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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

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Historian, UH alumnus misses bigger picture with book


When I first learned of Burton Chapman’s Telephone Road, Texas: A History and Guide to Telephone Road and Southeast Houston, I was excited that someone was writing about local history. The author grew up in the Southeast area and received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Houston. Considering the narrow subject, I imagined Chapman would give a detailed and comprehensive account of Telephone Road. But this is not the case with Telephone Road, Texas, which offers a platitudinous version of the area’s history.

What’s worse is the author’s view of history and the world is about as antiquated as the haircut he wears in the high school picture that he’s included with the biography on the back cover.

For Chapman, history begins in 1836 when the Allen brothers of New York founded Houston. The first chapter, "Sam Allen Ranch," tells the history of another Allen family, which owned the land for three generations. Apparently, nothing existed on this land before this time – neither Sam Houston nor the tribes of Tonkawa, Bidai or Karankawa, which are the American Indian peoples who lived in Southeast Texas before white settlers.

It’s hard to imagine that a contemporary historian could spend an entire chapter on a local circus (see "Chapter 3: Christy Bros. Circus") and not write a word about these indigenous people.

Chapman’s bias worsens throughout the book. In the chapter "Hobby Airport," he recounts a deal struck between the City of Houston and William T. Carter Jr., a wealthy landowner and businessman. The city leased the land for the airport from Carter instead of buying it out right.

"As part of the deal, Carter was to construct airplane hangars and other facilities. The city paid $150 per month for rent of the airport to Carter. Carter’s assistance really provided a jumpstart to Houston’s future in aviation," Chapman writes.

Despite Chapman’s claim, Carter’s actions were far from altruistic. He was simply profiting from city funds. Houston has never had a strong central government and city officials have usually been wealthy businessmen with the interests of their business associates in mind. The city eventually purchased the land from Carter.

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, Chapman told J. R. Gonzales, "Mostly I was surprised by the famous people that had visited the area." Chapman’s plebian opinion comes as no surprise as he allocates a disproportionate amount of time on famous people who have visited Telephone Road. The brief, large-print book is littered with photos of Howard Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Conway Twitty, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and prominent local businessmen from the middle of the last century. At times, reading the book feels more like looking at a nostalgic photo album than a historical account.

Telephone Road neglects to trace the history of Houston’s everyman. This is Chapman’s most offensive flaw. If we are not studying history to understand man’s private life and evolving conditions, then what is the point?

For instance, a chapter on the Golfcrest Country club begins, "The neighborhood of Golfcrest sadly has gone from a thriving prosperous country club community to a neighborhood that is in dire need of several dozen extreme home and yard makeovers." What he really means to say is that while Golfcrest used to be a country club, it is now a barrio. A lazy historian, Chapman does not explain the history of social and economic hardships that could factor in the decline, but merely suggests that the "enforcement of deed restrictions would help… encourage the personal responsibility of homeowners."

On the subject of craft, Chapman is in dire need of an editor. His shoddy writing skills may have passed him through his undergraduate history degree from UH, but his ability is not worthy of a published text.

There are, however, some interesting points, such as how Telephone Road came to be named.

"The street name comes from the path that workers used while putting up the telephone poles running south from Houston…. Teams and wagons hauling equipment for the line carved Telephone Road as the wire and poles were put in place," Chapman says in the book’s introduction.

The last chapter, "Interesting Places," is the only part of the book I would suggest you read, although, Chapman even manages to spoil that. On the subject of Houston’s beloved Orange Show, he writes that it is "refreshing for this very unorthodox work of art that was started in the late 1960s to, in my interpretation, not be the least bit anti-war or anti-establishment."

Obviously, Chapman is completely out of touch. Don’t waste your time with Telephone Road, Texas.


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