02: A Tale of Two Cotullas

 

Brantley Hightower Lyndon Baines Johnson was many things over the course of his career. He was a member of the House of Representatives, a US Senator, a Vice President, and ultimately President of the United States. But he wasn’t always a politician.

 

Lyndon Johnson My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish.

 

Brantley Hightower This is from a speech Johnson gave to Congress on March 15, 1965 when he was making a case for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In it he described his experience teaching in the Welhausen School on the east side of Cotulla, Texas.

 

Lyndon Johnson My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon after the classes were finished wishing there was more that I could do, but all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

 

Brantley Hightower Cotulla was established in 1882 as a stop on the International & Great Northern Railroad about midway between San Antonio and Laredo.  Like many towns that owed their existence to the railroad, Cotulla’s street grid aligned itself with the train tracks and its main commercial district faced them. The courthouse square was even shifted a half block so that you could see it from the train depot.

 

This simple but effective planning gesture had the effect of making Cotulla feel much grander than it actually was for people arriving by train. But the architecture of a town can only do so much. Despite its thoughtful urban planning, Cotulla came to be known as a somewhat lawless place.

 

Pioneer Man Well what do you think of this town? It looks like there’s a courthouse there just beyond the main street.

 

Pioneer Woman Why yes, Charles. And look at all these shops! There must be three general stores. Look, there’s a bank… and there’s one, no two church steeples!

 

Pioneer Man Yes, and there’s a cotton gin and… well, there do seem to be an awful lot of saloons…

 

Conductor Next stop Cotulla! Everybody get your guns ready.

 

Pioneer Woman What on earth does he mean by that, Charles?

 

Man I… I don’t know, Honey Bunny…

 

Brantley Hightower Legend has it that twenty-two men, including three sheriffs were killed in gunfights in Cotulla’s early years. Still, the town grew and developed a small economy based on ranching and farming. Doing either of those things in the dry south Texas brush country is hard work and Cotulla was often thought of as being poor. That’s certainly how President Johnson remembered it, but that description isn’t entirely accurate. Part of Cotulla’s population consisted of migrant farm and ranch hands who, yes, were economically challenged.

 

But another part of Cotulla consisted of farm and ranch owners who did OK. The town had a respectable commercial district with both Ford and Chevy car dealers. It also had its fair share of shop owners, attorneys, bankers and doctors.

 

In fact, there were really two Cotullas – one if you were a white landowner and another, very different one if you were a Hispanic laborer.

 

Things began to change in the 1970s when the town’s business and political leadership began to more closely resemble the demographics of the community itself. But the pace of change was slow, at least until 2009 when something happened that changed forever the narrative - and the architecture - of Cotulla, Texas.

 

That’s the story we intend to tell on this, the second episode of The Works, a podcast about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

To tell the story of what happened to Cotulla in 2009, I first talked to this guy:

 

Dovalina My name is Larry Dovalina. I’m the City Manager of Cotulla, Texas.

 

Hightower Mr. Dovalina came to Cotulla in June of 2008. He had been the City Manager of Laredo, a much larger city located an hour south on Interstate 35 on the US / Mexico Border. Cotulla seemed like a nice change of pace – Laredo had a population of over 237,000 whereas Cotulla had but 3,600.

 

Dovalina It was very similar to other rural communities – kind of dying on the vine, very passive, very slow, not a lot of economic activity, having issues with the budgeting and the government itself.

 

Hightower The first hint he had that things were about to change came in early 2009.

 

Dovalina We had a visit from a gentleman – I want to say he was either a pipeline contractor or somebody tied to the oil business and he had reached out to the Chamber of Commerce saying they were bidding on a pipeline project here and we had a session where he says, “You guys are going to be inundated with workers and there’s not any place to live… and you need to prepare for what’s coming.” And we kind of looked at him and said, “yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this before,” but little did we know that this time it was for real.

 

Hightower You see, oil had been a small part of Cotulla’s economy for some time. As early as the 1940s there had been some drilling but the yields were always relatively small.

 

Then came fracking. 

 

Induced hydraulic fracturing - or “fracking” as it has come to be called - is the process by which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected underground at high pressure. This causes the rock to fracture – hence the name - allowing embedded oil to be pumped up to the surface.  The technique itself is not new but combined with innovative directional drilling technologies, oil-rich shale strata became accessible to a degree never before possible.

 

As a side note, the term “frak” was also used as a stand-in for the f-word in both the 1978 and 2004 versions of the TV series, Battlestar Galactica.

