Remembering the Forgotten City
By Alex Wukman
At an intersection of streets named for saints Energy City’s fractured and fallen gather — beneath pillars rising like the arms of God, lifting the accomplishments of man to the heavens. They come in the heat and the cold; they come despite the sparks and smoke falling from the freeways. They come for food and blankets. The come to hear the Good News. They sit and stand, listening quietly — barely acknowledging stares from sedans idling nearby.
The hum of the generators and the thump-thump, thump-thump of traffic overhead compete with, and nearly drown out, the pretty-young, reedy voiced, woman strumming a guitar and singing about the Spirit. On an island, across the stream of traffic, a leather-faced man with too-old-eyes stands holding a hard-luck-story, pleading for sympathy. The light flips to green, engines purr as tinted windows and leather interiors pull off.
Even though the scene is repeated all across the city, from high-traffic highway-off-ramps to sketchy side-streets, it’s in the oft-overlooked areas and easy-to-conceal corners that the story is given flesh. In the outer ring — stuck between the tony town-homes of the clear liquor drinking young professionals and the exurb middle class McMansions of their parents — lies the Ciudad Olvidada. The Forgotten City; filled with the forgotten people. All it takes to get to the heart of the Ciudad is a quick trip on Energy City’s southwest artery.
It’s easy to find, just head a few miles outside The Loop — Energy City’s unintentional barricade between the cultural and political elites and everyone else — and it’s there. Squatting in the shadows of high tax values, good schools and private security like a mugger fondling a switchblade. Perhaps only Tolstoy could appreciate the irony that the largest neighborhood in the Ciudad, and one of the poorest in Energy City, Gulfton, takes its name from a street named after a multi-million dollar oil company. And for a time the transliteration of the street’s name, Gulf Town, was a little too accurate.
Decades before the Ciudad came to be, back when Energy City was first coming to be, Gulfton was home to thousands chasing a boom. Fresh-faced college kids riding high on rising oil. Everyone was young and beautiful; there was plenty to go around, and the only things that came easier than credit were sex and drugs. It was a big beautiful bubble, and for a few years, it seemed like the good times would go on forever. That the party would never end.
People came like a summer flood. They came so fast there was nowhere to live. Dozens of mega apartment complexes, with thousands of units, were thrown up almost overnight, each more elaborate than the last. All of them raced to create the perfect, isolated world for the nouveau riche. One complex, Napoleon Square, seemingly above all others, became the standard-bearer for the absurdity of the boom.
It cost $22 million to develop Napoleon Square in 1977 and when it opened it featured, amongst other amenities, over a dozen swimming pools and its own nightclub. The price tag for the nightclub alone was $400,000. Adjusting those figures for inflation shows that in 2014 dollars the cost of Napoleon Square would be around $120 million and the cost of the night club would come in just over $1.5 million.
Not surprisingly, the excesses of Napoleon Square were the rule not the exception. So much so, that by the time Reagan took to the steps of the Capitol to swear to honor and defend the Constitution of these United States, Gulfton had over 100 swimming pools in just over three-square-miles.
If any sentiment could be said to categorize the boom years it would have to be the absurdity of excess, and it wasn’t just limited to Energy City housing developers. The West Texas town of Midland was so flush with oil cash that it became home to one of the largest private yacht fleets in the country, even though it’s nearly 40 miles from the nearest body of water. For almost a decade it seemed like the laws of supply and demand had been suspended — the oil kept flowing, the price kept soaring and the bubble kept expanding. But all soaring things have to come crashing down and all bubbles have to pop. And when the price fell the bubble burst, with a vengeance.
It happened in ‘86, but it didn’t come without warning. The smart money had seen for the last few years that the price was slipping, but it didn’t matter to the Young Turks lounging by the pool or doing a bump in the bathroom. That is until the price dropped two-thirds and The City shed 200,000 jobs in a matter of months.
Some stayed and tried to tough it out, making what analysts would later call a “mid-career shift,” thousands more packed up and left. Some went back to wherever they had come from. Others were off chasing the next boom, running headlong to the next bubble, but the developers who had sunk millions into turning an area of farmland just off The Loop into a yuppie enclave couldn’t break a lease and head back to Cedar Rapids, Schenectady or Scranton. They had too much skin in the game, so they either had to find a way out or find a new market. A lot of them did declare bankruptcy and cash out. Monster properties were sold for pennies on the dollar, but it didn’t matter how hard anyone tried they couldn’t stop the bleeding. And all-too-soon for some the mega-complexes — with their swimming pools, club houses, night clubs, convenience stores and tennis courts — became money sucking white elephants. Only to be sold at a loss to someone else.
