Mr. Strother is a Roving Editor for The Reader’s Digest, with a special interest in national and foreign affairs.
During the last five years, the Federal government has committed some two million dollars to a mysterious attempt to revive a dying boom town in the arid mesquite plains of West Texas.
The town is called Wink. The effort is puzzling because Wink has dim prospects, little influence, and few votes. The heavy dose of taxpayers’ money has made some spectacular changes in Wink, but instead of bringing it new life as the planners predicted, the treatment has accelerated its decline.
Driving through Wink along Texas Highway 115, a visitor has the impression of a village cleared of debris after a disaster. The municipal water tower and a few buildings here and there were spared, but much of Wink is a flat, nearly treeless expanse of sandy vacant lots strewn with rocks, rusting oil drums, and tumbleweeds.
"You can see for two days in any direction from here," a big truck driver with elaborately tattooed arms told me over a cup of coffee in the TV Café. "But it wasn’t a tornado that done it. It was urban renewal."
Urban renewal is the most recent in the series of turbulent events that has marked the history of Wink. The town sprang into existence overnight in 1926, when Hendricks No. 1, the first oil well in the area, came in a gusher. Within weeks, Wink was a rip-snorting canvas, tar-paper, and corrugated-iron camp where thousands of brawling drillers, rig-builders, and roustabouts fought and drank after long hours of dangerous work in Winkler County’s rich oil pools.
At its roaring peak, Wink boasted more money, more gamblers, and more honky-tonks than any other small town in the West. Robberies, gun-fights, and murders were common. But as the workers’ wives came to Wink, the camp gradually became a town of more than 15,000. Some solid buildings went up along Hendricks Boulevard. Six churches were established. The Wink school district, with money pouring in from oil-company taxes, built a handsome school. (The district is still one of the richest in Texas.) The post office often served as many as 10,000 people a day.
From Boom to Bust—
The boom collapsed almost as fast as it had grown. The oil business changed from drilling to routine pumping of hundreds of wells. Anywhere you look out in the boondocks of Winkler County today you see pumps in action, their walking beams nodding at the pace prescribed by the state. Production now is held to 50,000 barrels a day. The county’s total output since 1926 has been more than a half-billion barrels. But the wealth produced by the wells flows, not into Wink, but to royalty owners who moved long ago to livelier places.
"Very few came to stay," said R. F. Mackin, a pioneer who is still in Wink.
By the mid-fifties, Wink was almost a full-fledged ghost town. The tin roofs of fire-gutted shacks along the main street flapped dangerously in the gritty wind. The last doctor moved away. Only a few oil and oil well service companies provided payrolls which helped support the 40-odd little business firms that clung on. Most of the town trade went to Kermit, the pleasant little county seat. It is seven miles away over a fast road, and has 10,465 of the county’s total population of 13,652. The last census gave Wink a population of 1,863.
"We were dying on the vine," Hugh Sasser, a former Wink councilman, said. "Then along came urban renewal. None of us paid enough attention at first. Nobody really believed it could happen here."
Learning, however, that little towns as well as cities are eligible for Federal slum clearance funds, Wink voted 187 to 5 in April 1958, to try for some. They set their sights on $336,000.
The Urban Renewal Administration encouraged them to think big. It gave Wink $75,613 for preliminary studies, including $30,000 to run the local urban renewal office. When Wink’s renewal proposal seemed to be stuck in Washington, a Wink booster appealed to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson as a fellow Texan. Mr. Johnson passed the letter to Robert C. Weaver, Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Weaver alertly marked it "priority attention" and sent it to William L. Slayton, his urban renewal chieftain.
"And so," a visiting newspaperman wrote, "Santa Claus came to Wink." On June 26, 1961, a telegram, signed by Senator Ralph Yarborough, announced that the town would get $891,868 as a grant, and $1,034,758 as temporary loan authority. That amounted to $1,034 per capita, and the news jolted people elsewhere into the realization that a program designed to rid the cities of slums had taken a new tack.
"This fantastic project may do some good in the long run by forcing a reassessment of the entire urban renewal program," a Houston Chronicle editorial said. The newspaper figured that if Houston were given renewal funds on the same basis per capita, her share would be $969,118,446. Greater New York City’s would be about eight billion dollars.
Businessmen of Wink were jubilant. "It almost knocked me down when we got the money," E. E. Bracken, who served without pay as the town’s mayor told a reporter who hurried to the scene. "It’s the best thing that ever happened," said a businessman who owned several dilapidated structures. "It is the only way I could ever sell."
The nine-man renewal commission appointed by the city council already had approved prices to be paid for properties in the 221 acres of "Project Tex. R-34." They were high, and opinion about the effect of the bonanza was divided.
"Uncle Sam’s bounty will be ‘git-away’ money for about half of Wink," Mike Fitz-Gerald, a retired oilman, predicted. "They’d have headed out of here long ago if they could have. Uncle will find himself financing an exodus."
"I’m just afraid we’re going to end up with a well-laid-out city and no people," said Melvin Dow, then owner of the Wink Bulletin. To answer skeptics, civic leaders could point to an "informed judgment" by the Urban Renewal Administration. "On the basis of surveys and studies of the existing physical conditions, land uses, environmental influences, and social, cultural, and economic conditions in the project area," the report intoned in Grade-A governmentese, urban renewal experts had "reached satisfactory conclusions on the Community’s continued viability," and on the ready marketability of the land.
