Sugar Land is, after Houston, Pasadena, Beaumont, and Baytown, the fifth-largest city on the upper Texas Gulf Coast. What makes this statistic remarkable is that Sugar Land hardly appears to be a city at all. It is a patchwork quilt of settlements that evolved from a slave plantation subsequently worked by convict labor, to a rural industrial corporate complex ensconced at the center of its own company town, to a quintessential late-twentieth-century edge city anchored by a planned community for transient energy-industry personnel and financed by global investment capital.
The Sugar Land name identifies its location in the Sugar Bowl of Texas, as the lower Brazos River counties of Fort Bend and Brazoria were known in the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, the Sugar Land–based Imperial Sugar Company was the largest processor and marketer of refined sugar in the United States. Thanks to the aggressive annexation policies of the City of Sugar Land in the last quarter of the twentieth century, there are several disparate Sugar Lands within the city's corporate limits. Adjacent to the Imperial Sugar Company's former refinery ( AS37), which backs up to Oyster Creek and faces the tracks of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway and U.S. 90-A, is the early-twentieth-century company town. South of U.S. 90-A, an extension of Houston's Main Street, are the upper-middle-income subdivisions that Imperial began to develop in the late 1950s, when its former cane fields became more valuable as suburban real estate than for agricultural use. South of U.S. 59, the Southwest Freeway, built in phases in the 1970s and 1980s, lies First Colony, a planned new town developed by the Royal Dutch/Shell Pension Fund and Hines on cane fields once cultivated by Imperial. First Colony is such a powerful magnet for urban development in the southwest quadrant of metropolitan Houston that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it displaced old Sugar Land to become the center of new Sugar Land.
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