Wednesday, December 21, 2016

700 (2016 #55). Where Texas Meets the Sea

by Alan Lessoff

The subtitle to Where Texas Meets the Sea is a little misleading.  "Corpus Christi & Its History" is missing a modifier.  From that title, many readers would expect a chronological history of this coastal city, and that is not what you get.  Maybe "A Thematic History of Corpus Christi" would have been a better subtitle.

This is definitely an academic book.  Five of the six chapters in the book are based on four articles (which I plan to read) that the author previously published in academic journals.  The one chapter that did not - chapter five - concerned downtown planning and historic preservation efforts, the topics of most interest to me.

Parts of this fifth chapter describe the angst over the preservation of the 1914 county courthouse (the "Acropolis of our city," pages 222 and 225), still standing, and the 1950s civic center designed by Richard Colley (particularly Memorial Coliseum, the "'Quonset hut' of Sisyphus," pages 232 and 233, demolished in 2010 with its Friends group ordered to pay the city $30,000 for causing delays).  This was fascinating, as was the description of the "building zoo" (pages 216, 220, and 240) of Heritage Park, which began while I worked for the city's Park and Recreation Department.  Chapter four was also quite intriguing, with its focus on the public sculpture in the city and its effect on civic identity.

Chapter one describes Corpus Christi's history in four rough periods (page 61):

From the 1830s to the 1870s, Corpus Christi was an outpost town, a spearhead of Anglo-American expansion into a contested region.  From the 1870s to the 1910s, it was a coastal town, the gateway and service center for a region that Anglo-Americans controlled and were colonizing.  From the 1910s to the 1960s, it was a crystallizing city; in this period, the pillars of Corpus Christi's modern political economy were built.  From the 1960s into the 2000s, Corpus Christi was a developed city, a "mature" place, as economists use the term.

Chapters two and three present the alternate viewpoints of the city's "role in two grand, competing stories of the founding of Texas...the south-to-north Tejano saga of explorers and conquistadores, missionaries and empresarios, vaqueros and carters, invasion, expropriation, and borderland violence..[and]..the east-to-west Anglo-Texan epic of frontier settlements, ranchers, vigilantes, and rangers, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and railroads" (page 5).

Chapter six focuses on the period from about 1965 through 2012, when Corpus Christi pretty much settled into its role as a secondary, regional city, satellite to bigger ones in the state.  I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing, though.  In two visits this past summer, ten years after a previous visit, I was awed by how physically large the city had become - and saddened by some of the ensuing infrastructure problems (a failing water system and streets in bad condition), that, to my mind, were perhaps the result of too much political emphasis on trying to be an impressive city.  I for one would not want Corpus Christi to be another Houston or Dallas-Fort Worth, or even Austin or San Antonio.

The last two sentences of the book's conclusion pretty well sum up my feelings about Corpus Christi, a city that will always be close to my heart, the city of my youth and first real love, a city that will always intrigue and fascinate me (page 294):

In a photograph or in a book, people remain unchanging, ever present for those who come later, even though life and the city move relentlessly on.  All the evidence that a city's people leave behind, all their attempts to express their experiences of a place, all their wrestling with its myths, history, arguments, and prospects, its grandeur and its disappointments, all these make that city endure and its people matter.

Author Alan Lessoff, a specialist in comparative urban history, was an assistant and associate professor of history at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi from 1992 to 2000, and made great use of its archives and special collections library, as well as other resources there when writing at least three of the four articles that formed the basis of this book.

My spouse and I both worked in Corpus Christi's city government from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and are familiar with many of the issues raised in this book.  My in-laws also married and lived there from the late 1930s through the late 1940s (in association with the Navy, one of the city's strongholds), when my husband was little. We also both have extended family in the city going back to 1878 (including Mayor A. A. Lichtenstein and his family's department store, and others in the tourism and health care fields).  Given this background and our knowledge, we were keenly interested in the book.  I think others with long and/or deep ties to Corpus Christi, as well as students of urban history and planning, would also like this book.

The 360-page print book includes 49 pages of end notes and a twelve-page index.  Although the end notes in the printed book conveniently have a notation on the bottom of each page as to which pages in the text they cover, I nevertheless found them somewhat frustrating.  The Corpus Christi newspapers are a major source used, and all that is given for these is the newspaper title and issue date.  With Corpus Christi being a large city, I would have appreciated titles of the articles and/or section and page numbers, as it will take a long time to find the actual article source within an issue of the newspaper.

For this book in particular, I would first recommend reading the blurb and excerpt from the introduction available on the publisher's website.  That introduction is also available as a free sample of the Kindle version of the book - albeit without working footnote links.

I probably sound critical of the book, but it is important to note it's not for everyone.  I liked it enough that I plan to purchase the Kindle version to have for future reference.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

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