warnings from Cuba that a major hurricane was on its way. When the storm arrived, it brought a surge fifteen feet high, drowning the island and wiping out the city almost entirely. The death toll was estimated between six thousand and eight thousand people. It is still the deadliest natural disaster in American history. The survivors rebuilt the city with great determination, raising it seventeen feet higher, but chastened investors wanted a safer port.
They turned to Houston.
The seeds of a great city had already been planted. Houston had streetcars and a railroad connection to New Orleans. A philanthropist named George Hermann gave a tract of land for a charity hospital, which would eventually become the foundation of the Texas Medical Center. The bayou had already been dredged to facilitate the lumber trade, but that work quickly expanded when Spindletop came in the year after the Great Storm. President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the Houston Ship Channel in November 1914 by pushing a button on his desk in the White House that was supposedly connected to a cannon in Houston.
But Houston had to face its own destiny in 1935, when downtown flooded. “That’s what got everybody spurred into action,” Judge Emmett told me. A flood-control district was established. Two large reservoirs were built to contain floodwaters; at the time, they were twenty miles from downtown. “They were out in the middle of nowhere,” Emmett said. Since then, some fourteen thousand houses have actually been built inside those catchments, a fact that may not have been disclosed to the homeowners. Those reservoirs were now filled to the brim, many houses within were flooded, and the Army Corps of Engineers was releasing water to keep the levees from breaching, adding to the flooding of the hundreds of homes that had been built around them.
“I’m not a hydrologist, I’m not an engineer, but something didn’t work,” Emmett said.
I asked Emmett, a Republican, if he was a climate-change skeptic. “The seas are rising, we have to deal with it,” he said. “I’m more concerned if we’re at a new normal. We’ve had three five-hundred-year floods in less than a three-year period, so our definition of a five-hundred-year flood is probably wrong. Either that, or we get fifteen hundred years off.”
Emmett laid part of the blame on his own party for being anti-intellectual and failing to take climate change seriously. “We’ve got too many people in our party who believe that the earth is less than ten thousand years old,” he said. “Some of the political leaders are so afraid of this extreme element in the party. Periodically, just for fun, I go back and watch the movie
Inherit the Wind
”—about the Clarence Darrow–William Jennings Bryan “monkey trial,” which featured a debate about the biblical account of creation versus the science of evolution. “I can’t believe we haven’t gone any further than that.”
I admit that my involvement in the theater world is tangential. I am a nonfiction journalist, deeply curious about the world outside but not so much affected by the interior landscape. Actors are a little mysterious to me. Their emotionality, their expressiveness, their intuitive genius—all of this is about as far from who I am as nuclear engineers or trapeze artists. When I’m with them, I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country—a friendly place, but one with unfamiliar folkways. I once made the mistake of uttering the word “Macbeth” during a rehearsal in New York, and the actors marched me outside on a cold winter day, made me turn around three times on a crowded sidewalk, and then beg for readmittance. The Scottish play, you are supposed to say.
When Greg delivered the news, the cast nodded, then one of them spoke up, saying, “Yes, well, we just want to keep rehearsing.” They all agreed. It was totally unrealistic. There was no venue for us. The Alley was facing millions of dollars in damage. Even when the theater got back on its feet, there was no room in what remained of the season. Greg began to weep. The next day, the Alley staff somehow managed to find space for
the following spring.
