Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston
UT Press, 2017
“Which side of the tracks do you live on?” — This time-honored euphemism belies centuries’-entrenched development patterns that segregate, based often on race. Transportation networks have long been deployed as instruments of municipal, state, and national governments to partition cities — and, in many cases, to control the behaviors and interactions of the residents. We can applaud the breaking down of these barriers in our “post-racial” society as the I-35 corridor that divides Austin is breached, but this is not integration — merely displacement. If anything, the past few months have shown us that post-racial sentiment is not yet a reality in our cities. Those of us who were educated in the past half-century have heard of Robert Moses’ notoriously low-clearance overpass bridges leading to Jones Beach on Long Island, and would be willing to agree that his design tactics in New York were questionable and exploitative. When we see examples of these same tactics in our home cities, we acknowledge them, and then, likely, shrug. What is a common citizen to do about a highway that is already in place? We get on with our day.
“Power Moves” by Kyle Shelton, of the Kinder Institute for Urban Studies at Rice University, looks at a number of these transportation development decisions in Houston. He describes a narrative that is common across the U.S., one where GIs return from the war and car culture redefines the nature of cities. His tale of Houston is mirrored by Western cities like Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and many others. The book progresses in a linear fashion, starting with post-war suburban Houston.
It begins with white families purchasing their suburban lots and homes, removing themselves from the messiness of the city to the happy promised land of large yards and ethnic purity. Immediately, vehicular mobility is identified as essential to continued growth (development), and freeways are posited as the answer. Since this is the ’50s, this is new business, and standard widths are not yet codified. Developers promise connection to the city, and the city, eager to expand its tax base, provides infrastructure at its own expense. Often, land is “gifted” by the developers to ensure the placement of the road in locations that serve them best. Houses are built and families move in with an understanding that a large road will bisect the development at some unspecified time in the future. As discussions progress between developers and the city, the utopic development in this particular example ends up absorbing a right-of-way much larger than the homeowners initially anticipated: Established homes hundreds of feet to each side of the right-of-way are marked for obliteration under the flag of eminent domain. Protests are filed and ignored. The road is built, and the neighborhood bisected.
Then, the Federal Highway Act is passed, and expansion is prioritized above residents. Surveyors appear in the yards of poorer residents as the interstate arrives. The roads land primarily in black and Hispanic neighborhoods — neighborhoods that often have no structured roadway — and communities are disrupted, patterns lost, buildings flattened. City officials argue in favor of these networks, stating that the roadway connections will stimulate the local economy and elevate the lifestyle of the residents. Residents of the Fifth Ward, an African American neighborhood, where the I-50/US-59 interchange destroys 36 square blocks, disagree. Hundreds of homes are erased, as are over 100 businesses, 11 churches, five schools, and two hospitals. In a telling indication of residents’ value to the government, the public housing project Kelly Homes is severed from the rest of the neighborhood. Almost no pedestrian bridges are provided between the now-divided sides of the neighborhood, unlike the section of US-59 that passes through a white-only neighborhood. The loss of the housing stock inevitably causes a spike in housing prices, and many neighborhood residents are left with no option but to relocate to neighborhoods farther from the city center. As a result of these projects, neighborhood organizations start to form, focusing on local areas, with a goal of local impact, but to little avail.
Developments on the periphery become bargaining chips as developers give away land in exchange for tax breaks and literally redraw the routes of the “ring” roads on which we now drive, in order to direct the public through their strip malls or communities. Municipal and county transit authorities begin to wrestle over controlling these suburban projects to expand their authority. Often, the City of Houston comes out on top by absorbing more and more small municipalities. As these suburban highways espouse connection to the city, the routes explicitly cut local residents off from resources, community services, and each other. The roads become instruments of access and deprivation.
In the ’70s, we see more advocacy for mass transit. Even notable Houston developer Gerald Hines calls for rail to be deployed throughout the city. Citizen groups continue to galvanize, moving beyond the local to the regional, while still espousing a NIMBY-oriented perspective (“Not In My Back Yard”). METRO is established after the previous failure of HARTA (Houston Area Rapid Transit Authority), which did not receive popular support, as it neglected to engage poorer residents within the city and at its edges. Eventually, METRO outlines a very progressive and ambitious plan for rail with the support of the inner city, with over 15 percent of the cost to be funded by the federal government; however, this effort is immediately challenged by a county plan for increased roadways in the form of (inherently exclusionary) toll roads. The argument goes that vehicular roads support a greater portion of the populace, decrease congestion, and, again, increase connection to the city center. The suburban vote prevails, and METRO shifts its focus to the periphery, decreasing services in the central city.
While rarely effecting change, venues are created within government entities — specifically, METRO — to facilitate listening before the gavel drops. Shelton calls this “Infrastructural Citizenship,” a term he uses liberally to indicate tactics aimed at changing the final decisions for the location of freeways and similar development. We’re led to believe that perhaps progress is being made and that government entities are making decisions based on citizen input. Any momentum lost due to public opposition no doubt helps to fatigue the advocates of infrastructural projects. One specific example provided is the creation of the Harrisburg Freeway, proposed along multiple routes and fought vehemently until its eventual shelving in the ’80s.
The lion’s share of the victories outlined in Power Moves owe a debt not to conscientioius regional policy, but to external forces, such as national economic stress or more stringent requirements on federal funds based on environmental reporting. As money or property is available, the city accepts it from anyone extending their hand, except when greater pressure from other private interests is applied. Either way, outcomes are generally ignorant of, or outwardly hostile to, community concerns. Decisions are made with a thought toward what can be achieved now, without consideration of the long-term consequences.
Eventually, rail is introduced in Houston. Ever-widening freeways fail to be the panacea they were promised to be, though the expansion of the road network continues to this day. Rail is pushed through rather forcibly and again meets with local opposition, which has the impact of merely stunting or rerouting lines, the city taking what it can get through the path of least resistance. The community that opposed the Harrisburg Freeway now has a rail line roughly in its place, yet is generally supportive of the development. Notably, one leg of the Green Route construction came to a halt for years as citizens opposed an overpass where the rail was promised to be below ground. This overpass cut off visual connection between the opposing sides of the street and was seen as detrimental to the commercial activity of the community. In response, the city spent untold dollar amounts on various reports outlining seemingly specious cost overruns and environmental concerns in order to finally build the overpass they wanted.
Shelton lays out this history of transportation politics in a factual and linear fashion. He tries, somewhat unconvincingly, to show the increased role of citizens as agents of change. The book is well researched and outlines some specific outrages, but it is, at its heart, a history. At best, these histories are symbolic lessons of what has transpired in cities across the U.S., from which we can gain some insight. At worst, they’re all-too-familiar anecdotes of the hapless consequences of freeway development. Some of the projects described are visionary and focused on the future of the city, but many serve special interests that tend to be moneyed. The argument for Infrastructural Citizenship really proves to be rather ineffectual at a local scale and instead boils down to just one thing: citizenship. Participation in your government is required if you care about the decisions that are made. Of the referendums outlined here, the average polling numbers hover around 12 percent of the eligible population. Perhaps the other 88 percent couldn’t get to their polling station, or were otherwise occupied with a surveyor in their front yard.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is principal of CONTENT Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.