Chapter 8 - The Seawall Chronicles

1930s - The Original Sin City

By ???
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Few were left unscathed by The Great Depression as tremors from the crash of the United States stock market were felt all over the world. Galveston, however, proved somewhat impervious to the collateral damage from international economic collapse, for what it lost by way of a population with diminished expendable income for beach vacations, it gained through its provision of an escape from reality along with the hope of a lucky hand.

  On the structural side, the funds to complete the first filling of the East End Flats were finally made available in 1931, after being tied up in litigation for nearly two years. Contention arose from the fact that the area between the original, eastern border of the Seawall (currently 6th Street) and the eastward extension down the coastline was privately owned, but taxpayers were expected to put up the funds for its development.

  They showed themselves willing to do so for the first 358,000 cubic yards of fill needed to partially raise the grade of the swampy “mosquito farm” in the interest of public health, but henceforth they battled city officials for nearly two decades, stubbornly unwilling to foot the bill for what they believed to be the landowners’ responsibility.

  Due to the crippled state of the economy, 1932 saw the end of Splash Day and with it went the International Pageant of Pulchritude. That year the beauty competitions became a statewide affair, but the brilliance of William Roe’s concept would prove timeless. His promenade of beauty down the shores of the Gulf Island went on to become what is still known today as the Miss Universe pageant.

  Later that summer, a Category 4 hurricane struck the small town of Freeport on August 15th. Along the small stretch of coast between the direct hit and Galveston Island, forty lives were lost and the total damage surmounted nearly $8 million, but the Seawall remained stoic and the city itself sustained only minimal damage and no casualties.

  The destruction did prove enough to renew interest in the re-opening of the Maceo’s stake on the Seawall. The brothers’ gulf-side restaurant, the Grotto, was forcibly shut down in 1928 due to gaming violations, and the building at 23rd and Seawall remained vacant as the Depression stifled most people’s ability to pursue beachfront luxuries. Its loss was cushioned by the brothers’ Hollywood Dinner Club on 61st Street that provided all of the “accommodations” of the Grotto, but since damage to the Seawall property made repairs inevitable, Sam and Rose rolled their own proverbial dice.

  By this time, the pair had assumed almost complete control of Galveston’s underground undulations of booze and gambling, as any previous rivalries had either been shut down, bought out, or forced to leave town. So they spared no expense in the reclamation of their business on the Seawall and executed a splendid remodel of the interior with décor inspired by the Orient.

  Upon completion the Sui Jen Café was hailed as one of the most beautiful establishments in the nation, and its debut in late 1932 confirmed the Maceo’s reputation as the penultimate hosts. They provided elegant atmospheres, world-renown entertainment, and unlimited vice with the added benefit of discretion, all of which drew spectators and participants from all across the United States.

  In 1933 Prohibition was lifted, although liquor by the drink was still illegal, nevertheless the bootlegging continued as did gambling and prostitution. The Island community’s seemingly invincible and pompous attitude towards its criminal underpinnings eventually earned it the nickname, “The Free State of Galveston.”

  Further bolstering Galveston’s nationwide draw was the 1933 release of the song “My Galveston Gal,” written by one of the members of Phil Harris’s band. The tune was a regular on the playlist at Harris’s radio station, and the attention it garnered soon established the Island city as a year-round attraction. Construction boomed all over town, but especially on the Seawall.

  Business listings at the time read like a kaleidoscope of entertainment that changed every year, featuring novelties such as Japanese Rolling Ball, a Penny Arcade, The Great American Racing Derby, the Whoopee House, the Choo Choo Train, Boulevard Bingo, and The Crazy House. The Boulevard also boasted several Sportlands full of athletic amusements, skating rinks, and shooting galleries.

  Galveston’s increasing popularity created such a traffic problem on the Seawall that the woes it induced were a perpetual source of conversation among city officials and residents. Much of the debate surrounded the parking along the south side of the wall.

  Angled parking was argued by many to be an impediment to moving traffic, but parallel parking would reduce the number of available spaces. The city also considered installing parking meters for the first time in 1936, an idea quickly squashed by local business owners. During the summer of 1939, parallel parking was initiated on a trial basis with a two-hour time limit from noon to midnight, but a mere two months later it returned to the angled system.

  As the decade drew to a close and the United States began its slow ascent back into the fold of a prospering financial situation, Galveston continued to thrive and make firm its foothold as a national interest. At the recommendation of the Beach Erosion Board and the Army Corps of Engineers, Congress authorized the construction of a groin system to reinforce the toe of the Seawall and prevent erosion. From 1936-1939, fourteen 500 foot-long groins were constructed at 1,500 foot intervals.

  Of course the rise of Galveston in name and notoriety during the 1930s, and its ability to survive with grandeur the greatest economic collapse the world has ever seen, was due almost entirely to the illicit but ingenious entrepreneurial endeavors of Sam and Rose Maceo. City directories from the era in no overt way acknowledge the full scope of Galveston’s allure at the time, but they cannot help but reflect the upward trend of demand for the city’s highly sought-after escapades.

  As the frivolous beachfront businesses were subject to the latest fads and engaged in all the comings and goings of a carousel, the Sui Jen Café remained steadfast. The number of hotels continued to grow year after year, but not as quickly as the number of residents. The directories do go so far as to mention that “the city has the reputation of having a most contented population.” This at a time when the rest of the country was 25% unemployed and standing in bread lines. Contented, indeed.