In his book Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston Kinder Institute fellow Kyle Shelton plots the “history of postwar metropolitan development” in Houston, examining the “struggles over transportation systems” that came to define both the “physical and political landscapes” of the city and region. At the intersection of class, race and cars and transit, Shelton details a vision of infrastructural citizenship and looks at how Houston’s transportation fights have shaped its present.
Excerpted from Kyle Shelton’s Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston. Copyright 2017. Used with permission from University of Texas Press.
About a mile to the northeast of downtown Houston, Texas, roads seem to occupy every plane. One runs below, recessed into the earth. Another soars above on concrete piles. A third is a bridge, level with the ground a few paces back. Moving south down Jensen Drive, the bridge is suspended between the rushing traffic on Interstates 10 and 69 (formerly US Highway 59). At the halfway point of the bridge, a look to the east affords a view of the massive interchange of these two freeways. Originally built in the 1960s, the flyover ramps, main lanes, and frontage roads tore a neighborhood apart to make way for improved metropolitan mobility. Today the road seems like a given. It fits the landscape. Its curves hug the contours of the reengineered land, and its decks have stood for years. It’s hard to picture what stood there before. Homes, businesses, places of worship, and schools have faded for all but the few who remember their presence before the upheaval of construction.
When they were built, the roadways disrupted the Fifth Ward, a historically African-American section of the city. The ward—anchored by its main commercial drag, Lyons Avenue—was a vibrant and cohesive part of black life in Houston during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The road erased much of this history. The interchange alone claimed nearly nine hundred structures; as the freeways ran north and east, they claimed several thousand more in the ward and other communities. Beyond simply removing structures, the road’s construction disrupted established patterns of life in the Fifth Ward. Its lanes bisected routes students took to school and those adults followed to run daily errands or get to work. Along with existing rail lines, the road put a concrete barrier between the neighborhood and the city, boxing the ward in with massive infrastructure. To the south, I-10; to the west, the then US 59; to the north and east, rail yards. Entry and exit meant crossing markers that signaled a neighborhood apart.
Like decisions made in countless other American cities, the choice by the Texas Highway Department to run the road through the predominantly minority ward was not accidental. During the 1950s and 1960s, as a part of wider urban renewal efforts, officials from many states and cities worked jointly to place highways through urban minority and working-class neighborhoods. At a time of immense demographic change in American cities, white officials hoped removing “blighted” communities would help revitalize central cities and that new roads and efficient traffic planning would help draw white suburbanites back into town for work and play. This official perspective, of course, did not sit well with residents of the communities affected by the interventions. But African-American Fifth Warders, like other ethnic and racial minorities across the nation, faced entrenched racism and classism that prevented effective contestation. At the time the road was built in the 1960s, residents lacked the political and economic influence needed to stop, redirect, or even lessen the impacts of the project. Fifth Warders had almost no warning that the road was being planned. Many learned of its routing only after the first steps of construction began. The lack of public information limited residents’ opportunities to object. Thousands were moved before any form of resistance could be organized. But even as the road rose above and below the landscape, other Houstonians drew lessons from the experience of the Fifth Warders.
Speaker after speaker rose to address the elected officials presiding over an April 1983 public forum at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Houston’s north side. The diverse collection of Houstonians in attendance came to weigh in on two pending transportation plans for Houston and Harris County. The first called for the construction of a countywide toll road system. The second would build a heavy rail mass transit network. Both systems planned to use an old rail corridor just blocks from the church for a route. Residents from this corridor, a mixture of white-collar and blue-collar African-American, white, and Latino Houstonians, feared that the building of the projects would threaten their homes and daily rhythms. Cognizant of the destruction caused by earlier road construction in neighborhoods throughout Houston, corridor residents preferred the rail option, believing it would be less disruptive and better serve their communities. One homeowner exclaimed, “We don’t want the toll road to come in and uproot our homes for the benefit of just a few people. We don’t want it to come in and devastate our community.”
Houstonians whose homes sat removed from proposed routes, including many white-collar, white suburbanites with long daily commutes in personal vehicles, felt differently. These residents worried about their taxes going to support a system that would provide them with little service. Lee Swanson, one such suburbanite, campaigned for the toll roads, arguing that they were the “best solution” for Houston’s traffic problems. Far from disrupting lives, Swanson maintained, the road would instead “tie the [metropolitan] community together.” As the hour grew later, patience grew thin. Citizens on both sides of the debate interrupted speakers with cheers and boos. Houstonians came to the forum with competing understandings of their communities and city, and through arguments about the proposals they articulated those visions. The meeting changed few minds. The projects, framed by residents as either catastrophes or solutions, represented another step in a decades-long debate over the shape of the city and its infrastructure—a debate that did not stop when the votes over the transit system and the toll road were tallied.