Within a few years they had worked their way through the food chain to management companies who operated just this side of shady and who had decided to go after a completely different clientele — immigrants. Legal or illegal, sponsored refugees from a banana republic brush war or starry eyed dreamers seeking a better life Norte del Rio Bravo. It didn’t matter, they were all welcome.
By the time George Bush was telling the world to read his lips, Gulfton had become known more for spatterings of Salvadoran patois, smoked cabrito and no-background-check-required apartments than pool parties and the highest per-capita ratio of wine cooler consumption in the Lower 48. And it’s stayed that way for decades. The faces and the languages may change, but the fear and distrust from those huddled masses yearning to breathe free remains the same.
Even though it’s been over-thirty-years since Harold Farb’s silhouette first beckoned the city’s upwardliest of upwardly mobiles to party at Bonaparte’s Retreat, long faded glories can still be found lurking beneath the poverty-brown paint jobs, a color scheme that characterizes much of present day Gulfton.
Past the overturned shopping cart and the pit bull chained to the stairwell, over by where Abuela Garcia sells Energy City’s best tortas from her kitchen window, is one of the over 100 swimming pools that dotted the area like foam fallen from a light beer bottle. Although it, like many of them, was filled in years ago. Now, instead of being used to pick up the hot babe from the other building, it’s been repurposed into a vegetable garden.
Transformation to suit needs is a narrative that runs through much of Gulfton. From the abandoned department store turned Mosque — the Muezzin’s Friday Adhan mixes with the sing-song cries of “paletas y helados” belted out by the white-haired old man wearing an extra-large Lady Gaga t-shirt pushing a cart in the parking lot — to the Taco Bueno cum dentista’s office across from Fiesta.
The neighborhood’s density and diversity is just as stunning as the facts and figures that describe it. A 2007 St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities Community Health Report survey described the area as being “home to immigrants from over 60 countries” and as “having the population density of Calcutta,” approximately 15,385 people per-square-mile. The same report posits the idea that Gulfton is “the primary reason” why Energy City is known as “the leading refugee resettlement city in the U.S.” If a social scientist was sitting at a computer simulator trying to create an area designed to alienate, disenfranchise and, ultimately, push someone towards a life of crime she couldn’t come up with a better laboratory than Gulfton. As every service provider knows, any area filled with recent immigrants, some legal and some less so, provides its own set of problems and community needs. What sets Gulfton apart from other immigrant enclaves, and makes it the heart of the Ciudad, is that the area wasn’t built to solve problems or meet needs.
There aren’t any sidewalks, public transportation is unreliable on the best days, there is only one park, and most of that is taken up with little league fields, and describing the schools as historically bad is being generous. And, of course, there’s the poverty.
A recent Brookings Institute survey of poverty rates throughout the nation’s largest cities found that Gulfton had one of the highest concentrations in Energy City. Not surprisingly that wasn’t the lead story on the evening news; it didn’t even make the morning paper. Instead the glare of the cameras and the full color photo in the metro section went to the rapidly redeveloping area just north of downtown — Ciudad Olvidado, pueblo olvidado, olvidado una vez más. Forgotten City, forgotten people, forgotten again.
If a poster child for Gulfton was being sought, sort of a Face of the Forgotten, she would have to literally be a child, by some estimates up to one-third of the area’s population are juveniles, and come from a family getting by on an income of about $18,700, or a full one-third less than the median income of the rest of Energy City.
This Face of the Forgotten would have grown up with a soundtrack of automatic weapons fire and the siren songs of police sirens. She’d be able to spot a gang sign at a hundred paces and know the difference between MS-13 and Southwest Cholo tags. She may not know which clubs inside The Loop sell $6,000 glasses of wine or the cost of a Cartier, but she probably knows which store fronts sell fake papers and the street value of an illegal cable hook-up.
As she ages she’ll probably see more than a few of her friends go through the system. First getting sent to the giant juvenile detention facility she passes on her way to school every morning, then, when they get older, down to County. By the time, she is old enough to graduate high school, if she makes it that far, she will have internalized the one immutable truth of Ciudad Olvidado: rent’s cheap, life’s cheaper.