The New Texas

Two unrelated events occurred here recently that together crystallize a lot of what is at work in Texas these days.

The first was a press conference called by the head of the Texas AFL-CIO, Harry Hubbard. His message was simple: "Yankees, stay home." But it was meant as much for internal consumption as for the people up north who might be contemplating a better life south of the Red River.

The second was an emotional debate in the San Antonio City Council over whether a Dallas bank should be allowed to demolish an old theater that is standing in the way of a new office tower the bank wants to build.

Texas today shows the tension between old and new, between the pure Texas that lives on in myth and symbol, and the new Texas that has taken shape with the influx of people from elsewhere. What took decades in other parts of the country has been compressed in Texas into a relatively short time, and many people here have not adjusted happily.

The movement of people off the farms into the cities is largely a post-World War II phenomenon in Texas, and to this transition has been added the complex power of migration. It has been going on for some years, of course. In 1968, the author Larry McMurtry wrote that Texas "is at that stage of metamorphosis when it is most fertile with conflict, when rural and soil traditions are competing most desperately with urban traditions--competing for the allegiance of the young."

McMurtry knew who would win, and he mourned the fading of the values of the land. But few people expected the transformation of the 1970s to be as rapid or as jarring as it was. Population increased almost 30 percent in that decade, and in places like Houston, nearly half the current population arrived after 1970.

Having experimented with nationhood, Texas clings to its independence and its heritage. The Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto are as important to Texans as the Boston Tea Party and the battle of Bunker Hill are to most other Americans.

Today, Texans see that heritage threatened by what is called progress.

Hubbard's warning to the rest of the country was sent with compassion. With unemployment now on the rise here, with the booming labor markets of Houston and Dallas struggling to create enough jobs to keep pace with population growth, Hubbard was telling union workers in the recession-plagued Midwest that the grass is no longer necessarily greener in Texas.

But it appealed to a different kind of constituency here, one that talks openly of preserving Texas for Texans. The people running for office in Texas this year are hearing more of that from their audiences; the letters columns in many newspapers are regularly salted with resentment from natives toward their new neighbors from the north.

Some years ago, the state of Oregon sent a similar sounding message to the rest of America: "Come and visit, but for heaven's sake don't stay here." But here in Texas the feeling is different. It is not so much pulling up the drawbridge to protect the good life, but more one of a lament that something important is passing in Texas as outsiders increasingly exert their influence.

Texans feel the encroachment of northern values and tastes, and as that permeates the state, the resistance grows louder. San Antonio doesn't want to become like Dallas; Dallas doesn't want to become like Houston; Texas doesn't want to become like the north.

That was the heart of the debate in the San Antonio City Council over the protection of the old Texas Theater, a once proud building that some time ago gave itself over to X-rated movies. "We are different than Houston, we are different than Dallas," said Councilman Bernardo Eureste. "We don't have to be a big city to be a good city. Can you imagine today a hotel where the Alamo is, with only a facade of the Alamo in front?"

Hubbard's message may make some northern workers think twice before uprooting for Texas, but the economic climate here still remains attractive to people in places like Ohio and Michigan. That feeling is reinforced as long as President Reagan encourages citizens to vote with their feet.

And in San Antonio, a city with much of its charm connected to the past, the eloquence of Bernardo Eureste was no match for the forces of change. The council voted 7 to 4 to let the bank tear down the theater building. Despite the sounds of resistance, Texas is losing its latest war of independence.