In May 2015, when the light rail line, known locally as the Green Line, opened, a rider’s journey ended abruptly at the Altic/Howard Hughes Station, despite route maps showing two additional stops. The tracks ran a few hundred yards past the last stop, disappeared for about a half mile, and reappeared to run past the final two, where the stations were completed, but not yet in use. The gap in the tracks existed because of a delay caused by a roiling debate within Houston’s East End community about whether to build an overpass or an underpass where the light rail crossed a set of freight rail tracks. During the initial stages of line construction, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Houston and Harris County (METRO), the region’s largest public transit agency, proposed the building of an overpass. After substantial public feedback and a concerted local push against the idea, however, METRO agreed to instead build an underpass. But initial engineering work found an unstable pollution plume left by the petroleum tanks of derelict service stations, and the agency said the pollution made construction of the underpass unviable. METRO moved forward with the overpass plans. This shift caused uproar among community members who supported the underpass and thought they had that choice secured.
The underpass/overpass debate was just the latest conflict in decades of tension between East End residents and officials attempting to plan and construct transportation infrastructure for and through the neighborhood. The East End, a set of predominantly Mexican-American communities, has a long history of being shaped by industrial infrastructure. Because of its location along the Houston Ship Channel, the East End has housed freight traffic, heavy trucks, and industrial uses since the early twentieth century. At the same time that it has been dominated by industrial traffic, the personal transportation system for community members has almost always been lacking. Electric streetcars served the area until the late 1930s, and once they were removed the area received only minimal private bus service well into the 1970s. Mobility for most meant walking, using a private car, or waiting on slow and unreliable buses. Then, in the late 1960s, officials announced that they intended to run a highway, the Harrisburg Freeway, through the center of the East End. Residents protested vociferously. The East Enders’ awareness of the consequences of road building in the Fifth Ward and long-held frustrations about infrastructural intrusions spurred the protest. Their fight against the road contributed to the eventual abandonment of the plan.
The light rail line and the rejected roadway are linked together, physically and politically, by the communities’ contentious history with transportation infrastructure. In concrete terms, the rail runs down the same street that highway planners intended to use as the route for the highway that was rejected in the 1970s. This overlap exemplifies the ways in which previous decisions can either lead to or preclude future choices. In the decades since they helped defeat the road plan, East End residents have demanded better transit service and improved infrastructure for their neighborhoods. The road fight showed that if they applied constant political pressure to METRO or other officials, they might achieve some of their goals. Decades of such lobbying pushed METRO to build the light rail line in the community. Even as the rail was laid, some East Enders remained skeptical of the agency’s role in the area. Many viewed the rail not as a provider of mobility, but instead as a spur for redevelopment—a push that many East Enders still fear will displace them. METRO sees the light rail as a sign of the agency’s efforts to serve residents and to create a working system for the area. The line was paid for entirely by METRO at a cost of almost $600 million, certainly a signal of commitment to the community. And despite periods of tension, the agency worked closely with residents and community representatives during its planning. Thanks to the long-running participation of East End residents in mobility debates, the Green Line process—from plan, to construction, to overpass debate—was far different from that which occurred during previous transportation debates.
