The New San Antonio Needs Old San Antonio

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Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.

Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.

Riley Gardner HeadshotOne morning two years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my mother and I were enjoying a breakfast at our hotel. The conversation was mellow, but at some point we ended up mentioning San Antonio in passing.

A few moments later an older man suddenly stepped in, asking us if we were from San Antonio. Yes, indeed we were, and what followed was a fantastic conversation with this gentlemen about the city, which he’d visited a few months back.

One thing he said has stuck with me strongly: “I’ve been all over the place, and the only two places that mesmerized me are San Antonio and Paris …”

Yes, Paris. Paris, France. I’m sure many locals reading this now are scratching their heads, wondering how in the world the cultural, artistic and grandest city in Europe – if not the world – can compare with our city. I can’t lie about it either – the comparison stunned me. I’d just left San Antonio, ready to start my life in Santa Fe (some would call the “southwestern capital of culture”) and this man just pushed the greatness of San Antonio right back into me. I began to miss that city. I plan on returning to San Antonio to join its urban renaissance within the next few years.

I do think the man’s comparison, even today, is a little off. We are not in same league as Paris – yet his words struck a chord with me. Those words continued to haunt me throughout my time in Santa Fe, and truth be told, it took years to understand it. Both Santa Fe are world champions in what they do. San Antonio is making strides still to figure itself out, yet there is a fundamental difference between those established cities and ours.

Santa Fe's decision to embrace it's history has led to worldwide recognition for history, culture and architecture. The El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. is an example of modern architecture that pays homage to its regional history. Courtesy photo.

Santa Fe’s decision to embrace it’s history has led to worldwide recognition for history, culture and architecture. The El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. is an example of modern architecture that pays homage to regional history. Courtesy photo.

The two embrace their history, while San Antonio pushes it aside.

The truth has to hit us before it’s too late: we need to radically re-think the way we view the history of San Antonio.

With the declaration that we’re going to make San Antonio a world-class city by the end of the decade (from our community and friends at SA2020), it leaves a lot of things open for debate and interpretation. How do we get there? What do we need to do? How can it happen?

We’ve already been making great strides, from growth in urban living to economic expansion of the arts industry. Yet one of the most important aspects in a world-class city is something we may overlook: what makes us different? What makes a company decide to settle here, or a family on the search for a new home? What makes people stay?

To make a world class city is not simply to build, build, and build. We can have hotels and office towers nestled between fine dining and gift shops all we want, but a true first class city comes from certain things: culture, diversity and distinguishability. San Antonio has a weak record of historic preservation, and any tourist can get that idea from a simple glance at a map of the Alamo Mission from today versus back then. It’s been said that we need to embrace our history many times before, and yet we don’t do it. History, our biggest asset, is grossly underdeveloped.

Alamo Plaza (Church of San Antonio de Valero and the surrounding grounds within the 1836 walls) illustrated by author and artist George Nelson.

Alamo Plaza (Church of San Antonio de Valero and the surrounding grounds within the 1836 walls) illustrated by author and artist George Nelson.

Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.

Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.

Look at it this way: in 2012, Washington D.C. attracted a record of 18.9 million visitors in the year. Pretty spectacular, but San Antonio brings in an average of 8 million, while Paris brings in nearly 70 million. Do we need more tourists? Debatable. While San Antonio’s tourism industry is focused mainly on the fine dining and entrainment sectors, Washington and Paris put enormous effort into historical immersion – the entertainment, fine dining and tourist trade grew around those efforts.

We must invest in our historical roots, roots that delve farther and deeper than our Spanish Colonial Missions. San Antonio is a city that has been defined by the battles fought within it, but also by the absolutely stunning resilience of the people who have lived here, some of whom have been here since it’s founding.

In 1813, revolutionaries in Texas were annihilated by forces under General Arredondo in the Battle of Medina, where the general’s forces killed nearly 1,300 people. Following this, Arredondo came to San Antonio, where he imprisoned hundreds of men in a single home where many suffocated. Women were imprisoned, raped, beaten, and forced to provide food for the army. Executions were held in main plaza. The only clue this ever took place in our city is the Spanish word for pain, grief or sorrow, dolorosa, in Dolorosa Street, named by it’s citizens to remember the horror of that year. Where are the monuments to that?

(Above) Veramendi Palace in 1860. The building was ultimately demolished to make way for a street widening project in 1912. The doors in the upper photo can still be found in the Alamo grounds. (Below) The now abandoned Solo Serve building now sits where the palace once was. Photo via Flickr user Paul Bubel.