Shortly before I returned to Austin, there was an ad in
The Houston Chronicle
. “To our friends in Texas,” it began:
Level One is aggressive, innovative, and self-assured. It erupts from the instinctive human reaction to circumstance. The paisano presses his tortilla, the slave mixes his corn bread, the cattleman rubs prairie sage on the roasting steer, and a cuisine is irrepressibly born from the converging streams of traditions and available flavors. Spanish priests mortar limestone rocks with river mud; bankrupt Georgia farmers, remembering the verandas of their plantation empire and mindful of the withering sun, build high-ceilinged houses with broad, shaded porches; thus a native architecture arises. In scores of county seats laid out in the 1880s, the Virginian idea of the central courthouse square meets the Spanish idea of the town plaza and the Victorian idea of wedding-cake masonry, creating an idiom of civic democracy. The imagination chases after memories of cattle drives and Indian wars and the mighty geysers of oil spewing depreciable assets out of the ground, and from these come the stories that power our mythology and inform our literature. The whine of the wind across the plains finds an echo in the nasal twang of our speech and the bending guitar strings, and so even today our songs holler back to the once empty spaces where suburbs now sprawl. All of our culture overlays this primitive template, just as the Houston freeways inscribe the same routes once traced by ox wagons headed for Market Square.
The persistence of Level One in Texas is what makes it unique. You can still find the Tex-Mex Regular Dinner on the menu, and there are steak houses that haven’t changed since the introduction of bacon bits on the baked potato. Pickup trucks are as common on the city streets as yellow cabs in Manhattan. (One-fourth of all vehicle sales in Texas are pickups; we buy more than any other state, more than California, Florida, and Oklahoma combined, and nearly every manufacturer has a special Texas edition.) When people think of Texas, these things inevitably come to mind.
Throughout my life in Texas, the state has been torn between Level One and Level Two, which occurs when a primitive culture casts its eye on other societies to see what they have to offer. This stage coincides with the arrival of money. Whereas Level One is aggressive and rooted and sure of itself, Level Two is consumed with longing. Expansive, neurotic, uncertain of its own goals but deeply embarrassed by its naive origins, Level Two is the stage of sophisticated imports. It is in love with the au courant, which is to say the passing and quickly discarded fancies of more polished cultures. It is a voluptuous and rather bogus stage of development.
It is easy to sneer at Level Two, but it is a necessary stage that any great culture must endure. It is a time of travel, education, and acquisition—the never-ending process of widening one’s horizons. Level Two cleans the dirt from under its nails and turns to the humbling work of civilizing itself. Classical music, Renaissance art, Elizabethan theater, foreign philosophies, and exotic cuisines: the world pours in and swamps the little craft of Level One. The undergraduate bohemian reading Chekhov is indulging in the joys of Level Two as surely as the arbitrageur discussing the Matisse exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum over a plate of sashimi. This is all wonderful, but it is also in its way destructive, as one can easily see from the homogenized Level Two culture that has franchised itself and spread all across America, leaving so little of the original cultural imprint that made one place stand apart from another.
The most explicit and enduring example of the influence of Level Two in Texas is the architecture of our cities, which have practically obliterated their own native charms in order to become showplaces of other people’s ideas. In the rush to build to the sky, cities have scraped away their histories and sucked the life out of their downtowns. When I moved to Austin in 1980, there were shops and cafés and department stores along Congress Avenue, and the majestic capitol dominated the landscape, as it was designed to do. Now Congress Avenue is shadowed by undistinguished office towers, which rudely leapfrog the three-story historic buildings that remain. The effect is like the mouth of a child, full of baby teeth and permanent teeth and awkward gaps in between. There is grandeur in the shimmering new skyline, but the human scale has been obliterated as Austin becomes just another big city.
Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei brought architectural acclaim to Houston and Dallas, and these cities can think more highly of themselves now that
The New York Times
have put their imprimatur on them. The buildings that have come to define the urban centers of Texas—the Williams (formerly Transco) Tower, Pennzoil Place, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, to name several of the most elegant and successful of these—have added energy and an air of self-importance that characterizes any great city. They are “world class,” to use a phrase that characterizes Level Two thinking. But there is nothing Texan about these buildings, nothing that refers to the history or responds to the environment in which they are placed. One could just as easily see them in Boston or Sydney—but that’s the whole point of Level Two, which is the achievement of a high level of sameness.