The decisions made in each of these moments shaped more than just a city’s transportation network. They remade the landscapes of Houston’s Fifth Ward, Hardy corridor, and East End. They continue to influence the form and function of those communities today. The infrastructural debates of previous eras, and the physical legacies they left behind, shaped subsequent choices across the city, which in turn birthed the current built environment of the Houston metropolitan area. The passionate participation of a cross-section of Houstonians in these three transportation debates also reflected a larger political sea change that occurred in Houston’s politics and urban development between 1950 and today. When Houstonians fought for or against highways, considered the merits of mass transit, or advocated for other infrastructural outcomes, they not only altered the urban landscape but also seized a larger role in metropolitan growth decisions. By transforming elements of the built environment from inert materials into arenas in which they could claim and assert political power, residents crafted a set of rhetorical and political actions that constituted what I term infrastructural citizenship. In this case, citizenship is not defined by nationality or legal standing, but instead by the quotidian acts residents used to construct themselves as political participants. Most expressions of infrastructural citizenship in Houston emerged in the form of transportation activism. During efforts to protect or shape their communities, Houstonians staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings. They organized historical preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts. They argued that their homes and local streets should be held in the same esteem as regional highways and downtown redevelopments. With each action, residents used the particular infrastructural debates around transportation decisions to assert their rights as citizens. The tactics pursued by residents reflected an inability to shift the early stages of decision-making and instead were moves that attempted to impact final results. Residents worked to delay projects, draw attention to concerns, and protest decisions of which they did not approve. Even if those efforts failed to achieve their desired outcomes, as many did, the simple act of projecting their hopes onto the structures allowed citizens to reshape their meaning.
Houstonians engaged in transportation battles were far from alone in their use of infrastructural citizenship. Since World War II, citizens across America, not connected by any specific racial, economic, or political categorization, have embraced elements of the actions and ideas that constitute infrastructural citizenship in hopes of garnering control over their cities, streets, and homes. The examples from Houston highlighted in this book resonate with countless others from around the nation. Houstonians turned to fights about transportation infrastructure to cope with the immense physical, economic, and political tumult occurring in both urban and suburban America after World War II. Residents in other cities and regions fought over changes in development practices, the location of hazardous wastes, and even the impacts of energy infrastructure. The transportation fights in Houston quickly expanded to inform other metropolitan debates. Houstonians cared deeply about how mobility systems would serve them and connect the city, but they also channeled frustrations about a wide variety of issues into campaigns around transportation infrastructure. Beyond pushing for specific modes or routes, Houstonians used infrastructural conflicts to advocate for the protection of their communities, as an entry point into broader political debates, and as a way to forward their own visions for the city. Through these actions, citizens challenged the status quo of urban development and reconfigured the balance of metropolitan political power by inserting themselves into its fabric.
Struggles over how to best shape a city—where to build homes, businesses, parks, or schools; how to provide access to those spaces; how to power and operate them; and how to pay for them—are universal. Over the course of the twentieth century, debates about highways and mass transit systems became increasingly influential, if understudied, elements of the effort to define American metropolitan growth. Much of the literature on metropolitan growth that does exist is focused on the earlier part of the twentieth century. The history of these debates, and of the nation’s changing urban built environment more generally, is traditionally framed through the actions of the government officials, engineers and architects, private companies, and real estate developers who planned and built the systems that served American cities. This official perspective took shape in both the black-and-white ink of engineering renderings and in the final positioning of steel girders. Their viewpoints are the most visible—both on the landscape and in scholarship—because they were the most concrete. They were the ones that usually got built. However, using the frame of infrastructural citizenship allows competing definitions of the built environment to come to the fore. It acknowledges the possibility that a single highway could bring promise or dread depending upon the location of an off-ramp. One community of residents may have supported a road because it brought them into town more quickly. Another may have rejected it because it cut them off from a school or grocery store. The fact that a single infrastructural debate could oscillate from the metropolitan scale to the level of a single home, and from public debate to private domain, demonstrates the universality of the subject and the significance of its study.
Although infrastructural citizenship can and should be located by historians in events that occurred prior to 1940, the combination of increasingly empowered citizens and the roiling redevelopment that occurred in American cities after 1945 resulted in uniquely contentious metropolitan infrastructure debates. This fertile political moment allowed for the scaffolding of infrastructural citizenship—and its many iterations—to emerge. Increasing citizen activism, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, was essential to shifting the nature of infrastructural debate and project construction. Nationally, citizen protest against official-driven infrastructural planning, particularly urban highways, began to crop up in the late 1950s at a time when hundreds of millions of dollars were flowing into projects to build downtown roadways and remake urban cores. This undercurrent turned into a flood by the late 1960s as a wide variety of Americans fought for influence over the infrastructural future of their cities.10 As federal officials devolved a variety of decision-making powers to the local level during the second half of the twentieth century, citizens seized on opportunities to influence policy. By the mid-1970s, much of this debate had shifted toward arguments about investing in public mass transit.12 Fights over what transportation mode to prioritize intensified through the late twentieth century and continued into the twenty-first century in Houston and across the nation.
