The Alamo and its Plaza: If history were truly honored

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Vistors celebrate the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

A couple pays homage to a memorial for Alamo Defender Col. James Bowie

The dawn ceremonies commemorating the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo had concluded, the crowds dispersed, the day’s calendar of events still ahead. Temperatures climbed toward 70 degrees with wisps of clouds promising a vintage March day in San Antonio.

A burly Davy Crockett posed for photos with a few tourists while Gen. Santa Ana and his orderlies huddled under an oak tree collecting donations. Something was wrong with this picture as the morning stretched on: The Alamo Plaza was largely deserted on this important anniversary day. Where was everybody?

All quiet at the Alamo on the 176th anniversary

Morning at the Alamo: But where are the crowds?

Santa Ana made change for a small donor, and explained that a 9:45 a.m. walking tour had been canceled due to a lack of people as a local television reporter and cameraman interviewed a few Defenders.

Events later in the day undoubtedly would draw more people, but shouldn’t such an important day in Texas history yield a steady stream of locals, visitors and school children?

Who exactly today is remembering the Alamo?

A lonely Davy Crockett stands sentinel at the Alamo

This day seems to be the right time to ask: Can San Antonio find more authentic and inspiring ways to remember the Alamo?

A good starting point for such a conversation comes Wednesday when the non-profit Project for Public Spaces presents its preliminary recommendations for “Alamo Plaza Placemaking.” The first presentation will take place at City Council chambers during the B session, then from  5:30-8 p.m. at the Central Library.

The PPS specializes in helping cities create public spaces that enhance cultural and economic activity, exactly what the Alamo Plaza was missing for most of its anniversary morning.

Anyone from San Antonio who has visited Independence National Historic Park in downtown Philadelphia can sense the possibilities here. I recently spent a few days there and at the National Constitution Center, a few blocks away. The Center advertises itself as “America’s most interactive museum.” It is more than that. It literally teems with the most racially diverse mix of people I’ve ever experienced in an American museum, all staking their individual claim on the freedom story.

The red brick buildings at Independence Hall that echo with the footsteps of the Founding Fathers were deemed too important to be politicized. The words “We the people” are inscribed on the cracked Liberty Bell, and accordingly, the U.S. National Park Service is guardian there, as it is at the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

Two essential impediments stand in the way of   making the Shrine to Texas Liberty an inspiring destination for all who live or visit here.

One is the 19th century carnival of cheap attractions that line the western side of the Alamo Plaza, appealing to the lowest common denominator of American tourist and gawker. All that is lacking is a bearded lady exhibit and, perhaps, a few of the South American shrunken heads that can be found on nearby Houston Street in the collection of curiosities once housed at the Lone Star Brewery.

And nobody drives through Independence Hall in their vehicle.

The other unprofessional dimension to the visitor’s experience is rooted in the nature of the non-professionals who zealously stand guard over the premises and the Alamo narrative. For years, the credibility of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as custodians and conservators of the Alamo has been challenged, particularly in recent years as the DRT has been fraught by financial woes and lapses in conservation, and riven by petty political score-settling among its most powerful matrons.

Give them credit for preservation more than a century ago, but do not give them title. The Texas Legislature took half measures in the 2011 session and passed legislation designating the General Land Office as the new custodian of the Alamo, but the DRT ladies remain in day-to-day control. For the Alamo to achieve financial solvency, establish a constant program of conservation, and to fully tell the site’s rich history, the state must relegate the DRT to a support role.

Independence Hall is supported by a private-public partnership that infuses the park with a diversity of funding, scholarship and vision that no single entity could ever hope to muster. Is the Alamo any less inspiring than the Liberty Bell? Only, perhaps, for those who have sat by for generations, teeth gritted, as the John Wayne myth became the Texas textbook version force-fed to every school kid, while the larger Alamo story went unexplored and untold. By that, of course, I mean this state’s indigenous and Mexican-Americans, whose presence and part in history was largely excluded, or consigned to the ranks of enemy forces.

Vistors celebrate the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

A couple pays homage to a memorial for Alamo Defender Col. James Bowie

Most of us would rally around a more complex presentation of the Battle of the Alamo and an acknowledgement that well before the 19th century the Alamo was Mission San Antonio de Valero, built in 1718, the first Spanish Mission to be built on the banks of the San Antonio River. That anniversary, by the way, is May 1 and merits its own respect and re-enactment. Why isn’t it a significant date on the city calendar, especially as San Antonio contemplates its coming 300th birthday celebration?

