Urban Space Production In Free Enterprise Houston
Due to its buoying economy and low cost of living compared to other major U.S. cities, Houston has experienced a fast and considerable growth. It places fourth in the nation in terms of population and first among cities in the southern US and Texas. Despite having one tenth of the density of New York City, its metropolitan region is the size of the State of Massachusetts. It also fared relatively well in the latest recession and has attracted business and people both domestic and foreign, transforming into one of the most ethnically diverse urban centers in America. For these reasons, it has been touted as the paradigm for the city of the future. But is it so?
Houston’s development has been tied to the fate of modern capitalism since it was founded in 1836; particularly, to the mercantilization of space. Its growth has been contingent on the exploitation of land’s resources, like cotton, timber, or oil; or direct land speculation. Yet, this growth distances from being equal for everyone. It is largely the result of a so-called ‘growth-coalition’ comprised of public officials and business elites advocating for a good ‘business climate’. Part of the success of this coalition is due to its effective promotion of a laissez-faire and private-centered way of life that would allow everyone who works hard to rise to the top as long as the government is kept out of it. Through an historiographic review of its development, in this study we set to observe how these factors have shaped the city; what truth lies in the myth of the free-enterprise city that prevails in the rhetoric of the business community; and if Houston should be considered a ‘model’ city.
Since its beginning during the British Colonies period in the XVII century, urban settlements in North America were established on the principles of European capitalism and the traditional Puritanism of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Houston, although a much younger city compared with the East Coast settlements, has followed the same principles.
Founded in 1836, the city of Houston has its origins in a real estate enterprise by John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen. Coming from New York, the Allen brothers convinced the Federal government of the viability of a settlement beyond the Mississippi that would serve as a commercial port for the recently formed Texas Republic. Thus, taking advantage of the favorable immigration conditions for Anglo-Americans set by the new Texan government, and financially backed with federal money, the Allens bought 10.37 square miles of land alongside the meandering Buffalo River.
The Allen brothers, experienced real estate swindlers, had operated for six years in the Texas country — where the aggressive and thriving real estate trade was common — before coming up with their Houstonian opus magnum. For this enterprise, they promoted their paper town all over the US. They attracted unsuspecting customers to the flat, swampy, mosquito-ridden, and uncomfortably humid region by touting Houston as the most healthy place in Texas, centrally located, handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered. Their ruse worked out, and Houston began to gradually populate—mainly by Southern families, particularly from Alabama and Louisiana—, continuing the feverish territorial expansion of the American West
The beginning of the industrial development in Houston was even choppier than its commercial development. The more consolidated mercantile-industrial urban centers of the East enjoyed a larger reserve of skilled labor, more investment capital, and better transportation infrastructure. Also, they were located closer to the sources of raw materials (iron, coal, wood, etc.). All of which made it harder for Houston to compete. Although Houston was poised as an important regional urban center, in contrast with others like Galveston, the main port and one of the richest cities in the US at the time, it was not a player at the national level. Nevertheless, a series of historical events transformed these circumstances, thrusting Houston into an accelerated growth, positioning it as the top city in the region and one of the most important ports in North America and opening the path to its industrial development.
First, aware of the geographical disadvantage of the port of Houston compared with Galveston, the local business elite, commandeered by entrepreneur and political figure Jesse Jones, resorted to its political influence in Washington to secure the federal financing necessary for dredging the navigation channel of the River Buffalo and for the improvements of the port facilities. Direct participation of influential Houston business leaders in the federal government was decisive, given the city’s lack of resources and political power to make an expense of such magnitude, not in Texas, where the generalized attitude towards public spending was negative. Thus, state intervention was the only way to achieve the work needed for making the city accessible to large ships.
Second, the discovery of the first oil fields in Texas in 1901 in Spindletop and other deposits throughout the northeast region of the state a few miles from Houston opened the doors to industrial development in Houston. This discovery, coinciding with the transition from coal to oil as source of energy, promoted the development of oil refineries, petrochemical facilities and tool factories for the exploration, digging and extraction of the precious crude. It was also the source of vast fortunes for a few investors
Public policy for a planned development has been “sporadic and inconsistent, dependent upon the commitment of individual citizens or public officials rather than institutionalized city policy”. The ubiquitous ideology of laissez-faire and privatism has defeated several attempts to establish a general urban plan. Zhu Qian has noted that, of the mayor US cities, Houston is the only one without zoning. In turn, “shadow planning” by neighborhood associations and developers has prevailed, allowing themselves those powers that they negate to the government, but without the latter’s accountability for their actions: making their own neighborhood ordinances, closing streets, practicing eminent domain, and tax abatements. Yet, most of the time these practices reflect a narrow view, more for the benefit of their investment than for the benefit of the larger community.
The externalities of this uneven development can be felt by everyone, for example, car congestion or air pollution in the city; but the worse problems are located where poor people live, in a sort of ‘environmental racism’, placing waste disposal sites and contaminating industries amongst low-income neighborhoods.
And, while this financial profile of low taxes and low public expenditures (specially in public welfare) is being promoted as a ‘good business climate’ that will attract job creators, it has not improved poverty much, leaving 43% of Houston’s households making less than $37 501. At the same time, low expenditures in health and education have hurt the quality and productivity of Houston’s workforce. With 36% of residents having only high school level education and 15% less than that, it has been difficult for industries to fill jobs with local labor. More information about Houston can be found here.
The only reason there has been more awareness of the public urban infrastructure is because lately the new business elite has recognized the necessity of providing an attractive urban environment to compete with other cities worldwide for the new and highly mobile knowledge-economy professionals and equally mobile global corporations. For this reason organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, real estate capitalists, and public officials have pursued an urban development focused at the goal of aiding Houston maintain and maximize its competitive economic position in the marketplace. In 2001, the Greater Houston Partnership (the new name of the Chamber of Commerce) stated that “Houston must develop the recreational and environmental amenities to be competitive in the new economy”.
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