The citizen-led push to shape postwar infrastructure put pressure on government officials and helped shift the planning of major projects from a process that excluded citizens altogether toward one that required significantly more citizen participation. That level of involvement continues today, and transportation decisions are among the most publicly scrutinized and fractious decisions that a city, region, or state can make. Increased involvement in decisions did not directly equate with increased decision-making power, though. Although individuals have gained a louder voice in transportation decisions, theirs is not always the one that carries the day. Parsing through Houston’s historical and contemporary transportation fights sheds light onto where citizens have made gains, what the durability of those victories are, and where citizens continue to face limits on their ability to effect change. Lessons drawn from Houstonians’ transportation activism can help situate the broader efficacy of infrastructural citizenship as a tool that allowed citizens to participate in the decision-making process and to help shape their cities.
As a form of political activism, infrastructural citizenship connects with several national political trends of the later twentieth century. The fights over highway infrastructure link to broader mass mobilization campaigns for democratic decision-making and civil rights that reverberated through American cities in the postwar period, from the War on Poverty to labor movements. Organizers and activists from these movements were not siloed; nor were the everyday citizens who participated in them. There was a free flow of leadership among these movements, with each drawing lessons and strengths from others. Fights around infrastructure were no different. Leaders in Houston’s debates were often active in the city’s civil rights movement and other community campaigns. While many parallel citizen-led efforts lost momentum in the face of political opposition from the Nixon and Reagan administrations, or as a result of a lack of financial resources, transportation debates remained an active and contested realm in most major cities. This longevity may be partially due to the amorphous nature of infrastructural and transportation fights. They are ever-present and affect a wide range of citizens. Unlike the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement, though, transportation activism created less durable allegiances and less effective long-term activism. Individuals fought projects on a one-off basis, making sustained activity much more difficult and limiting the longterm influence of groups that formed in response to discrete projects.
As transportation fights stretched into the 1970s and 1980s, they became imbricated with a second, seemingly contradictory stream of political activism—the conservative fiscal and political turn rooted in predominantly white suburbs.14 Suburban infrastructural activism was a part of a much larger push for local control by white suburbanites that aimed to stem racial integration and keep suburban taxes from supporting majority-minority cities. The rise of suburban conservative politics also created a metropolitan crisis of political contestation between cities and suburbs. This metropolitan fragmentation made regional governance an antagonistic rather than a cooperative endeavor. Furthermore, it still clouds how we conceptualize urban and suburban mobility and the connections between these metropolitan places. This book calls for infrastructural contests to be elevated within discussions of the mass political activism in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Because examples of infrastructural citizenship are not confined to particular geographic, political, racial, or socioeconomic boundaries, scholars must compare how citizens from different contexts embodied the concept.
Houston’s example, again, will prove instructive. Given the city’s rapid physical expansion after World War II, no part of the city or group of residents completely escaped the consequences of transportation infrastructure development. Although African-American and Mexican-American residents absorbed many of the consequences of highway construction, they were not alone in facing the negative impacts; nor were they the only groups who resisted official plans. Roads ran through the suburbs as well. Because of the ubiquity of transportation infrastructure, all metropolitan citizens confronted its elements in their daily lives. And several times during Houston’s history, seemingly disconnected groups aligned to fight for or against transportation systems. Despite such brief alignments, Houstonians faced divergent scales of destruction and possessed significantly different amounts of political power depending upon their race, class, and geographic location. These differences directly influenced the outcomes of transportation debates and cannot be ignored.
The Americans who participated in infrastructural struggles did not explicitly articulate their actions as expressions of infrastructural citizenship. However, most activists recognized that infrastructure debates afforded them a public, long-term, and potentially transformative topic around which they could advocate for their interests. I turn to the concept of infrastructural citizenship, then, not because it was deployed by historical or even present-day actors, but instead because it offers an organizing idea by which we can conceptualize how thousands of Americans have participated in the shaping of urban built environments since World War II. During discrete infrastructural fights that have occurred over the past seventy years, at a variety of scales and in a variety of places, a diverse set of citizens embraced a common set of rhetorical and political arguments about the placement, construction, and use of infrastructure.
