- Bulwark against the Bay by Mary Jo O'Rear
Readers looking for an interesting narrative history of Corpus Christi's twisting road to the construction of a seawall will enjoy Bulwark against the Bay by Mary Jo O'Rear. The book covers, in depth, the struggles among politicians, local stakeholders, and state and federal authorities as the city attempted to protect itself from hurricanes. Relying on research from regional archives, private collections, and local newspapers, O'Rear touches mainly on urban and political history. At its core, however, the book is a case study; it will appeal most to a South Texas regional audience.
The seawall was necessary because of devastating hurricanes in 1919 and 1933. O'Rear writes about several attempted improvements along the coast of the city from 1919 to 1941, when it was mostly complete. Most of the city's plans included general coastal improvements along the Gulf of Mexico and the city's bay, including coastal beautification, bridges, and a large dam project.
The author describes instances of grand plans and enthusiasm ending in failure. Throughout, she explores the role of engineers and the movers and shakers of Corpus Christi and South Texas politics. The struggle for the seawall that O'Rear describes was most often over funding. Ambitious plans without bonds, state funding, or federal money left voters both unmoved and without protection from hurricanes. Despite the difficulties, and with World War II on the horizon, boosters prevailed in finding the requisite funding to build a seawall that fit the growing city's needs.
O'Rear details the struggles of political, social, and bureaucratic figures over the various plans. She capably builds expectations around each [End Page 350] proposal, only to reveal each plan collapsing at the ballot box or in higher levels of government. Throughout, O'Rear connects the local story to state and national politics. This is particularly intriguing in regards to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, and even more notable as she covers the failed attempt of the city to access Public Works Administration (PWA) funds for its seawall. In this section she concludes that the loss of PWA funding might have been a casualty of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political ambition for a third term, an effort that occurred just as many South Texas politicians were supporting fellow Texan and Vice President John Garner for the presidency.
There is surprising detail about the role of the Ku Klux Klan in state and regional politics that adds another layer to an already interesting story. Bigotry was apparent even as sculptor Gutzon Borglum of Mt. Rushmore fame set his sights on the seawall project. His failed bid included a grand beautification project and a controversial (at least to anti-Catholics) statue of Christ. In addition to discussing the power of the Klan, O'Rear effectively details African American voting blocs and their importance in local politics as well as the rise of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Despite O'Rear's detailed political history, which stands on its own as a local and regional narrative, her book would have greater appeal if it were better connected to similar scholarship. She does effectively discuss state and national politics to further the story, but there is no conversation with the larger historiographic context. In particular, this book could have been enhanced through a serious consideration of urban history scholarship. There are ample studies on southern cities, including cities in Texas, which would have connected this case study to a broader field.