Session 5: Jay Walljasper, “Fork in the Road: City of Cato”


Read Aloud

Fork in the Road:  City of Cato

Excerpt from Jay Walljasper:  State of the Commons 2035,

Notre Dame University Magazine, Summer 2010.


The rediscovery of the commons prompted people to think more about what really mattered to them. This cultural shift can be seen most vividly in a town like Cato, Texas.  If you were looking for a place that once stood as the antithesis of a commons-based society, Cato would be it.  This outer-ring suburb of Houston, founded as a gated community in 2004, gained widespread media attention for its almost complete lack of government services.  Even the police department was run as a for-profit business, with different levels of protection available to households depending on how much in premiums they paid to a private security company.  (Some lower-cost plans, for instance, did not cover house calls for nuisance crimes, burglaries or domestic disputes.)


Cato never attracted anywhere near the 125,000 residents projected by its developers.  Today, the population stands at 4,200, down from about 11,000 in 2015.  At one point there was serious discussion about leveling the place to create community gardens, but the town got a reprieve in 2022 when a station on Houston’s expanding commuter rail system opened.  The real turnaround began, however, with the formation 10 years ago of People United to Build a Livable Cato (PUBLIC).


Buffy Ayn Beauchamp, one of PUBLIC’s instigators, recalls, “At that time, all anyone could talk about was what’s wrong with Cato — no sidewalks, no parks, no locally owned businesses, no one who knew their neighbors.  No there there.  And truthfully, it was hard to look beyond the endless strip malls, six-lane streets with roaring traffic and shabby McMansions with streaks on the vinyl siding.  But this community had some good things going for it, too, namely that a lot of people living here were willing to roll up their sleeves to make things better.”


Meeting weekly in the backroom of a coffeeshop, PUBLIC drafted an ambitious agenda to tackle the town’s problems.  A babysitting co-op, mentoring programs, neighborhood tool exchanges, car-sharing club, theater company, Mardi Gras parade and annual harvest festival were the first orders of business for this hard-charging organization.  Then came the new park, public school, neighborhood social center and recycling depot — funded by federal money but built mainly by local volunteers.  The site of a vacant mall was fashioned into a Main Street, and a Latino cultural  center now occupies an Old Navy store.  Local churches spearheaded construction of a community-owned grocery, café, hardware store, fitness center and cantina.  The Houston Park District took over management of the country club, opening it to the public.


Strolling through the community on a spring evening, when the temperature has cooled to the mid-90s, there are few reminders the town began as an experiment in creating a privatized Utopia.  Indeed, historical preservationists lost the battle to save the statue of libertarian economist Milton Friedman that stood next to the now-demolished security guardhouse at the town’s main entrance, where today you’ll find a memorial to victims of the Great Texas Heat Wave of 2027.