 

This has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand. However, Fracking as it relates to oil extraction has everything to do with the boom that overtook Cotulla starting in 2009.

 

 

The Eagle Ford Shale is a 400-mile long subterranean rock stratum that arcs across south Texas. Geologists have known about the existence of oil there for some time, but there was no efficient way to get it out of the ground. Fracking made that possible and as a result, Cotulla found itself in the middle of one of the largest oil booms in Texas history.

 

The boom has caused the town of Cotulla to change more in the past five years than in the previous 100. Just ask this guy:

 

Rodriguez My name is Joel Rodriguez Junior. I’m the County Judge of La Salle County.

 

In Texas, a county judge acts as the chief executive of a county, much like the mayor of a town. Anyway, Rodriguez grew up in Cotulla. He was elected judge of the county where Cotulla is located in 2003, several years before the boom began.

 

Rodriguez It was a quiet small town – one motel at that time – it was probably a limited amount of gas stations. So it was very quiet. Anybody who came in from the outside, people would be asking who it was. I mean it was a very close-knit community.

 

After 2009. Cotulla saw its population explode as oil companies descended upon the region to begin drilling operations throughout the Eagle Ford Play. Previously undeveloped tracts of land on the highways leading in and out of town quickly became home to a mass of new structures hastily built to support the wells and those drilling them.  Cotulla used to have 2 hotels out by the interstate. Now it has 20 with more under construction.

 

Rodriguez Yes, hotel city.

 

Cotulla used to have a single Dairy Queen. Now it has scores of chain restaurants operating at capacity. Cotulla’s streets used to be mostly deserted but now they are often clogged with semi-trucks loaded with pipe, chemicals and other drilling materials. Billboards now display advertisements for trucking services as well as for attorneys representing those injured in trucking accidents. 

 

City and regional leaders have tried to manage the boom as best as possible. But if Texans have learned anything from oil booms of the past, it’s that a bust eventually follows. That was something City Manager Dovalina was thinking about from the very beginning.

 

Dovalina Everything that we do has to be with the end goal in mind of being sustainable for the future.

 

Even back then in 2009 when we were just starting to see the beginnings of the Eagle Ford Play we were already preparing for the bust, if the bust ever occurs.

 

Fortunately as you come into the city of Cotulla you see that not only is there a play out in the acreage in the fields but there is also a development of an industrial complex that is adjacent to the city limits of the city on both the north and the south side. And I think those elements are nonexistent in any of the other communities but they are here…

 

Hightower Here he’s talking about an expanded railway interchange and a new processing plant that will more efficiently move South Texas oil and gas to market.

 

These structures are the most monumental built artifacts resulting from the oil boom in Cotulla, but the real architecture of fracking is much more mundane.  It is the Chili’s restaurant built on what a year ago was an open pasture.  It is a cheaply built man camp where oil workers spend their evening alone in their small rooms.  It is the small south Texas town whose population has ballooned with the boom and in the process has become unrecognizable to the people who once called it home.

 

When I was in town I visited the Brush Country Museum located just a block south of the La Salle County Courthouse. There I met a volunteer named Nora Tyler. She spent most of her 78 years in Cotulla and was a great storyteller that had a lot to do with the fact she had experienced well over half of Cotulla’s history first hand. For example, when we walked into the one room schoolhouse on the grounds of the museum, she casually mentioned that this was where she herself attended fourth grade.

 

In other words, she would have been a perfect person to interview for this story. Unfortunately she was hesitant to let me record our conversation. Because she was so sweet and reminded me of my own grandmother, I didn’t want to push the issue.

 

Unlike the City Manager and County Judge, her experience of the boom has been less about the numbers. It’s been much more personal. And although she understands what has been gained from the boom, she is also keenly aware of what has been lost.

 

“The downtown looks much the same,” she recalled. “Other than the trucks, it’s changed very little… but when you come in from San Antonio, it’s a different world. It’s sort of sad.”

 

She described how she’s had to map different routes to get from one side of town to another because of the semis lining up to get on the highway. This is apparently a pretty big deal for locals. Nora’s parting words to me were, “Don’t get run over by the trucks.”

 

County Judge Rodriguez shared this sense that Cotulla is a very different place now:

 

Rodriguez You do have the issue that you’ve lost your hometown effect meaning that there’s a lot of people you don’t know. And it was very advantageous when you were younger because the grapevine was powerful… Families kind of loose touch with other family members or friends because of the amount of people who are here.