It is easy to forget who we are in Level Two. We have wandered far from home and gotten lost in the cultural forest. What had seemed so secure in Level One—that is, our rootedness and a sense of what we stand for—has been torn away and made to seem tacky and inconsequential. In many ways, however, Level Two is a noble and adventurous stage, full of delightful cross-fertilizing discoveries. For me, the first, gratifying step into Level Two began with the arrival, in Abilene, of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a momentous and longed-for departure from meat loaf at the officers club at Dyess Air Force Base on Sundays after church. Abilene was dry in those days, so whenever my parents made a trip to San Angelo, ninety miles away, to load up on liquor, we’d stop at the Lowake Steak House, which was situated in a cow pasture with a dirt airstrip running across the road. We were a family of five but would order steaks for three and then bag up the leftovers. Mother liked to have a beer, which they brought in a goblet she could barely lift. This was pure Level One Texas.
When we moved to Dallas, in 1960, I encountered my first pizza. It took place at Campisi’s Egyptian Restaurant—which was, despite the “Egyptian” moniker, the first pizzeria in Texas. The only actual “ethnic” restaurant I can recall in the city at the time was La Tunisia, which was notable mainly for the seven-foot-tall, fez-wearing doorman, along with cocktail waitresses dressed as harem girls. There was no such thing as a fajita in Texas until Ninfa Laurenzo introduced the dish in her revered Houston restaurant—Ninfa’s—in 1973. (I’m aware of the scholarship on this matter, which proposes that the fajita was actually an indigenous Tex-Mex creation of the mid-nineteenth century, which migrated south and ingratiated itself into the kitchens of Coahuila, Mexico, before returning in its full beer-marinated, sizzling-plattered, sour-cream-dolloped glory.)
Level Two is marked by the rise of cultural institutions—the opera houses, ballet companies, symphonies, music halls, museums, galleries, libraries, theaters, and schools that have proliferated in the last several decades. These institutions begin by importing other people’s culture and, one hopes, end by fostering their own. To understand the anxiety that floats beneath the boasts of Level Two, we have only to visit the vaulted sepulcher of the Dallas Museum of Art. Solemnly designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, it opened in 1984, boasting “the finest collection of post-war American art” in the Southwest. It also laid claim to the country’s “finest collection of Japanese-influenced American silver,” “the largest display of Chinese export porcelain,” “the largest Robert Rauschenberg painting,” the “largest painting by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo,” and finally, “the world’s largest indoor sculpture by Claes Oldenburg.” Only in Texas is Large Art an aesthetic category.
The DMA also houses the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection. Wendy Russell Reves was a leggy blonde from Marshall, Texas, who became a New York fashion model and the longtime lover of a wealthy European publisher, Emery Reves, whom she finally married in 1964. She was the Jerry Hall (from Gonzales, Texas) of her day. Wendy became the chatelaine of a villa on the Côte d’Azur formerly owned by Coco Chanel. Winston Churchill spent months at a time there, to paint, and to drink in Wendy’s charms. His wife pointedly refused to join him. Noël Coward observed in his diary that Churchill was “absolutely obsessed with Wendy Russell…I doubt if Churchill has ever been physically unfaithful, but oh what has gone on inside that dynamic mind?”
After Emery died in 1981, Wendy offered to donate his $30 million collection of impressionist and postimpressionist art to the new Dallas museum, which was still in the planning stage. Museums in France and elsewhere avidly courted the widow, but they were unwilling to accommodate her intransigent demand that her residence be faithfully reproduced in order to showcase the art.
Thus, one leans into the roped-off rooms in the DMA’s version of a Mediterranean villa to see life as it was lived by a Hungarian playboy with his spirited Texas mistress. Here in their dining room, with still lifes by Courbet and Cézanne, are the Reveses’ china plates and silverware all laid out on the immense banquet table. (Housewares occupy center stage in this exhibit; the art is mere decor.) A nude Degas pastel looms over the tiger-skin boudoir chairs in the master bedroom, and the bed itself is mounted on a kind of presentation dais. At the foot of the bed is a pair of Wendy’s not-exactly-Cinderella-sized slippers.