Every six weeks or so in the Strand National Historic District, this city holds ArtWalk. Residents, tourists, art patrons, and people just looking for a good time gather on the steps of buildings dating to a 19th-century heyday. Back then, Galveston was the "Wall Street of the South" and the most populous city in Texas.
That prosperity shattered when this narrow barrier island suffered the worst natural disaster in American history: the storm flood of 1900, with a death toll of more than 6,000.
But ArtWalk gives the feeling that Galveston's residents have come to peace, perhaps not with the past but at least with the present. There's a camaraderie that allows visitors to drop in on an exhibit and strike up conversations as readily as if they lived here in this enclave of Victorian houses, up-and-coming restaurants, and gardens thick with oleanders.
"Galveston actually is a better place to live than to visit," says Austin communications executive Marsha Canright, who lived on the island for 10 years. During that time, she met her husband, David (who was helping restore the tall ship Elissa), and gave birth to their daughter, Lindsay.
"The town's diverse enough that it's common to know people of all ethnicities and nationalities, which makes life richer, I think," says Marsha. "It's a slower pace, and yet there's always plenty to do. There's a true sense of community in Galveston. People care about this place."
Although the 2000 census showed a slight dip in population, recent projects have brought a decided sense of upturn. Moody Gardens, a new entertainment complex and hotel, is geared toward conventions and family vacations at the island's growing western end.
Though community pride prevails, the town does have its problems. Like many cities its size, some schools are poor, and crime, drugs, and poverty riddle certain areas. Still, Galveston has a way of getting into the blood, generation after generation. Being "BOI"―born on the island―brings a badge of honor, especially among older residents. Even 16-year-old Amy Hunley feels loyalty to her hometown. Like many her age, Amy calls it "Galvatraz," but she says that if she moved away, "I wouldn't be gone long, because of the water. I'd miss it."
Sally Laney, formerly a physician's assistant, and her husband, Jim, a psychologist, moved to Galveston in the early 1990s. At first, they commuted to jobs in Houston, an hour's drive. But in 1997, they bought a 12,000-square-foot historic mansion and converted it into a bed-and-breakfast. The Mermaid & the Dolphin has done "leaps and bounds beyond what we expected," Sally says. "I'm a Yankee from Wisconsin, and I really love it here," she adds.
For Tom Curtis, director of research communications at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston is pleasantly full of contradictions, pride, character, and characters: "If Galveston didn't exist, Tennessee Williams would have had to invent it."