I was first exposed to the King William Neighborhood by way of the First Friday Art Walk, circa 2003, as the event was gaining steam. The walk down South Alamo Street was littered with food stands and artists setting up shop for perusing patrons and tourists on their evening stroll.
As a teenager fresh out of high school, the allure of the vibrant, open atmosphere pulled me right in. Aside from the occasional weekend visit to local flea markets (known in Spanish as pulgas), I had not experienced anything like this in San Antonio, certainly not on a Friday evening.
For those of us not yet old enough to frequent the bar or night-club scene, our options to socialize in such a setting were few and far between. Fortunately, being involved with the local hip-hop scene, my affiliations with older dancers and DJs kept us in the loop on 18-and-older events.
It was at these silos that I first came across Justin Parr‘s (TV) I Own You—Turn it off and Keep San Antonio Lame campaigns – the latter expression a satirical response to Keep Austin Weird. At the time no one resented the “lameness”. In support of the artists we purchased t-shirts and bumper stickers, laughing along with the irony and taking it in stride.
At the front of the complex, a tall, chain-link fence served as the gateway to a cultural hub for young adults, newcomers, and long-time residents alike. And though the Mission Reach was not yet a part of the scenery, the night breeze from the river provided relief on sweltering summer nights.
To the left stood the silos, stacked neatly side by side along the barricade, 17 in all. Standing erect at nearly 15 ft. tall, the cool, grey steel seemed uninviting upon first glance. But a passing entry into these artist-run galleries and you were instantly amazed.
Once maintaining grains for the Big Tex Grain Co. production site, these vessels now held a different kind of potential. An artistic capital was on display for all to take in.
The artists’ presentations sought to break the uniformity of the arrangement of the silos, injecting homegrown creativity and breathing life into an otherwise dull edifice. Each silo housed its own individual art gallery with paintings, stencils, and multimedia installations lining the walls. Passing the mini-galleries would land you at the end of the compound, awaiting a crowd gathered around a DJ or live band.
The yellow-orange glow of the street lamps created a celestial haze, a suspended feeling. The aura manifested something of a guarantee, an assuredness that somehow this public square would remain as inviting each time you arrived.
The End of an Era
Though the Eagleland and Mission Reach extensions have given the area a new look, the silos are now a sore sight for the eyes. Long gone are the striving artists sharing their street art that once covered the inner walls of the galleries. Overgrown weeds have sprouted up from the rubble. The façades of tarnished aluminum and rusted steel, along with graffiti tags and broken windows, remain as the defining characteristics. (For a closer look, see Infiltration photo gallery).
In 2007, the site was shut down by property owner James Lifshutz for environmental and rezoning purposes, closing a chapter on San Antonio’s underground arts scene. The silos have remained closed since that year, but new development is underway.
Future plans for the site, designed by Alamo Architects, will include a 320-unit residential area, 6,000 square feet of retail space, and a restaurant from rising chef Johnny Hernandez, with construction already taking place.
The street vendors of the early days were those looking to carve out a niche in the arts scene, through visual art, pottery, screen printing. They produced and displayed their art in hopes of building a community. With people frequenting First Friday in droves, a small crowd around a vendor was sure to gather more.
You could experience the same connection with food vendors. I remember carrying on conversations with the grillmen of Chicken-on-a-Stick Smokepit selling skewers of chicken, beef and seafood for $5.
Word-of-mouth promotion in San Antonio has proven itself to be the strongest of street-marketing tactics. Keeping this ethos in mind, these artists reached out to connect with you on a visceral level, often times with handmade flyers.
Nowadays the emerging restaurant scene of the Southtown and King William neighborhoods has all but eliminated the food stands. As artists began to establish their works in nearby galleries, the street scene has changed, for better or for worse.
In the silo days, you could enjoy a leisurely walk down the South Alamo Street and encounter other groups of individuals concerned with expanding their cultural horizons in the Alamo city. It’s difficult to find that now. An increase in foot traffic has added to the experience but the streets appear to be more congested than ever before.
The narrow sidewalks over the river bridge can hardly accommodate a couple walking side-by-side, let alone hordes of teenagers headed to Halcyon cafe and bar. The ongoing construction on South Alamo will improve the landscape for pedestrians by providing wider sidewalks and designated crosswalks, but the muddy trek over the PVC pipes and rebar today is enough to turn people away from venturing south past Pereida Street. Even the weekly Southtown Farmers & Ranchers Market has been put on hold until the construction is complete.
Second Saturday Art Walk
So where did everyone go? Enter Second Saturday. The buzz around the burgeoning scene at the corner of Lone Star and South Flores streets has earned a new moniker – the South Flores Arts District (also called the Lone Star Art District), a few blocks away from the old Lone Star Brewery.
The 1906 Gallery, established in 1991 by artist and local community leader Andy Benavides, is a communal art space. From David “Shek” Vega’s Gravelmouth to Joe de la Cruz’s Silkworm Studio, the artist-run galleries showcase a multitude of local and international art every second Saturday of the month. You can find Lady Base Gallery maintained by Sarah Castillo of Mas Rudas along with Gallista Gallery by artist Joe Lopez.
Updated on Jan. 15, 2:19 p.m.: Also among the 1906 Gallery inhabitants is Justin Parr‘s Flight Gallery. His art space resided in the silos for three years before moving to the South Flores Arts District.
I stopped by this past Saturday to check out the closing of “Print Provocateur,” a collaboration between the Serie Project and Gravelmouth, showcasing screen prints touching on the controversial issues of immigration, identity, violence and sexuality, providing a unique insight into the cultural diversity of the community.
I reconnected with many familiar faces of the silo days, their expressions lighting up as we recanted stories of exuberance and mischief on the old haunting grounds. The spirit of the silos carries all throughout the 1906 complex.
After searching for the feeling of what once were the silos, I see that the underground arts scene is alive and well in San Antonio and it seems to me that the place to be is 1906 South Flores.
Rene Jaime Gonzalez is currently pursuing an Associate’s degree in Public Administration at San Antonio College. He holds DJ residency at the historic Tucker’s Kozy Korner, just east of downtown on Houston street. Last year NPR Cities published his submission to the “Sound of Your City” project. You can follow his efforts documenting community life in SA through his blog and soundcloud page.