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Bordersville: Houston's 'Undeveloped' Suburb

By Harry Hurt

Houston is a boom town straining to become a "Super-city." In the past 25 years, it has grown from an oversized stage stop of some 350,000 to a metropolitan area of over one million. It has become the oil capital, the space capital, and the petro-chemical capital of the country. Modern office buildings 40- and 50-storeys high rise along its skyline, and miles of suburbs sprawl in air-conditioned affluence across the old ranch lands.

In the country clubs and corporate headquarters, where size is still the primary measure of excellence, Houstonians talk of becoming the third largest city in the world. They proudly point out that Houston is currently the nation's sixth largest city, and the fastest growing major urban area in the country. It was the only city, they will tell you, that continued to grow even during the 1967 recession.

But Houston's growth has not been good to everyone. In fact, like a promoter for "Dare-To-Be-Great," the city has been annexing land faster than it can provide services for the people who live there. The city that is one of the nation's wealthiest also harbors some of the country's worst poverty pockets. Several Houston communities are even without such basics as sewers and running water. And, not surprisingly, most of these neighborhoods are black, Mexican-American, or poor white.

Bordersville is the most "undeveloped" Houston suburb. Mostly black with a few poor white families, it is a ramshackle collection of old wooden cottages that lies in the shadow of Houston's brand new $110 million inter-continental airport. Bordersville, which is about 15 miles from downtown Houston, was annexed by the city several years ago along with the land for the airport. But although the airport has everything from hot and cold running water to hot and cold running scotch, Bordersville has no running water, no sewers, and no paved roads.

Instead, the city delivers drinking water in steel barrels at a price of $2 each, and the citizens must rely on make-shift ditches and out-houses to supply their plumbing needs. When it rains, the community's streets simply become impassable, and the townspeople must wade in to their homes from the farm-to-market highway that runs through the center of town. It is nearly 25 miles to Houston's Ben Taub Hospital, but there are no public transportation lines that serve Bordersville. Most of the working-age people in Bordersville are unemployed, and most families are on welfare. Local employment is almost non-existent, and with few cars and no bus lines, most of the townspeople are unable to get to work even if they should find jobs.

Ironically, both Houston's boom and Bordersville's blight are largely the byproducts of the same thing--the oil business.

Back in the 1920s when nearby Humble (as in oil company), Texas was enjoying the discovery of petroleum in the surrounding pastures, all the black people were pushed out of town. They gathered up their few belongings and came down the road to E. L. Borders's saw mill, at that time the only "equal opportunity employer" in the area. "Old Man" Borders, a wild-haired back-country white given to poaching lumber and drinking, ran the saw mill haphazardly for a few years, then folded during the Depression.

When World War II brought a new impetus to the economy, Houston again began its oil-powered boom, and tiny Bordersville was virtually forgotten. To the dismay of city officials, it was rediscovered just as the cement was drying on the runways of the new airport.

Estimates of Bordersville's current population range from 500 to 1000. ("There's just no way of telling," declares one townsperson.) Most of the families have lived there for two and three generations, and though most claim to own the land they live on, few can produce written deeds or titles. They live there simply by squatter's rights, as yet unchallenged by land-hungry developers though the value of their property has skyrocketed with the construction of the airport.

"The people here in the community are the independent type," a Houston antipoverty worker assigned to the town said recently. "By that I mean that they're just beginning to look at their situation as a group situation. Now they think, 'If my neighbor needs to go some place, he can't take my car without paying me a price.' There is only one family that is consistent in caring about the community as a whole. The rest are pretty wishy-washy."

The prospects for Bordersville's future are not bright. There are no schools (or school busing) for the community's children, and there seem to be no forth-coming solutions for Bordersville's two most pressing and immediate problems, water and sewage. The nearest water main is several miles away, on the other side of the airport, and the city does not seem willing to lay water lines or sewage pipes for an impoverished community of this size. Although Houston Mayor Louis Welsh did donate new water barrels to Bordersville a few years ago, they have already rusted.

Dust swirled up from the road as I walked around Bordersville last month with 70-year-old Alfred Phillips, the eldest member of Bordersville's most community-minded family. "The water came all up in here when it rained last month," the old man said, pointing to the front of a sagging wooden shack trimmed with Christmas tree lights. "All the water flows down here from the main road. This is Louis Welsh Street, the worst street in Bordersville." A hundred yards up the road, Louis Welsh Street intersected Martin Luther King Avenue, then disappeared into the thick Texas brush.

"Say, come on outside and let this fella take your picture, we're trying to get this road fixed," Phillips shouted to a white-haired old woman at the door of the decaying house. As the old woman hobbled out onto the porch, an American Airlines jet passed overhead--on its way to "The Good Life."

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