Like most of my friends in San Antonio, I enjoyed reading and debating Callie Enlow’s piece in the Rivard Report. I’ve met Callie, and I know many of the people whose stories she shared. I moved here five years ago to begin a professorship at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I teach cultural anthropology. I’m a Chicago native, and I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Boston, and Quito, Ecuador. I’ve also spent significant time in other large cities. Although I’m quickly approaching the “big 4-0” and not exactly an entrepreneur, I still consider myself one of the young, educated types that San Antonio wants to attract and keep. I go out. I like independent music. I’m a vegetarian. I’m into progressive politics. And, more to the point, I like San Antonio.
I live in Tobin Hill, just north of downtown. I prefer it to Southtown, as it feels a bit edgier. (Plus, it’s cheaper!) I bought a beautiful 1927 arts and crafts bungalow for the price of a Chicago woodshed. Some of my favorite restaurants and watering holes are just blocks away, and Pearl Brewery is a 10-minute walk down the street. The area is definitely “in transition.” There are two derelict properties for every rehab, and the stray dogs probably outnumber the kept ones.
But, I don’t mind the gritty, dilapidated feel, which is characteristic of much of San Antonio. I enjoy talking to the day laborers who live across the street as much as I love chatting with my uber-educated neighbors. On my block alone, there are degrees from Stanford, Cornell, New York University, Rice, and the University of Chicago. They belong to doctors, activists, academics, and regular working folk. (For different visions of the general area, watch Girl in a Coma’s “El Monte” and Mexicans with Guns’ “Damelo”, both filmed partly in Tobin Hill.)
My experience of San Antonio has differed from the situation Callie described in one important way: I’ve found it very easy to make friends here. My first night on the town, I met a dozen people. Now, I walk into bars and concerts and know half the faces I see. San Antonio is by far the friendliest city in which I’ve lived. It feels much more like a community than Austin, where I spend a lot of time. (My better half lives there.) Because there isn’t as much turnover, people are happy to meet newcomers. Often, it means exchanged phone numbers and Facebook friend requests rather than just smiles and handshakes. Maybe it’s just that I’m an easygoing guy—I’m certainly catholic when it comes to the company I keep. Many of my San Antonio friends don’t have college degrees, and one or two haven’t finished high school. When I walk over to Joey’s on N. Saint Mary’s for a beer and a pizza, I usually end up talking about my beloved Spurs. But, I’ve also had conversations there about phenomenological philosophy, tropical ecology, and libertarian politics. I like it all.
I wouldn’t describe San Antonio’s dating scene as a “desert.” But, it takes some shifting and some flexibility. (I never had much luck finding vegetarian academics who love punk rock, but they’re a rare breed anywhere.) Given my interests in indie music and the arts, it hasn’t been hard to meet people. The harder part has been the “small town” feel of San Antonio. There’s not much anonymity here. If you’ve developed a history with someone, it’s hard to avoid seeing them out and about, and that can be rough. Although the community feels comfortable and familiar, it can also seem stifling and claustrophobic, especially where relationships are concerned. Fabian Villa has been documenting Tobin Hill’s social scene for a few years. To see some of the usual suspects—including an embarrassing shot or two of yours truly—check out his recent albums at Essentials.
One of the biggest misconceptions held by young outsiders is that San Antonio is deeply conservative. Certainly, this is an old, old city. But, it’s rare that I come across belligerent Republicans. We’re majority-minority, and we vote Democratic. There are plenty of military people around, but I’ve had many in my classes, and most are surprisingly liberal. There are a lot of gay people here, too, and many have families. In an important sign of things to come, some of our young Democratic politicians are rising stars. (Diego Bernal and Castro brothers: get me a cabinet position!) If you’re an old school humanist of the Studs Terkel variety, you can be very happy here. If you’re looking for New Yorker cocktail parties and limousine liberalism, however, you’ll probably be disappointed. So much of San Antonio seems blue collar. I like that, because it makes me feel like I’m living in the world rather than some shiny happy enclave where everyone looks, talks, and thinks just like me. Maybe it’s because I’m an anthropologist, but I get off on friendly difference, and San Antonio has plenty of it.
I think it takes a certain kind of young, ambitious person to appreciate San Antonio. You have to be easygoing. You have to be open-minded. You have to enjoy exploring. And you have to side with the quirky, the out of the way, and the underdog. Pretentiousness of any kind doesn’t work here, as self-deprecation is a favorite pastime. (That’s what all of the people who complain about “Keep San Antonio Lame” don’t understand. It’s a clever, fun, nudge-and-wink phrase that expresses how lovingly aware we are of this city’s foibles and failings.) San Antonio is also a place for builders. There’s so much possibility in this city. Places like Austin feel saturated to me. I like San Antonio’s empty spaces. Never have I been more tempted to start a band, help a friend open a bar or cafe, get involved with a neighborhood political organization, or buy and rehab an old house.
A lot of San Antonio is great the way it is: the fiestas, the breakfast tacos, the conjunto, the old parks, and the language, architecture, history, and sociality that make this city one of the few American places with a real, organic culture. But, there are also exciting things happening. The best of them build on San Antonio’s Tejano/Hispanic/Mexican heritage to build something new. A few weeks ago, I went to one of the Échale events at Pearl Brewery. The set design by local hero Cruz Ortiz was cool and beautiful. The digital cumbia of Monterrey’s Toy Selectah got everyone dancing. The crowd was a great mix: well-dressed Mexican nationals, Latino indie rockers, and families from the east, west, south, and north sides. I let my dog play with some new pals as I introduced my Austin girlfriend to old students and old friends. (By the way, she’s a hip, hyper-educated, successful lady, and she, too, loves San Antonio.) It was a warm night, people were sipping margaritas, and the river beautifully reflected the lights. Surveying the scene, it felt sort of . . . magical. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything like it anywhere else. (Learning that the new craft cocktail bar at the Pearl had yet to open was my only complaint.)
San Antonio needs more institutions like Échale, and we need more places like the Pearl. Even though a lot of things in the city center are heading in the right direction, plenty still irks me. I’d put unhealthy lifestyles and troubling higher education figures at the top of the list. (I’m biased, of course, but I hope the state continues to invest in the growth of UTSA. A broad community of undergrad and graduate students will do more to change the aspirations of San Antonio’s youth than anything else.)
The fact that Callie’s piece drew such a strong response shows that there is a lot of truth in it. In fact, probably my least favorite thing about this city is the incessant whining of many of its residents. Certainly, there are things to complain about. But for many of us, those are the same things we like to laugh about. Even more, they are the things we can improve. I don’t think that San Antonio will ever be a “where it’s at” city. We should leave that to Austin, Portland, and Brooklyn, which will always beat us at that game. But, we have a lot going for us. For the right kind of young, ambitious, creative person, this is already a great place to live. And with all of the ongoing changes—the growth of Rackspace and the emergence of other new companies not the least among them—San Antonio’s net will become wider and wider. I might be an optimist, but I also think I’m right.