A California-style migration stirs up Texas melting pot

For those of you in Akron, Ohio, or Detroit packing your trunk for a job-hunting trip to Texas, think twice.

Just to set the record straight, yes, there are still jobs here. But many of them require specialized skills - such as stainless-steel tubing - and ferreting out these can be tough.

Besides that, the welcome mat here is fraying a bit around the edges. Texans are a hospitable lot, but their warmth to outsiders dips in direct proportion to the rise in their unemployment rate. Though the Texas economy continues to show more verve than most regions of the country, the state's jobless rate has been hovering close to 7 percent for some time, a very un-Texas-sized number.

In the past two years, thousands of unemployed Americans from the industrial Midwest and other regions have criss-crossed the country in search of the economic promised land. Shoehorned into battered cars and pickups, families have shown up in Fairbanks, Alaska, to work on a natural gas pipeline that isn't even being constructed yet.

Job-seekers have filled Salvation Army headquarters in Denver and Salt Lake City. They have journeyed to Tucson, Arizona, and Miami. But perhaps nowhere has the Grapes of Wrath-style migration been felt more than in Texas, a state which to many still holds the myth of streets paved in gold as it did for Coronado's Spanish explorers centuries ago.

Thousands of workers have poured into the state over the past year, creating modern, if smaller, versions of the ''Hoovervilles'' of the 1930s by living under bridges, in YMCAs, and out of the back seats of cars in city parks. By most accounts the job-hungry hordes have slowed since the peak months of May and June. But many continue to come.

For Texas, the influx of out-of-work welders, mechanics, and accountants is only the latest in a massive migratory wave that has swamped the state the past decade. Texas has probably become the country's most active melting pot since the post World War II migration into California.

''In the early 1970s Texas suddenly became the California of the decade,'' says Dr. Victor Arnold, director of the University of Texas bureau of business research.

The newcomers are being grafted onto the state's varied ethnic roots. The country's first Polish settlement was in Texas. Norwegian can still be heard along the Bosque River Valley in the central part of the state. And Gullah, an African-rooted dialect, echoes along parts of the Rio Grande, where Seminole Indians long ago intermarried with blacks.

But the new settlers are altering social, political, and cultural traditions. Recent Texas migration is of three main types: Hispanics moving up from the south; blue-collar and professional folk journeying from the north and west; and rural Texans pouring into urban areas.

From 1950 to 1970 most of the state's population increase was due to jumps in the birth rate. But well over half the increase since 1970 has been due to migrants. The 1970s saw the population of Texas grow at well over twice the national rate. Only Florida has been growing faster. By the turn of the century, the state's population could top 20 million, perhaps surpassing New York as the second-largest state.

The infusion of newcomers has cemented the Texas position as a distinctly urban state. In national image, Texas remains a gangling expanse of grit-blown rangeland and oil-soaked prairie. But the past quarter century has seen it, like much of the rest of the West, become dimpled with cities.

Some 80 percent of Texans now live in 25 metropolitan areas. The state's urban trinity - Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas - rank among the country's 10 largest cities. A one-time cotton terminal, Houston rode an energy boom last decade to become the country's fastest-growing major city.

At the same time, the urban clustering across the state is producing what Dr. Paul Geisel, an urban expert at the University of Texas at Arlington, calls a ''macro-boom of suburban cities.'' Like many areas across the Sunbelt, the state is breeding sprawling subdivisions and commercial centers that string out from urban centers, neatly fitting into the automobile culture of Texas.

The rapid filling-in of the Dallas-Ft. Worth ''metroplex,'' an 11-county area surrounding the two northeastern Texas cities, has produced a housing and commercial belt larger than the state of Massachusetts. The new urban frontiers offer open-space living conditions, but can be nightmarish for city planners worried about water lines and dump sites.

As much as the cities, however, the influx of migrants is also slowly leaving an indelible mark on the state's political character. Many of the newcomers are becoming active in neighborhood groups and other organizations, often jarring local traditions. No-growth has become an issue in some areas, such as the capital city of Austin, where a few newcomers have decided they would like to seal off the border retroactive from the day they arrived.

Analysts believe the first wave of migrants last decade - many from neighboring states in the South and from the West, particularly California - boosted Republican ranks in the traditionally Democratic state. They helped support the election of Bill Clements in 1978, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

''It has not been an overnight effect, but the migration over the past 15 years has helped the Republicans become more competitive,'' says Jan van Lohuizen, vice-president of the Houston-based polling firm of V. Lance Tarrance & Associates.

More recent arrivals, many blue-collar workers from the industrial Midwest, are more liberal and less Republican, but their voting patterns remain uncertain. Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the rise of new leaders to shake up long-entrenched oligarchies. Chief example of this, Mr. van Lohuizen says, was the election of Kathryn Whitmire, the fiscally conservative but socially liberal mayor of Houston, last November.

Out of all the migragtion, Texas is taking on an identity that reflects no particular regional stamp. ''This is not a Southern movement. It is not a Southwestern movement. It is a Texas movement,'' Dr. Geisel says.

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