Citizen responses to large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly highways and mass transit systems, must be privileged as formative and dynamic elements of urban development and politics in postwar American cities. Histories of the construction and impact of infrastructure have multiplied in recent years, but, despite this upsurge, work remains to be done on how metropolitan residents conceived of and reacted to infrastructure construction and its aftereffects. Earlier works concerned with infrastructure development, such as those in urban politics, have either privileged the organizational efforts of white elites like Jane Jacobs or focused much-needed attention on the damaging consequences of construction for lower-income and nonwhite communities. Rarely have scholars joined these histories or situated these fights as key political battles within metropolitan urban politics. Even more rarely have scholars engaged with how residents responded to infrastructure after its construction. In this book I have attempted to address each of these gaps and to build upon our understanding of how major urban infrastructures affect the lives of urban residents before, during, and after their construction.
Houston, an unknown metropolis
Houston has been an aspirational city since its founding in 1836. From the first, boosterism was a central ingredient in the city’s growth. The Allen brothers, the city’s founders, sold their humid, mosquito-infested land to potential settlers as the healthiest place in Texas, with “an abundance of excellent spring water, and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness.” And although few sea breezes could be felt fifty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the Allens’ claims of economic prosperity proved prescient. “Trade will flow to [Houston],” they asserted, “making it, beyond all doubt, the great interior commercial emporium in Texas,” one served both by rail and by water. By the 1920s, their visions had come to pass. Houston had beaten out regional rivals thanks to the construction of a navigable ship channel, a hurricane that crippled Galveston, and the discovery of oil northeast of the city. The city captured much of the oil trade, and by the 1920s boosters were comparing the city to New Orleans. Houston expanded after World War II, and residents, bullish on its future, celebrated its millionth resident in 1954, touted its reputation as “Space City,” and objected to those who depicted it as a tier below New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Today, as Houston continues to expand, boosters and the national press are selling it as “America’s Next Great Global City,” on par with any international metropolis.
In reality, though, the city has been defined less by outsized examples of Texas boosterism than by dependence on a natural resource–based economy, speculative and expansive residential and commercial real estate development organized by an elite-driven growth regime, continued in-migration from all over the globe, and an unequal socioeconomic and political hierarchy overtly shaped by racism and discrimination. The expansion these forces fomented—in population growth, economic production, and the sheer size of Houston’s geographic footprint—vaulted the city from a regional trade center into the upper echelon of American metropolitan areas. The region’s deep ties to the energy sector made it a global hub and brought national and international pressures to bear on local policies and practices. For all its success, Houston’s racist history and the entrenched socioeconomic inequalities present in the city’s education, employment, and housing practices prevented all Houstonians from sharing in the city’s success equally. Despite Houston’s incredible historical transformations and the current-day challenges those shifts have created, the city is vastly understudied. No more than a two dozen or so histories are devoted to it, and none of these draw the connection between the city’s historical civic activism and the shaping of its sprawling built environment. Other disciplines have not done much better with documenting the city’s past or present. Compared to other cities of its size and import, Houston has been somewhat neglected, and much of how it came to be and what it is becoming remains unrecorded.
Given Houston’s present circumstances, understanding its past is critical. In 1940, Houston was the nation’s twenty-first largest city, with 384,000 residents. By 2014 it had jumped to fourth place, with a population of 2.2 million. An incredible diversification accompanied this increase. Between 1960 and today, the proportion of people of color in the region went from 35 percent to more than 60 percent. Twenty-five percent of today’s Houstonians were born outside of the United States. Compared to other major cities, Houston’s current demographic breakdown is the closest to that which is projected for the nation as a whole by 2050. The metropolitan region is 38 percent white, 36 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black, and 7 percent Asian. To Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist and the founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, who has studied the city for more than three decades, Houston’s demographic reality makes it “the place where America’s future will be worked out.” And it is not just Houston that reflects the nation’s changing makeup. Fort Bend County, to Houston’s southwest, is one of the most diverse counties in the nation, and it is predominantly suburban. Studying why such a mixture of residents settled in the region and how they coexist politically, socially, and culturally is vital because it can inform similar processes in cities across the nation as they continue to diversify in the coming decades.
If the Houston metropolitan area today is a microcosm for what the nation is becoming, the city’s past models many of the undulations that remade American cities after World War II. These shifts turned the south into the Sunbelt and redirected the economic and demographic growth of the nation. Between 1950 and 1980, Houston transitioned from a medium-sized, biracial, southern city into a sprawling multiracial metropolis. This transition began in the 1920s and 1930s through in-migration from the rural South and Mexico. Houston’s Cold War–centric economy and energy-sector expansion brought white migrants in from the Northeast and the Midwest. The city began to diversify further in the 1960s and 1970s as small streams of Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants came to the region. Then, in 1982, the dual forces of a deep economic recession and violence in Central America propelled a major change in migration patterns to Houston. A huge influx of migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala came to the city in the early 1980s. Since then, the growth rate of Latino Houstonians has far outstripped that of other groups. With more and more nonnative Houstonians, non-southerners, and international migrants, the identity of the city has likewise changed considerably from parochial and inward-looking to global and expanding.
