Chapter 11 - The Seawall Chronicles
Jun 02, 2019 11:58PM
The Seawall had survived two wars, a depression, raids by the Texas Rangers, and four hurricanes. But the sidewalk by the sea had grown weary under the weight of its troubles. Galveston lost its identity twice—first to the Port of Houston and next to the scruples of a selective American morality—and the last three decades of the twentieth century would see the Island community struggle yet again to redefine itself.
Even though Galveston had always been a beach town, this was the first time in its history that it was seen as only a beach town. The glory days of the late 1800s were long since faded from generational memory, and when Texas proved to Galveston that it was not in fact “free” nor a “state,” the backlash decimated any reputation the Island had among the elite.
Gone were the braggart promoters hailing the “Treasure Island of the South,” and their poetic trappings had been replaced with an incessant murmur of unrest among the local population, as city officials floundered to regain the Seawall’s footing as a prime destination amid a tourist population that was growing in number but declining in quality.
Instead of planning new amusement parks and devising clever gimmicks to draw crowds, the municipalities were instead consumed with managing the bureaucracies of a town that was at the same time dependent upon and resentful of its new classification as a place for a cheap daytime or weekend getaway. Still, the struggles would turn out to be nothing but growing pains, and the final trifecta of the 1900s would prove in hindsight to be the maker of a firm foundation upon which the 21st century could build.
At the start of the 1970s, many of the businesses of the 60s that emerged or rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Carla remained, but as the decade progressed the Seawall itself did not. The large hotels such as the Seahorse, the Jack Tar, and the Buccaneer managed to still evoke moderate interest, but no further developments of their kind were put in to motion. The Seawall did, however, manage in some form to keep pace with the evolution of American culture.
The arrival of video games on to the scene generated much excitement, and fast food was also steadily gaining market share among the nation’s population. As the relevance of drive ins as a social activity waned, they were replaced with the Galveston Arcade, as well as Galveston’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jack in the Box, the latter of which remains in its same location today.
In 1973, two plans for further extending the Seawall were examined. One recommended building a wall to encircle the city limits, and the other was for a westward extension. Backed by the Chamber of Commerce, the proposal for the westward extension was most highly advocated.
At the time, the city limits still ended at 61st Street, but some moderate development was taking place further west, mainly the modest homes of shrimpers and others who made their living off the water. City officials argued that this area, too, needed protection from a potential hurricane, but they were unable to produce a sufficient benefit-to-costs ratio and the proposal was vetoed by the Army Corps of Engineers, who protested that there was inadequate justification for a project that would cost upwards of $55 million. In 1974 the Corps’ definitive denial laid the issue to rest permanently.
By 1979, city records indicate that Galveston was welcoming over 4.5 million visitors annually, up from 2 million in 1970, but overall it appeared that the Boulevard had transitioned from a destination full of sites and adventures, to merely a place to hang out. In the February 1974 edition of Galveston Magazine, Jack Bushong, President of the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau, lamented, “We do not have enough recreational facilities in the daytime and without a doubt we do not have enough nighttime entertainment.”
The rise of interest in Galveston seemed mainly due to the steadily increasing popularity of skateboarding, surfing, and roller skating. Only a novelty to some, by mid-decade professional contests were being held nationwide for both skateboarding and surfing, and the draw of these extreme sports carried over to the local amateur talents eager to use the Seawall and Galveston beaches to hone their skills.
Stores opened along the waterfront in an effort to capitalize on these new past times, such as various surf shops and the World of Wheels Skateboards. Even the city was forced to keep up with the added intricacies brought by these activities, and in 1976 council passed a complete ordinance dedicated to surfing in the Gulf which included safety restrictions like designating specific areas for surfing and demanding that surfers maintain a safe distance from the jetties and fishing piers, many of which are still in place today.
As the clock struck 1980, the city formed the Seawall Beautification Committee and made reasonable efforts to improve its appearance, such as refurbishing Stewart Beach and the recently designated Appfel Park on East Beach, named after a former mayor. Still, Galveston seemed inevitably relegated to a fate of surfers, skaters, partiers, and loiterers, when suddenly the 1980s bestowed upon the Island the vision of one of the city’s most revered champions, George P. Mitchell.
A Galveston native and a graduate of Texas A&M- Galveston, the renown oilman/entrepreneur and inventor of fracking decided that his hometown was worthy of his financial investment. Before it was popular, before it was considered even a rational decision, Mitchell began to funnel money into what would eventually become Galveston’s designated Downtown Historic District, rehabilitating the Victorian commercial buildings on The Strand and transforming them into a center of arts, shopping, and urban residences. At the time of his death in August of 2014, George Mitchell had provided over $300 million to the city through his restoration and rebuilding efforts.
