A Modern-Day Surrender at the Alamo

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits Alamo Hall just moments after signing the resolution in support of the proposed Alamo redevelopment plan.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits Alamo Hall moments after signing the resolution in support of the proposed Alamo redevelopment plan.

The latest battle of the Alamo (There have been many. See Adina Emilia De Zavala versus Clara Driscoll.) is over. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, unlike William Barret Travis, chose to surrender.

Of course, if Travis had surrendered, his fate and that of all his men would likely have been the same. Only three weeks later, more than 400 Texians surrendered at Goliad and were cold-bloodedly executed under the orders of the Mexican general, Santa Anna.

If Travis had surrendered, hundreds of San Antonio buildings wouldn’t mimic the facade of the Alamo, and our fearless State Board of Education wouldn’t be publicly appalled at textbooks failing to label the Alamo defenders as heroes.

And we wouldn’t be arguing bitterly over exactly how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to close Alamo Street, move the Cenotaph (there would be no Cenotaph), and wall off the city’s most vibrant historic plaza.

That last part is where Nirenberg had made his stand. In an editorial last July, joined by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), he led by describing Alamo Plaza as “perhaps the most important civic space in our city.”

He described it as the place where “San Antonians celebrate our heritage, demonstrate, protest, gather for vigils, watch parades, and conduct presidential politics.”

He gave ground on some issues, suggesting that Alamo Street might have to be closed, the Cenotaph moved. And he expressed hope that the historic buildings on the west end of the plaza would be saved.

With his two co-signers, he insisted on only one thing: “As we pursue needed revitalization to preserve and showcase this sacred site with the proper reverence, the Alamo Plaza must remain at the heart of our civic life."

The statement was unequivocal: “We oppose any type of barrier that would limit access to the Plaza at any time, other than for special events.”

That’s exactly what a coalition of the city’s top architects and city planners had argued, as well as for keeping Alamo Street open.

But last week Nirenberg reluctantly relented. He joined Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in signing a resolution that will result in the plaza being turned over to the State in a 50-year lease under a plan that will fence off the plaza with only one entrance during most waking hours. Only when a planned museum is closed will all six gates to Alamo Plaza be opened.

At least Nirenberg acknowledged that he was reversing his position. Treviño lacked that grace. Last month, in his role as a member of the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee, Treviño voted to close the plaza during museum hours. When challenged by journalist Ben Olivo, whose San Antonio Heron focuses on downtown, Treviño said his joint statement with Wolff and Nirenberg had said the plaza would be open “aside from special or scheduled events. And so that is addressed by what we’re telling you: Museum hours are special and scheduled events.”

Olivo said he guessed he needed to go back and reread the statement. “Yeah, please do,” Treviño said.

The statement, of course, does not refer to “scheduled events.” It says only “special events.” That’s going to have to be some museum to be daily considered a special event.

The stated reason for having only one entrance is to nudge visitors through the museum to shape their experience, making it more reverent and majestic. I hope it works. Those of us who live in San Antonio are giving up our most vital and historic plaza for that tourist experience. (At most, San Antonians are likely to go during museum hours once, and then when we take visiting relatives.)

My feelings for Alamo Plaza may be shaped by many years of living and working downtown. It started early. As a summer intern at the San Antonio Light in 1967 one of my duties was to go to the police station Saturday mornings to check overnight police reports. The most pleasurable route was through Alamo Plaza, where most Saturday mornings I would pass a group of a couple of dozen citizens standing at the front of the former church, quietly and respectfully protesting the Vietnam War.

What made it especially memorable was that one of the protesters was Margie Kilpatrick, widow of Charles Kilpatrick, who was then editor and publisher of the San Antonio Express-News. The newspaper supported the war, so I was impressed at seeing the editor’s wife in a protest line.

I asked Margie about it the other day. Now 92, she said Charles was privately against the war.

“He would have preferred that I didn’t protest,” she said, but he wouldn’t stop her.

The Alamo is such a powerful symbol that the plaza has continued to host an occasional protest. Most recently an open-carry group used it as a backdrop. Most protests have been respectful, though there was a rough patch in the 1980s. Three self-described Communists scaled the outer wall in 1980 as a protest. The following year, a couple of fellow travelers raised a red flag on the Alamo flag pole as an echo of the previous year’s event, but ran when a maintenance man spotted them.