Some will accuse me of tearing at old wounds. My intention is not to stir rancor, but to insist on history being told in the most professional manner possible. Others have tried in this city, and they have failed. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying again.

Downtown San Antonio will always be defined, for better or worse, by the Alamo Plaza. In the end, we are a city that sends its visitors home with coonskin caps and other cheap trinkets, or a city that embraces a  more profound understanding of history and thus ourselves. Which of those two cities do we want to be?

Photos by Robert Rivard

7 thoughts on “The Alamo and its Plaza: If history were truly honored

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more; the Alamo is a sacred place and the fact that I am accosted by the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not folks while walking by is a travesty. Hopefully someday we can honor this important landmark properly.

  2. I have had the honor for several years to work as a student with the San Antonio Living History Association for the reenactment of the siege and the battle at the Alamo. It’s a privilege to be a part of a group that brings history to life and makes it personal for those attending. But I am always sad at the small turnout for the events. The buildings across the plaza remind me of the clapboard mess that Adina DeZavala fought so valiantly to save because of her belief in the value of what lay beneath the cheesy commercial exterior. So our belief in the value of our history trumps the ridiculousness of Ripley’s, but our spending habits do not. Our community does not seem willing to put forth the investment required to 1.)add museum quality historical attractions; 2.)provide parking and access to the number of people that it would take to support them; and 3.) provide the incentives needed to get local citizens involved. How many residents do you know that have NOT been to the Alamo? I’d like to see a poll. But we’ll bring on a professional soccer team…

    • San Antonio Joe:

      Keep hope alive. I put a lot of faith in will happen under the current civic leadership. The Center for Public Spaces has made some wonderful proposals that I believe will be embraced. I will write about their recommendations next.
      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

  3. Robert,

    keep in mind. Castro’s do not like the Alamo. Castro’s mom is an ardent antagonist of the Alamo it believes it is simple “a place where white man killed mexicans and took our land”.

    Mayor Castro has never walked away from his moms words. he simply stated “some people view the Alamo as a place of great significance to the city”.

    Anything he does will be a political motivation, and usually those outcomes are drivel compared to a motivated individual seeking to really change a place.

    The Alamo would have to add structure, open streets, improve its exhibits, and add better story-telling documentaries, etc to make it a great site for locals.

    With the state of mind of the Castro family, I simply remain skeptical that only a few do-gooder efforts will be enacted.

    i do hope i am wrong and a full transformation happens.

    • Where do you get your information to make those assertions about Mayor Castro and his mother, Rosie Castro? I have seen or heard nothing to support your claims. In fact, everything about the Mayor’s approach to the work of the Project for Public Spaces, the City-retained consultant, proves otherwise. He has demonstrated an obvious interest in undertaking significant improvements that, if funded and completed, will deepen the hitorical experience there for locals and visitors alike, regardless of ethnic background.

      • Bob,

        just google search it. It is all right there. it is quite rather unfortunate. here is the direct quote from one article that says it all as well as a full exchange between the Mayor a journalist. She also went on to disparage any heros of the alamo. her is the full quote:

        “When I grew up I learned that the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. But as a little girl I got the message — we were losers. I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.”

        The mayor asked about my session with his mother. “She hates the Alamo,” I said.

        “Yes, I know,” he said with what might have been a slight smile.

        “What about you? How do you feel about it?”

        “The Alamo?” he said. “It’s the largest tourist attraction in Texas. And tourism is one of San Antonio’s major economic engines”…

        “The curator called it a shrine.”

        Castro considered that briefly, then nodded. “There are people for whom the Alamo is a sacred place,” he said without any discernible emotion.

        (by the way, this is terribly historically inaccurate, as Santa Anna was persecuting people and Anglos were asked to come down and settle the territory)

        • I will follow up and check out those links. A lot of people, and I am one of them,have deeply mixed feeelings about the Alamo. What really happened there was an importantt and for many, inspiring turning point in early Texas history, but the story has been presented with great bias and inaccuracy over the years. Transforimng the physical Plaza would be a huge step forward in offering a more accurate and authentic telling of the site’s complete history.

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