 

On paper, life is good in Cotulla. Many landowners who sold their mineral rights have become millionaires. Unemployment is below 2% and wages are up. But the cost of living has gone up as well and that’s something that bothers Judge Rodriguez:

 

Rodriguez Grocery prices continue to be extremely high… and I wish something could be done but I know it’s a competitive market... some of the food prices are so expensive that if you go to San Antonio you could probably buy it for half the price. You have a number of very poor people… that income and living conditions has worsened since the 2010 census. Because now you have elderly that are living on 400, 500, 600 dollars – social security or Medicare payments - a month and that is their only income with food going up 40%. And electricity, rents – all of that has skyrocketed and it makes it very, very hard.

 

We helped someone look for apartments last week – the rents didn’t go below $800. And if you’re earning minimum wage, that’s your whole paycheck for the whole month. So the poor are struggling.

 

Hightower All this has hit Judge Rodriguez very close to home. Actually, it’s affected who’s living in his home.

 

My daughter is a single mom – going to college – and there’s no way she could afford an apartment – no way in the world… So my kids, my daughter, lives with me – and I get kicked out so I’m displaced.

 

For years there were two Cotullas: the predominately Hispanic Cotulla on the east side of the railroad tracks and the predominately Anglo Cotulla to the west. Although that distinction had started to fade, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, two Cotullas had developed once again. There’s the new Cotulla – the boom town located near the Interstate that consists of men – and they are mostly men – from out of town who came to Cotulla to work the oilfields.

 

The other Cotulla sits about a mile to the east. It’s centered around the courthouse and it’s populated by people like Nora Taylor who have seen the world they knew transformed. It’s led by people like Judge Rodriguz who have tried to manage that transformation while attempting to hold onto parts of old Cotulla.

 

But in the end it’s much easier to preserve a building than a way of life.

 

Standing out in front of the La Salle County courthouse, much of Cotulla looks as it always has. Some streets have been repaved and some buildings have been renovated, but things are happening there and in other towns throughout South Texas.

 

President Johnson noticed something similar when he returned to Cotulla On November 7, 1966 to visit the school where he had taught nearly four decades earlier.

 

Johnson The Welhausen School looks very much the way it did when I was here. It hasn’t changed a lot in 38 years. But things are happening here and in other schools throughout this land.

 

Hightower For Johnson, this speech was a victory lap of sorts. The previous year he had succeeded in passing both the Voting Rights Act as well as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – key parts of his “Great Society” agenda. When he spoke in the auditorium of his old school, he talked of harnessing the natural resources of Cotulla. But the resources he spoke of were very different than the ones that are shaping Cotulla today.

 

Johnson Our greatest national resource probably is not even listed in your textbooks. Our greatest resource is the skill, and the vision and the wisdom of our people. And that is why we invest more in education than in any other enterprise in this country except our national defense. That is why last year your national government pledged billions of new dollars to help improve your school and schools all over America.

 

Hightower Fate has provided Cotulla with many unexpected twists on its path from a dusty stop on a lonely railroad to the center of a major twenty-first century oil boom. Although it’s impossible to know what the future holds, in a perfect world, the resources being pumped from underneath Cotulla will help provide for the resources seated in its classrooms. Together they could write an exciting new chapter in Cotulla’s ongoing history.

 

Special thanks today to Larry Dovalina, Joel Rodriguez Junior and Nora Tyler. Thanks also Aaron Seward and The Architects’ Newspaper for letting me expand on a series of essays I wrote for the paper for this podcast, and to Rick Whelan and Jen Cosgrove for voicing the two settlers on the train to Cotulla.

 

Conductor Next stop Cotulla! Everybody get your guns ready.

 

Pioneer Woman What on earth does me mean by that, Charles?

 

Pioneer Man I do not know, Honey Bunny…

 

Pioneer Woman Well… I’m ready. Let’s do it right now - right here. Come on.

 

Pioneer Man All right. Same as last time, remember? You’re crowd control, I handle the employees.

 

Pioneer Woman I love you, Pumpkin.

 

Pioneer Man I love you, Honey Bunny. Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!

 

Pioneer Woman Any of you franckin’ jerks move and I’ll execute every motherfracking last one of you!

 

Hightower As always, thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood for help with the podcast’s logo and to Clara, the mother of two of my children, for help with its name. The music today is by Chris Zabriskie. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.

 

Now that we’ve released two episodes – even if this particular one was released a week late - I feel like we’re a legitimate podcast now so please rate us on iTunes and if you have time, leave a comment there as well. That helps us appear higher in search results when people are looking for a podcast about architecture.

 

Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii …I don’t give a frak.

 

Hightower Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.