At a time when cities across the nation are taking steps to revitalize the urban core, the Urban Affairs Association chose San Antonio as its location to host its 44th annual conference.
The aptly titled “Borders and Boundaries in an Age of Global Urbanization” featured scholars, professors, and doctoral candidates presenting research and perspective on all things urban. Topics ranged from thinking beyond complete streets, walkability and pedestrian infrastructure, tourism and public relations, political regime theory and much more. This year’s special track highlighted urban trends in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Representing the UTSA College of Public Policy, I aimed for panels, plenary sessions, and colloquies that focused on the history of politics and policy in the Alamo city.
Thursday’s plenary session featured native San Antonio scholar and author David Montejano and activist Ernesto “Ernie” Cortes, Jr. An inspiring orator, Cortes’ work as an activist and organizer began with the creation of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) on San Antonio’s Westside in the mid-’70s.
Ethnic and dialectal tensions, infighting leading to the ultimate demise of the city’s Good Government League, and the 1975 revision of the Voting Rights Act allowing for single-member district voting served as the catalysts for successful organizing by COPS and other community-based organizations.
“All organizing is disorganizing and reorganizing,” Cortes said as he shared his history of painstakingly reassessing tactics and strategy over the years while fighting for funding for infrastructure improvements from the city. He urged listeners to be willing to confront their own failures by recognizing the social dynamics of community organization in adapting to a constantly evolving cultural landscape.
Montejano’s scholarly work includes his award-winning book, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986 and Quixote Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, both expounding on the role of Chicano identity as a major factor in shaping cities in 20th century urban Texas.
The PBS series documentary Latino Americans, with Montejano serving as a consultant, broadened the scope of the Chicano civil rights by catapulting the history of racial conflicts of San Antonio and Crystal City onto the national scene.
Christine Drennon, Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University, presented as this year’s recipient of the 2014 UAA Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award, honored by Juan A. Garcia, President of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, and Beverly Watts-Davis of the United Way of San Antonio & Bexar County.
Drennon has led her efforts with Trinity to become the distinguished partnered researcher for the Promise and Choice Neighborhood plans on San Antonio’s Eastside. Her research for the newly designated EastPoint neighborhood stands out with statistics from the unconventional aspects of city planning by looking at middle school dropout rates, using digital photography for community members to visually demonstrate neighborhood blight, and other non-traditional means of giving residents a voice in the planning process.
She emphasized the relevance of the impact in hosting community conversations with parents and students to mitigate the often-heated relationship between school districts and the community.
“It’s the voices that make the data come alive,” she said.
Streets and Politics of Center City San Antonio
In rethinking streets for the 21st century, Mukul Malhotra and Susan Goltsman of re:Streets teamed with Andrés Andújar of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) to unveil future plans for Hemisfair Park, specifically the Play Escape section of the park. Giving us an urban history of the functionality of streets and sidewalks, they shared future plans for South Alamo and Cesar Chavez Streets.
“Streets were once thought of as outdoor living rooms,” Malhotra said, and the architectural renditions for these center-city streets will radically reshape our understanding of pedestrian interaction in a more inclusive public realm.
For the city planners attending the conference there seemed to be current shifts in perspective on how to re-engineer city streets to serve residents of all ages by incorporating multi-use, multi-purpose street functions. The task for street designers in working with the avenues and boulevards of San Antonio largely engineered to accommodate the automobile proves daunting yet hopeful by working with community feedback as re:Streets and HPARC have held public participatory workshops.
History class was definitely in session for the one all-San Antonio panel during the entire conference. Professor Arturo Vega of St. Mary’s University analyzed the striking comparisons of the ethnically-charged voting precinct turnouts of former Mayor Henry Cisneros and current Mayor Julián Castro along with their political agenda of championed policies. The title of “San Antonio’s Favorite Son” proved a complex burden to bear for Cisneros and we now see Castro in the position of filling the same shoes.
Heywood Sanders of UTSA presented his historical analysis (“Divided City, Divided Elites”) of the elite power players and how that division shaped the politics of urban renewal coupled with economic development in San Antonio’s history. Sanders’ conviction and excitement explicit in his storied, muckraking style prove equally engaging as the fiery oratory of the activist-scholar approach.
The divisive nature of the GGL, we learned, was fueled by the old money of downtown, represented by local figures such as H.B. Zachry and Bill Sinkin, at odds with the new money of homebuilders and car dealerships that set foundations for their suburban industries on the northwest side. These conflicting interests are still apparent today concerning distributive and redistributive policy in San Antonio politics.
We currently see the center city functioning at a 67 percent occupancy rate, which equates to one in three buildings sitting vacant, evident along major downtown streets such as Commerce and St. Mary’s. Sanders provided a historical context and framework behind the current conversation on the issue of the occupancy crisis in the Central Business District. District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and Lori Houston of the Center City Development Office have launched a number of programs such as the OPEN initiative, X Marks the Art, and Downtown Tuesday in an effort to make true the promise of a “Decade of Downtown”.
The Future of Urban San Antonio
With more than 100 panelists, breakout sessions, and book and journal exhibits, this year’s conference was an urbanist’s dream. Speaking with President Emeritus Charles Cottrell of St. Mary’s University seemed to bring my conference experience full circle. After stepping down as president after more than 30 years, his return to teaching is invigorated by his passion to inspire and educate students on the importance of political science.
We shared similar concerns for the future of San Antonio, such as the political apathy exemplified by low voter turnout rates dipping as low as seven percent at the polls, and agreeing that the cult of rugged individualism has played a large part in shaping attitudes towards the political system.
I expressed my reasoning for overcoming that disillusionment and how my generation could utilize the social contract to the benefit of our communities.
“The story isn’t over yet,” Cotrell said as we examined the rich and vibrant history of this city. We must remain optimistic by necessity in cultivating the cultural dynamics that continue to define our urban environment in the 21st Century.
*Featured/top image: Urban studies journals on display at the UAA Conference. Photo by Rene Jaime Gonzalez’ Instagram (@largecomm).