Power moves : Houston, Texas and the politics of mobility, 1950-1985
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This dissertation argues that between 1950 and 1985 a diverse collection of residents from the Houston, Texas metropolitan area used debates about the planning, construction, and meaning of transportation structures—primarily highways and mass transit systems—as opportunities to claim political power and to influence the future of their neighborhoods and city. As they contested these systems, Houstonians articulated competing notions of the politics of mobility. In addition to concrete political decisions about transportation, this term also encompasses the daily transportation decisions of Houstonians and the meanings those residents ascribed to the infrastructure that carried them across the city. The politics of mobility uniquely illuminates the intersection of politics, culture, and urban development in Houston. Who wielded the power to make choices about Houston’s transportation networks and how the balance of that power changed over time are central questions of this dissertation. Until the late 1950s and early 1960s, a collection of nearly all white and male elected officials, professional planners, and private developers held immense power over the city’s decision-making process, but never completely controlled it. The actions of citizens outside that group forced leaders to acknowledge, if rarely embrace, the perspectives that citizens held about transportation and the politics of mobility. By the mid-1970s, aided by changes in federal oversight and citizen participation regulations, as well as by their own assertions of political power, an increasingly diverse set of Houstonians—African American, ethnic Mexican, and white, urban and suburban, rich and poor—possessed more influence over the city’s transportation choices. By engaging in these debates, Houstonians challenged the city’s racial, economic, and decision-making status quo. The choices made in Houston’s struggle over the placement of highways and the creation of a public transit authority sheds light onto the foundations of Houston’s unique built environment and offers a model for understanding similar forces at work in other auto-centric southern and western, “Sunbelt” cities, such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. Further, these conflicts illuminate why older cities in the Northeast and Midwest and younger ones in the West and the South developed such divergent urbanization patterns and transportation practices.