Previously hailed as the “90 Day Wonder,” a tongue-in-cheek slight against its popularity only during the summer season, Mitchell’s efforts infused a new life into the tired Island city. “Galveston’s tourism industry is winning its battle against an age-old stigma. On both the home front and in faraway cities… people are discovering that there is more to see and do in Galveston than visit the beach during summer” (Galveston Magazine, Summer 1985).
This growth jettisoned onto the Seawall, as Galveston again found favor with the upper crust of Houston society. Less than fifty miles away the Island proved to be a fantastic place for a weekend or vacation home, and the demand for this interest was met by a veritable building boon in the early 1980s, primarily in the form of condominiums.
The stretch of Seawall beyond 61st Street, before barren and completely undeveloped, soon became known as “Condominium Row.” The far eastern end of the Seawall also garnered interest from the developers for the first time.
The area was for all intents and purposes out in the middle of nowhere, yet a pioneering development called The Galvestonian had sold over 60% of its units by the time construction began in 1982. By 1984, the Seawall boasted over 3,000 condo units in total.
Even Hurricane Alicia, which struck in 1983, did nothing to deter interest in beachfront construction, in part because the wall had again served as a valiant protector. In fact, the immediate years following Alicia witnessed the opening of the San Luis Resort (1984), another monolith of George Mitchell, as well as several businesses that are now icons of the Seawall, such as Mario’s Italian Restaurant (1983), Benno’s By the Beach (1983), and the first Landry’s Seafood Restaurant (1986) which would eventually provide the namesake for one of Galveston’s premier development companies of the 21st century.
But the Boulevard of the 1980s still had a glaring problem—alcohol consumption among young people and teens was escalating, and they used both the sidewalk itself and lots across the way, still vacant from Carla, to hold wild parties.
When Jan Coggeshal was elected mayor in 1984, she pushed for her vision of the Seawall as an “urban park,” which meant encouraging visitors to line the concrete wall with their beach chairs, boom boxes, and coolers full of beer to party and sunbathe. But between the sitters, skaters, cyclers, and planter boxes which had been installed in the 1960s, Coggeshall’s plan backfired tremendously, and created a culture of disorderly conduct and a reputation that Galveston was not a safe place to visit.
Even Menard Park, which had for nearly a century served as a quiet respite for beachgoers, became overrun with indiscriminate visitors. Year after year, the Galveston Daily News printed editorials and opinion pieces on the “’monster’ seawall problems,” as locals expressed their disdain for the lackluster efforts of the city to curb violence and crowds.
In 1984, a Seawall Task Force was created in an effort to devise a plan to overcome these obstacles, but their initial recommendations seemed to fall on deaf ears. An entire two years after they presented their findings to the public, the most controversial of which was ban on alcohol, a sign was erected in 1986 along the Interstate 45 corridor to Galveston that read “Appfel Park—NOT FOR THE TAME,” much to the dismay of local residents.
On April 4th of 1988, City Council at last followed the Task Force’s advice and approved a ban on alcohol, but it would not actually be enforced until well into the next decade. In 1989, the News published a scathing account of the Seawall’s ongoing situation, bemoaning stories of women “shaking from fear” at the sight of the tumultuous crowds; business owners declaring that people “would be nuts to shop down here;” and law enforcement who did not have enough “room in the jail for all the people they’d have to arrest to make a difference down here.”
Finally in 1991, decisive action was taken to elevate the ambiance of the Seawall. The alcohol ban was fully enforced to include both sides of the Boulevard and the beach, and in order to facilitate foot and bicycle traffic along the sidewalk, the planter boxes were removed and visitors were prohibited from setting up camp on the sidewalk.
The remainder of the 20th century’s final decade would pass with little incident, instead proceeding at a slow and humble pace of development that would both deny the Seawall’s past and usher it in to the future, all the while expanding further and further west.
Magic Carpet Mini Golf, an amazing and creative spectacle that has defined the western end of the Seawall for nearly thirty years, debuted in 1990, while the Jack Tar that held that distinction for the eastern side was demolished. In 1998, Galveston’s first multiplex movie theatre opened at 89th Street, and that same year a small restaurant called The Spot opened which would eventually become one of the Boulevard’s most popular attractions.
In 1999, McGuire Dent Recreation Center was constructed on the site of Menard Park, and along with the demolition of the Buccaneer hotel, the bygone eras were now officially nothing but memories. Even still, the Seawall had proved itself to be as stoic as its Island community, although neither of them knew what the new millennia would bring.