For the next few years a small Ku Klux Klan group vowed to protect the Alamo, but such protection has rarely appeared necessary, Ozzy Osbourne aside. Meanwhile, the Alamo has been a bustling place for parades, civic Christmas celebrations, presidential visits, general good spirits, and the happening of history.

It is famously, for example, where barbed wire was first demonstrated to a convention of cattleman who scoffed at the notion that massive bovines would be restrained by such thin string. That demonstration changed the West.

Planners say there will be a “free-speech zone” in the open plaza in front of the Menger Hotel just south of the Alamo. The idea of a “free-speech zone” makes me nervous. The First Amendment made the United States a free-speech zone. That’s not to say we shouldn’t mark some areas as protected from hurly-burly. For example, I have no problem keeping those crazy zealots from Kansas from yelling hateful things at military families burying their sons and daughters. But those should be "no free-speech zones,” not the reverse.

Why did Nirenberg retreat from his bold statement? I don’t know. I do know that Bush, as the official custodian of the Alamo, has both more power than Nirenberg and he answers to a different electorate. Outside San Antonio, folks know only the myth of the Alamo, what happened in late February and early March 1836. They don’t know its history before that nor the history of the desolation turned to vibrancy afterwards. Their most powerful image of it derives from Hollywood.

No statewide politician or member of the Legislature from outside San Antonio would want to defend the Alamo on any other ground than that of the origin myth of Texas. I don’t blame them.

But the real history is much more complex, messy, and fascinating than the myth. We’ve been promised the museum will deal with the real history. I’m skeptical, but that’s yet another battle for another day.

32 thoughts on “A Modern-Day Surrender at the Alamo

  1. As a native San Antonian, now living just next door in Converse, I applaud your sentiment. We only to the Alamo a few times, but each time we appreciate its accessibility.

    It’s part of what makes it so special – anyone can walk up and see it.

  2. Thank you, Rick Casey!
    It really saddens me to imagine the plaza fenced in any way. The reality will be strange and jarring to see.

  3. As part of the plan to upgrade Alamo Plaza, the plaza floor will be scraped flat down 18 inches to it’s historic footprint. A small chain fence will line/mark the perimeter of the mission footprint to prevent people from falling into this hole.
    The only “access” to the plaza that will be blocked is that of a sudden and unexpected tumble.

    As for access to the Alamo church, the Shrine itself will not be affected by any changes to the plaza.

  4. The plaza should remain open without fences and gates

    The fence alignment is NOT historic and never existed,,,,

    Bikes and pedestrians from Southtown will have to detour many blocks to get around Alamo Plaza…

    How much does the state pay to have the city close Alamo St and create a new Lasoya Street with no bike access,A partially closed Houston Street with no bike or pedestrian access ,
    A new intersection at Commerce and Lasoya and Alamo
    A new Alamo Street south of the Menger where bikes and pedestrians can’t walk to Houston Street without waiting in line behind tourists to go through two gates, maybe!

    We have surrendered our plaza to the state .

    • Thanks, David. This is a real disappointing mess! Shocked that Mayor and CM Trevino have agreed. Still can’t imagine how Losoya will work with two way traffic.

    • Will there be rotating steel bar doors? You might remember then from theme parks and swimming pools, where admission is charged. Somehow, charging admission to Alamo Plaza will not promote the idea of bustling urban space, or the city center the place now is.

  5. I must say I bristle every time someone uses words like your “origin myth”. Myth? Really?

    Real men chose to die on those grounds, in hopes of freedom from a dictator that hijacked their country, went against the freedoms written in their constitution, labeled them terrorists, and gave them no mercy. That is no myth.

    I’m proud to the the city and state finally come together to make this site more than something you simply drive by. The place deserves reverence and it deserves to have the its truths told if for no other reason than that some call that history a myth.

    • You are perpetuating that baby boomer myth of the Alamo that was popularized by Disney. The Alamo and it’s significance to our state is more than a solemn memorial blockaded and walled off from the rest of the city.

  6. Despicable. Completely and utterly despicable. From calling the Battle of the Alamo a myth, to Nirenberg surrendering the Alamo to Bush. From the lies told by all involved, to the ultimate destruction of the Spirit of Sacrifice.

    And that, is your legacy. You sold out.

