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With Texas both among America’s most car-oriented states and famous for its somewhat laissez-faire approach to the trappings of capitalism, it may come as a surprise that history’s most effective nationwide push against freeway billboards originated at the hands of two Texans: President Lyndon Baines Johnson, acting primarily at the behest of first lady Lady Bird Johnson.
Not that LBJ didn’t personally have it in for the “litter on a stick” industry, as detractors term this form of advertising. “This damn billboard lobby has run this country,” Johnson said in a telephone call in 1968. “I never seen such a … group of selfish, eager hogs. They won’t even let people sit down and try to reason with 'em.” Mind you, this was three years after his and Lady Bird’s Highway Beautification Act curtailed the hitherto-near-unlimited powers of the “sky trash” industry to erect whatever it wanted wherever it saw fit.
This month marks 55 years since the signing of the act. So what are the results of the Johnsons' efforts in the president’s one-time hometown of Houston, the infamously zoning-averse city with arguably the most freewheeling business climate in the state? What do the billboards that remain have to say about Houston?
To fully ponder the impact and meaning of billboards in my hometown, what better way than to drive its length east to west? And not just some agreed-upon notion of its dimensions, because when considering what is and is not Houston, one must ignore maps, as the Bayou City outgrows any attempt to fix it in time in a measly two dimensions.
Houston is as Houston does, and right now, on an east-west axis, Houston keeps Houston-ing on—all the way from the Lost and Old tributaries of the Trinity River clear out to the Brazos, from where Greater Louisiana, with its swamps, alligators, piney woods, and boudin, gives way to the “Real Texas” of cattle pastures, brisket and chicken fried steak, and the primacy of oak and mesquite. As you approach from the east, this Real Texas begins at the former rest area in the median of Interstate 10 near the Peach Ridge Road exit out by Brookshire.
Along almost this entire stretch of I-10, you will find Houston-ness—walled in as it is with garish strip malls adorned with bold signage along what Houstonians almost alone call “feeder roads.” Setting out, I first pointed my aging Accord east toward Beaumont, turned around on a dirt road dead end at the Lost and Old River, and headed west for Big Brazos.
One of the first things I noticed was that billboards were relatively few compared to the days of my youth. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, local advertisers enjoyed more success in staving off the dictates of Johnson’s act on the ground. Since then, local pressure groups such as Scenic Houston have made progress—at their peak, the vast city was forested with somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 billboards. As of last year, that number was around 1,500. Long stretches were billboard-free, leaving me to prattle on to myself on vaguely related tangents as I “took notes” behind the wheel.