By Monika Maeckle
Everyone’s got a Taco Land story. The behemoth Live Oak that defines the cinder block treehouse at 103 W. Grayson on the San Antonio River ranks as one of the most cherished in San Antonio. Its broad canopy and enormous horizontal branches have set the stage for music and memories good and bad–from the Taco Land song written by the Dead Milkmen, to first kisses, drunken dancing and even a double murder.
The giant Live Oak pushes out of a patch of earth surrounded by decaying concrete with the determination of a boxer’s fist. Pieces of barbed wire, affixed in years past to prevent inebriated tree climbing, have been clipped and now extend from the tree’s massive limbs like wily, metal hairs. New owners David Adelman and Ricardo Chavira (the San Antonio actor of Desperate Housewives’ fame) contracted a professional arborist to properly trim the tree recently. “Somebody did some good pruning work,” said San Antonio City Forester Michael Nentwich on a visit this week.
Local lore dates the tree as more than 500 years old. Doubtful, said Nentwich. He diplomatically suggests the Taco Land Live Oak has lived 100-200 years. It’s 25-yard proximity to the San Antonio River helps explain its vast girth, broad canopy and impressive health. Ample water has fed its roots consistently for decades.
Taco Land founder Ramiro “Ram” Ayala also nurtured the tree. “He was always opposed to cutting back the tree,” said Ernesto Olivo, a community organizer and local musician who played Taco Land in the 80s with his punk band Chapstik. “I don’t know how many people slammed their heads on it….we’d always wonder which band members would leave San Antonio with a bruise on their forehead.”
Ayala, considered a patron saint of San Antonio’s punk and indie rock community, ran Taco Land as a local beer joint for 15 years until one day in 1980. That’s when a local punk band, the Hickoids, walked in and played what is considered San Antonio’s first underground live punk gig. Taco Land took off as a sought-after dive venue for local bands that had no place else to play. Later the venue gained cult status in the punk and indie music scene. National acts like Yo La Tengo, Gwar and the Minutemen vied to play Taco Land when touring in the area. “And every band that would pull up, would go, ‘Whoooooa. Look at that tree,” said Olivo.
Then one night in 2005 two thugs with a gun came into Taco Land and killed Ram Ayala in the course of an armed robbery. Ram died on the concrete floor that night at the age of 72 after operating Taco Land for 40 years. His doorman, Gypsy Doug, was also gunned down. Taco Land has been closed ever since.
The new owners hope to make Taco Land part of downtown life again. Plans are to reopen as an outdoor bar in September.
“Taco Land was a movie,” Phil Luna told National Public Radio in 2009 four years after Ayala and Taco Land were silenced by the armed robbery gone bad. “It had a beginning and it had an end. It had a soundtrack, and it had a crazy story line that went in and out of everybody’s lives.”
And the Taco Land Live Oak has seen and heard it all.
The Live Oak at Taco Land
Species: Quercus fusiformis
Height: 37 feet
Canopy: 70 feet
Diameter at breast height: 4 feet, 7 inches
Circumference: 14 feet, 4 inches
Age: Probably 100-200 years
Location: 103 West Grayson Street, on the west bank of the San Antonio River
Get there by bus: Route 8, get off on N. St. Mary’s & Euclid , walk down Euclid and turn left on Grayson, walk about seven minutes if you come from downtown. Routes 9, 10, 14 get off at Broadway & Josephine, walk towards Grayson St. about eight minutes from Broadway.
Also known as: Encino, Plateau Live Oak or Escarpment Live Oak
NOTES: Diameter at breast height, or DBH, is a standard of measuring tree diameter at four-and-a-half feet off the ground. Regarding the age of trees, arborists and foresters are reluctant to cite them. The only accurate way to determine a tree’s age is with an increment boring test, whereby a hollow drill bit is bored into the tree trunk. Very traumatic for the tree. Since soil and water availability determine tree growth, some trees grow huge in several decades while others live a century and can be much smaller. The tree’s temperament is also a factor.
In short, when it comes to determining tree ages, size doesn’t matter. We will cite educated guesses by certified arborists for the ages of featured trees, unless scientific or historical data are available.
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More on San Antonio’s trees:
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.