"Wink will boom again," declared the late J. A. (Marble) Scogin, head of the renewal commission. "This splendid pilot project will bring visitors from all over the nation."
The planners painted a rosy future. A great shopping center would rise in Wink, with adequate off-street parking and decorative cactus gardens. There would be new stores, a busy new office building, and scores of new homes. Business and industry alike would flock to the rebuilt city.
A blizzard of government checks swept Wink. Within weeks, the commission had paid out $678,658 for 247 parcels in the 71 blocks included in the first project area. Of the 77 families evicted, just eight were relocated in low income housing built with a $225,000 government loan.
With land cleared, sewers extended, streets paved, and a new city hall in use, the commission sat back to await bids from business concerns eager to set up new enterprises in Wink. None appeared. The rush of home builders supposed to be stimulated by the government’s offer of 100 per cent financing and 40-year mortgages to almost anyone willing to settle in Wink, did not develop. Wink’s hope of renewal faded faster than the original boom. As the doubters had warned, people who had windfall cash in their pockets when chased away from their homes by the bulldozers did not come back. Many had stayed on in Wink largely because of low living costs.
"It got so we had to advertise in the Kermit paper for field help," an oil well service manager said. "We were fresh out of able-bodied men here in Wink, and so pretty soon we moved away, too."
In defiance of the costly judgment of the experts, Wink’s displaced families used their share of the government relocation money and the payments for their properties to get out of town. They were suddenly able to realize a long-cherished dream and move to nearby towns which boast such amenities as hospitals, movies, and attractive stores—all lacking in Wink. At last count, only six families, instead of the 160 forecast, had resettled in the project area.
Several of the 15 displaced merchants folded up for good. Others moved out of town. The three largest oil-field service companies—Longhorn, Production, and United—followed suit. So did many of their employees.
Wink’s population decline so far is about 300. The number of water meters in use has shrunk by 80. Mae Barnes, county assessor, estimates that property valuations in Wink now are $2,607,650, down by $500,000 from 1962. Mike Fitz-Gerald ironically renamed his four-room motel "Hope," explaining, "That’s what remains when all else has fled."
Downtown Wink is almost deserted. There is no building in progress, and no sign of the new stores or the new office building. Of the projected shopping center, there is visible only acres of paved surface, part of it the "adequate off-street parking," with intricate curbing and few cars. There are "For Sale" signs on many of the better houses, six of them Federal Housing Agency repossessions.
"Wink is the only place I know where you can’t sell a good house or buy a bad one," Vaughn Brinson, a builder, said. He explained that the remaining poor homes are mostly in the part of Wink slated for bulldozing in the next renewal project, and that their owners cling to them in the hope of selling out at high prices as did their neighbors in Tex. R-34.
"Urban renewal on such a scale in Wink was senseless to begin with, and it split up the people in the town," George M. Campbell, owner of Production Service Company, told me. "The choice of property to be bought, and the scale of payment for it seemed almost pure whim. That stirred up envy and left a lot of bitterness. In my opinion, a system that gives appointed board members arbitrary power to destroy their neighbors’ homes and businesses can destroy democracy, too."
In 1963, Campbell gave away his home in Wink, and with a parting blast charging urban renewal with creating a hostile atmosphere for business, moved himself and his company to Kermit.
Charges of favoritism are heard everywhere in Wink, and the suspicion that "some people must have cleaned up on this," seems universal. Critics of the program are shunned as civic traitors by some town leaders. When Paul Foraker and Howard Wall, editor and publisher of the Wink Bulletin, persisted in denouncing the program as wasteful and absurd, the Renewal Agency jerked its extensive legal advertising out of their small weekly. Asked about Wink’s projected second and smaller renewal project, Foraker said: "When the government makes a mistake, it never knows when to quit."
The Wink Urban Renewal Agency occupies a neat building set well back on one of the town’s few good lawns. The building was a medical clinic before the doctors left. Raymond Parr, the director, is a likable Texan who took over in 1962. He insists that his faith in the program is unshaken by the population decline and the lack of demand for cleared land.
"Wink is all set to grow now," Parr says, "and it sure wasn’t before."
Donald McBee, Parr’s predecessor as director and main figure in the first phase of Wink’s program, now runs a filling station in Jal, just over the New Mexico line. Wink’s project flopped, he says, because "they chased all the payrolls right out of town."
Some people are confident the government will solve that problem by requiring a big defense industry of some kind to move to Wink.
"They can’t just let the whole thing sit here empty like this," one of them said.
Will Congress Wink at 850 Other Renewal Projects?
News of the wide disparity between prediction and performance in Wink does not seem to reach the Washington headquarters of urban renewal. Administrator Slayton astonished Rep. Ed Foreman, who as congressman for the district knows Wink well, by saying that Wink is not only moving briskly ahead as planned, but that it is "an outstanding example of small-city revitalization." Still further, he said in writing: "I believe this is the kind of program visualized by Congress when it enacted the first slum-clearance and urban-renewal legislation in the Housing Act of 1949."
That checks it squarely up to Congress. More than 850 small cities have urban renewal programs under way. Communications with them are easy, and travel is fast. Before adding billions to the $8.8 billion already committed to the urban-renewal and public-housing subsidy programs, members of the Housing Committee of Congress might think it prudent to ignore the cheerful progress reports written by men running the program, and to take a look for themselves. It should be useful to know how many urban renewal projects over the country are as fantastic as Wink’s.