If New York was a melting pot, Galveston was a crucible. Everything New York had, Galveston had, compressed into an area a fraction the size of a borough.
The fuel for this crucible was commerce. Galveston’s motto was “Commerce is king; live and let live.”
The priest, the madam, the banker and the carpenter knew each other and were cordial. Factories, mansions, warehouse, banks, railroads, churches, modest homes, the port, grocers and houses of ill repute were all within walking distance of each other. There was no zoning, and more bonhomie than recrimination.
Juxtaposition, activity and visual clutter created excitement. Downtown, even the windows of buildings were plastered with signs. If they had had digital signs in 1890, they would have been all over Galveston. The Japanese understand this yet: in the city, in a retail area, there is a riot of signs; in the country, at a historic site, serenity.
Many who live here today came from upscale, right-thinking, homogeneous communities where deed restrictions or homeowners associations promote subservience to a monolithic, suck-the-life-out-of-you bourgeois aesthetic. They might as well have emigrated from Disneyland.
In Disneyland there is no litter, no drug problem and no jail. All the buildings are cute. All the residents are well groomed and respectably attired. They also smile continuously from ear to ear as if they were overdosed on Xanax or are paid-up members of some cult.
If that is not scary enough, all the animals walk upright and speak and all are neutered. A fortunate provision considering how large and affectionate they are. Give me instead feral cats and a real city with faults.
What makes Galveston interesting is the stubbornness and independence of its inhabitants, who brook incursions neither from Government nor Nature, their heterodoxy, their eccentricity, their diverse origins; that, and the patina that great commercial wealth and then poverty and slow dissipation wrought on men and architecture.
Well-intentioned visitors, enamored of the city, buy property and then unwittingly kill the thing they love by supporting a subversive Disney-like aesthetic and suburban values that are antithetical to the freebooting soul of the city.
A piece of weathered wood with chipping paint is more interesting, more beautiful than the same piece freshly painted. Yet the city is intent on trading the patina of a hundred years for whole neighborhoods painted in jelly bean colors, in the process, ridding itself of the disadvantaged who contributed so much to Galveston’s diverse and robust culture.
Requiring property to conform to a certain aesthetic is as oppressive as requiring an individual be dress as a Mouseketeer.
Galvestonians have died to defend the Texas Republic and the city; they built a financial network that permeated the Southwest; they overcame the greatest natural disaster that ever ravaged the United States.
The days of Galveston’s glory are remote, but it saddens me beyond measure to see the liberty of which this city was the embodiment cast aside to create a replication of Disneyland.
It’s laudable if you have fixed up your property as you like, but that confers no right to coerce your neighbor.
This drama is being played out on Broadway, which is in need of improvement. But the construction of the Domino’s Pizza, which was built scrupulously to the city’s most recent rules is palpable evidence that it is not so easy to produce an intended result.
All the bad things about the Domino’s were a direct result of the city rules adopted in 2016 and were predicted by the architects who spoke then against those rules. We need to be very careful what we wish for.