Despite this overall diversification and the steady growth of individuals’ political power during the late twentieth century in Houston, the pool of elite Houstonians maintaining control over the city’s decision-making has grown only slightly larger and slightly more diverse since its founding. Houston, like many other US cities, has been driven by a consortium of business leaders and elected officials working together in dogged pursuit of economic success, often at the expense of other considerations, such as equity and environmental protection. The absence of political machines or significant labor unions that could swing political contests meant that elites could ignore residents on most decisions. Houston’s de facto public-private growth machine has consisted of business leaders from a variety of sectors—real estate, shipping, agriculture, and energy—working in concert with elected allies over the course of nearly two centuries to cement the city’s position as a primary economic hub for the American South and Southwest. Until the 1970s, this leadership group was almost solely composed of wealthy white men whose decisions rippled outward to shape the city.
Although the city’s “old boys’ club” began to recede as Houstonians of color and women began to break into positions of power beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably with the election of Kathy Whitmire as mayor in 1981, the majority of the city’s and region’s top decision-makers remained mostly white and mostly male up to today. The entrance of women and nonwhite leaders into positions of formal power was a significant shift that offered access to power for many communities and formerly disenfranchised groups. The rise of these leaders to power, in fact, succeeded thanks to the political organization of groups concerned with their lack of voice in the city’s status quo approach to governance. However, the ascent of a small pool of leaders did not topple the elite-driven functioning of the city or result in equally distributed political power. It simply broadened the pool of elite decision-makers. The longevity of Houston’s elite leadership is a legacy of the city’s racist, discriminatory past and still confronts the city in the form of limited political participation and often opaque, elite-driven governance. Racial and economic inequity is interconnected with the city’s persistent elite-driven control and remains a major issue.36 Although racism is no longer codified, there is no denying that in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first the legacy of entrenched racism, along with the persistent realities of economic inequality, have remained. The limiting effects both forces have had on the political power of nonwhite groups have continued to affect how black, Latino, and especially lower-income Houstonians have participated in these important debates.
Many of Houston’s constitutive elements, from its economic prosperity to its ethnic diversity, were shaped by and helped shape the city’s infrastructural debates. As in other realms of city governance, for most of the twentieth century members of Houston’s power elite, especially the city’s largest real estate developers, influenced the placement of roadways. This type of influence was a possibility closed to other residents well into the 1970s. Too often, though, discussions of metropolitan politics, especially Sunbelt politics, get locked onto the actions of these elites, eliding how nonelites responded to or challenged elite decision-making power. City and state officials, joined by elite allies, certainly won many battles over growth and have rightfully been highlighted as central to urban power structures, but in no city did these groups come out winners in every conflict; nor did they operate in a vacuum. Neighborhood-level pushback by citizens in transportation debates led to compromise and to some outright victories against the perceived power brokers in the city. But such victories remain exceptions in other areas, from education to electoral politics.
The city’s transportation infrastructure fights seem to fit an established and historically resonate narrative: wealthier, mostly white Americans win; black, Latino, and poorer Americans lose. Yet, behind that narrative, the fact remains that a diverse collection of Houstonians have used the common set of actions and language of transportation activism and infrastructural citizenship to stake claims to democratic rights and civic decision-making power. That shared experience and common action is important. Even while outcomes of the strategy often diverged, breaking along lines of race, class, and privilege, the fact that many Americans employed and continue to employ the tactic makes it worth exploring. Isolating the appeal and implementation of infrastructural activism, while not ignoring the disproportionate consequences communities faced or the political inequalities that allowed those unequal outcomes to take place, can highlight the evolving role infrastructure decisions have played in the development of urban America. The transportation debates laid out in the this book highlight the profound mix of anxiety and hope that Houstonians have attached to structures of mobility over the past seventy years. The weight of these debates in one city hint at the broader significance that transportation systems and infrastructure more broadly have assumed in American metropolises since 1950.