  7. Bravo! Someone finally sees the mayor and his co- hort Trevino as they really are, control freaks who listen to no one.
    The Alamo is a symbol of freedom and we need to continue to have open access any time of the day and freedom to express opinions any where we want in the area.
    Vote to curtail their power. VOTE!

  8. The cena-whatever is worthless. I’ve been going to Alamo plaza for years, never even noticed it. Walking around the designated entrance isn’t that big of a deal, people are acting like it infringes on their civil liberties or something.

  9. I am torn between all this. I love the open accessibility, but I also can see how some others do not show respect for themselves much less for something as special and historical as the Alamo. (cough cough….Ozzy Osborne.) People even write on the walls with no thought of the preservation. They closed the street in front of the San Fernando Cathedral and I appreciate that and it has allowed more visitors to walk and visit with ease. I truly believe this is for the good. Its change!…. We3 all get nervous for a change.

    • People don’t freely write on the walls of the Alamo … there are guards at all times and have been, dating to the management by the DRT. The outer walls, apart from the Long Barrack, are not original historic walls but are, or were, also patrolled by the Alamo guards. Alamo Plaza is a different space. There is no way to walk and visit with ease under the restrictions planned for it. If you have ever been at the Alamo on a major holiday, the 4th of July, for instance, and have seen the long line awaiting at the available entrance, with other entrances closed for more control, you will get a look at the future of Alamo Plaza under the control of the GLO. In past years one could enter the grounds of the Alamo from entrances on Bonham Street, on Crockett Street, from Alamo Plaza — two front entrances, not counting the entrance to the church itself , and from Houston Street. Service deliveries could also enter from a second Houston Street gate. That’s when visitors were welcome to the Alamo grounds throughout the year and the gardens were in bloom. You don’t have to throw out all the accessibility and all the graciousness to maintain the plaza as an extension of the historic Alamo grounds, and to lead to a museum that is as open and accessible as the Alamo should be. This is about control, the state in the guise of the GLO controlling this great historic civic space in San Antonio, and duping the city’s current leader into signing off on it. Would Mayors Hardberger, McAllister, Castro, Cockrell have done so? Mayor Maverick? Can the City Council stiffen resolve and reject the decision?

  10. Sorry, I just can’t understand what the fuss is about from either side. Although I am fascinated that thousands of people from all over the world would go visit a stone wall with a door in it. Goes to show you how little it takes to entertain people. If the battle at the Alamo really changed history, tell that story. I have to refresh my memory often when I need to understand its significance. Maybe that’s what both sides can do, educate folks on why it was important what happened at the Alamo and what could have happened if the battle didn’t take place. I can hear Trump weighing in on this issue by saying I like events where people don’t lose and heroes who don’t die.

  11. George P Bush, Roberto Trevino, and Ron Nirenberg are only doing this for money. We have spent over a year and a half fighting this plan and the moving of the Cenotaph. They don’t care about reverence, if they did there would not of been basketball hoops, portable buildings, media stages and trash piled up 6 ft high on the Alamo grounds during the final four. It’s time to switch gears and fight to remove Bush in November and remove Nirenberg & Trevino in May 2019. We have walked Alamo Plaza and around the cenotaph at least 60 times racking up thousands of main hours and we’ve yet to talk to one person who agrees with moving the Cenotaph. Sure there are a few that are Bush’s & Nirenberg’s lap dogs that will defend their actions, but the majority of Texans do not agree. This should of been put to a vote (all of Texas) before anything was decided, but they fear the vote because the majority of Texans are against them.

  12. Thank you, Rick for your insightful article on the the last battle of the Alamo. Our weak kneed Mayor Nirenberg has turned over our historic, beloved Alamo Chapel to out-of-town architects, state control and the Bass brother’s money. We have been bought and sold to outside interests. It is a sad day for San Antonians and Texans as well.
    When will we learn that in this day and age, it’s money that talks, not good sense, loyalty or fighting for what is right. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back.
    Nirenberg is just another sorry politician. He has done our city a great disservice. Vote him out of office!

  13. I used to love to come downtown and sit and read in the Alamo garden on an afternoon. Now I will have to line up to enter and who knows what they will do to the non original garden.

