“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

Galveston is a remarkable place – picturesque, historically significant, architecturally ornate, culturally diverse. The city owes each quality to its location.

Perched on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, situated on a sliver of sand three miles from the mainland, the city has squeezed more than its share of life and death into its not-quite two centuries. In the late 1800s, it was one of the country’s busiest seaports and generated vast wealth on the island. The wealthy repaid the city by erecting brilliantly colorful Victorian mansions up and down the city’s main avenues. Between 1839 and 1920, the Port of Galveston admitted 750,000 immigrants from around the world. From 1907 until the outbreak of World War I, the Galveston Movement gave refuge to thousands of Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe, many escaping pogroms.

When Galveston’s port was surpassed by Houston’s in the early twentieth century, the island’s economic engine turned to tourism. As in most seaports, vice – prostitution, Prohibition-era liquor, and illegal gambling –became a booming business. The city was a place apart, and by the Roaring Twenties, those in the know took to calling it the Free State of Galveston.

A crackdown in the late 1950s crippled not only the vice industries but tourism, and the island began to decline economically. But the weakened economy resulted in less pressure to expand and tear down old buildings. Inadvertently, the crackdown made it possible for preservationists to save much of old Galveston. The result, along with a fully revived tourist industry, is the charming city we have today.

When I hear Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston,” this is what I imagine: Not the scared and lovesick soldier that Webb intended as the subject, but the soldier’s picturesque home. When I hear Campbell’s later version, or Webb’s, I remember not only the soldier, but something else about his home.

Galveston’s location makes it vulnerable. In 1900, a hurricane killed at least 6,000. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. The extraordinary engineering projects that followed the Great Storm have prevented a comparable disaster, but weather-related catastrophe will always be the cost of living in Galveston.

And the weather is getting worse. Climate change has caused sea levels to rise and hurricanes to become more numerous and intense. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a massive, $30 billion coastal barrier intended to protect the city, and it’s received initial funding approval from Congress. Will it be enough to ensure that Galveston survives into the next century?

As a Galveston chauvinist – someone who loves the city and can’t help but feel that a song named “Galveston” is about Galveston, even if it’s not – this vulnerability is what I hear in the more authentic versions of the song. The soldier’s vulnerability is mirrored by Galveston’s. But Galveston is more than a victim of its location. It’s beautiful and temperate and human-scaled, and it’s packed to the gills with history and culture.

There’s zero evidence that Webb was thinking of either the vulnerability or the beauty of Galveston when he wrote the song. He didn’t write a ballad about a city. But when I hear either Campbell’s bright-hued hit or the melancholy versions, I’ll think of Galveston. Together, they feel richer and, yes, truer, than either alone.

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

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