  14. Thank you, Rick Casey. Those of us who have watched our child march in front of the Alamo, cheered at a rally in Alamo Plaza, participated in an impromptu promotion or reenlistment ceremony there, or seen the faces of older visitors light up as they are driven past the iconic facade should understand why some of us are strongly opposed to the closure of Alamo and Houston streets at Alamo Plaza.

  15. Does NOT surprise me Mayor Ron Nirenberg surrendered to the powerbrokers and did Not defend our citizens. Councilman Roberto Trevino is in the same category as Mayor Nirenberg. They have no shame and truly do not understand our community needs. A few years back another Mayor destroyed our beautiful Main Plaza. Everyday, Main Plaza was alive with local that would sit there and just enjoyed the beautiful fountain, the families, the children running. Once again politics that did not understand or care for our citizens needs surrendered to the ruling class. It is time for change and accountability at City Hall. It is time for our voice’s to be heard. #VoteYesPropABC

  16. An Oligarchy (government by an elite few) is running our town, and much of the US. Peoples’ Power will return if we have enough VOTERS. Praying……

  17. Well Mayor Ron ran 0ut the back door of the Alamo before the real battle was to begin. City Hall and its influence peddlars are licking their chops what with their $450 disneyland budget being paid out to their friends : construction companies, lawyers, hotel mogels, e-scooter owners, Probably more lies about their “world class” achievements…….like the poorest big city in the country next to Detroit. ……..where there will be a dog park overpass built while downtown sidewalks are a joke to all…….more promises like “if you approve the Dome we will have an NFL team”and I am still waiting for the Chamber’s promise on that one. Give me a break……the Silly Council won’t even tell us where the old HemifFair arch sign is or what happened to the Travis Park statue…I guess that is what you call a Socialist Council interpretation of TRANSPARENCY.

  18. This really does leave the long-time citizens of San Antonio to “remember the Alamo.” Not all change is progress. What have San Antonians done to Mayor Nuremberg that got him to agree to fence us out?

  19. You can’t fix stupid.

    Closing off Alamo St to 110 yr old Parade staged to honor Heroes of the Alamo in the name of faux battlefield reconstitution is just that.

    Citizens unite : “Surrender, hell…I’ve just begun to fight”

    Good points all Rick!

  20. I am so disappointed in the Mayor surrendering on the fence and gate to the Alamo. I think it is a big mistake to “fence” out the locals so that visitors can have a “better experience”. The fence seems so exclusionary. I always felt like the Alamo belonged to all of us. Now I feel like it belongs to the State. Brings to mind the purpose of a “Border Wall”. So sad. I feel like someone stole something from us. And I really want it back!

  21. The single entrance will be there to collect the admission to see the Alamo. For over 100 years there was no charge to visit the Alamo or the lovely grounds. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas never charged an admission! Let’s not forget that the Alamo is a Shrine to the men that fought and died to save Texas! If you are not a native Texan you would not understand the importance to Remember the Alamo, not Reimagine the Alamo.
    Judy Day

  22. I agree with Rick. Where did this whole problem come from? Designers from out of state and George P. Bush, who seems to have a sense of entitlement to come in to our city, kick out the Daughters of the Revolution, take over the Alamo, and try to foist an absurd plan with moving monuments around the corner, walling off the Plaza, bulldozing ancient shade trees, and creating a caliche reflector oven for visitors and citizens to walk across. After all the efforts of our citizens sitting through numerous hearings, we were assured that the access barricades were gone from the plan and the Cenotaph would be moved a bit down the street.
    All of a sudden, at the last minutes, the barricades are resurrected at the instigation of this shadowy planning group and the respected Mr. Bush, and our once respected Mayor capitulates without a word. They were just biding their time to strike.
    Well… We must strike back. The citizens must surge forward, and, just as President Reagan said, Tear down this proposed wall, as in, tear up that plan.
    Give us our Plaza. We have respected The Alamo and its Defenders and its long heritage since missionary times and it will be done, but not with exclusion. We must have Inclusion. For all of us.

  23. I liked the idea that the original property of the mission should be reclaimed in its revision. I was told that the original boundary fell about 15 feet inside the Federal Building. Now that would have been interesting.

    Further, my out of town guests last weekend were more than content to be driven past the Alamo without walking the grounds to experience its religious overtones. “Now we can say we have seen the Alamo with our own eyes,” they said. For full disclosure I should mention that they were from California.

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