(Above) Veramendi Palace in 1860. The building was ultimately demolished to make way for a street widening project in 1912. The doors in the upper photo can still be found in the Alamo grounds. (Below) The now abandoned Solo Serve building sits where the palace once was. Photo via Flickr user Paul Bubel.

The stunning Veramendi Palace, home of famed Alamo defender James Bowie and the site of the death of Ben Milam, leader in the Texas Revolution, who was shot by a sniper in the courtyard. It was demolished to widen Soledad Street.

Plaza de Armas, one of the cities main plazas where much of the Battle of Bexar took place was once part (along with Main Plaza) of the center of town. One would never guess it. There is hardly a mention of the massive battle and siege that took place from October to December of 1835, or the Battle of Concepcion, where the battle location is paved over by a highway and industry.

Where are the Chili Queens of Old San Antonio, who would venture towards the main plazas of city to cook chili for passers-by, with the smell of fresh chili filling the streets? What happened to the famous fandangos that attracted people from all walks of life and all across Texas? Or the explosion of colors of women and men in traditional Mexican dresses and suits, proving to the world the beauty of their culture and ethnicity? We simply paved over those aspects in our quest to build.

We have to embrace every era; from its native origins, to the Spanish founding, time under Mexico, the Texas Revolution, the Civil War era, the Roaring Twenties, and more. Don’t think of it as a way to bring in the tourists. It’s time to start thinking about how our history benefits us. Sit back and imagine what we could do. It’s more than simply making a city look pretty. It’s about giving San Antonio back an identity, one that isn’t just the Spurs and the Alamo.

Things we can do:

  • Award tax breaks or subsidies to businesses and architectural firms (or possibly through city ordinance) that build in styles that reflect our history, from Spanish and Mexican architecture and other styles that had an impact on our city.
  • Promote artwork that celebrates Old San Antonio all throughout the city and downtown.
  • Work with various groups such as the San Antonio Living History Organization to increase awareness and education within the city, and promote similar educational groups.
  • Improve our landmarks, museums, and art galleys.
  • Increase and promote the amount of historical markers, statues, artwork and other educational memorials. Double the current amount by 2020.
  • Promote history through various events – such as NIOSA and the Battle of Flowers – by putting stronger emphasis on our European, Mexican, and Native roots.

History will always draw tourists. Tourists bring in artists. Artists bring in youth, which brings in business and education. Education brings in higher quality employment and industry, higher standards of living and healthcare as well. A historical renaissance in San Antonio will bring them in. We can be a city like Santa Fe, or Washington, or – dare I say – Paris. Our biggest asset is not what we have in the future, but what can embrace from the past that helps create the future.

Let’s make San Antonio the best it can be.


Riley Gardner is a current student at Santa Fe University of Art & Design, where he is studying in Film Production. He plans to continue his education is studies in English and Public Administration. You can follow him @RileyRandom


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23 thoughts on “The New San Antonio Needs Old San Antonio

  1. I found your aerial images/ artist renditions of the Alamo (San Antonio de Valero) fascinating. One thing I would like to point out is that in March of 1836 the outer walls and majority of the Mission were destroyed in the battle of the Alamo. As the Mexican troops breached the walls, they turned the Texan cannons inward toward the complex to demolish the exterior walls allowing a faster flow of invading troops and to destroy fortified positions that Texan fighters were retreating to after the outer walls fell. Hence the dramatic change from 1836-1842 as the majority of the structure was destroyed during the fighting, and the areas that stood probably weren’t livable/serviceable.

    • True. Also the majority of the west wall and the entire northern wall, cattle pens to the east, and all fortifications were destroyed in the Mexican retreat from Texas. It certainly seemed more like a “plaza” than anything else to the locals (many of whom were new) so building around it was bound to happen. They even demolished the south wall gatehouse simply because city planners wanted Plaza de Valera to connect with Alamo Plaza, so you can imagine.

      I tried to stay away from the Alamo Plaza debate to focus on other aspects of our history, but Alamo Plaza is always going to be the cornerstone of San Antonian life and identity. I’m personally for the Gary Foreman plan for the plaza, but I’d like to see what District 1 Councilmember Bernal is going to do with the plaza in his plan.

      • Gary Foreman’s concept is not supportable by Texas Historic Commission standards, nor would it fly with the World Heritage commission voting on our status. It’s deplorable that some people buy into his Hollywood razzle dazzle bullying and bombast. No one seriously believes that our city will demolish the incredible architectural heritage buildings west of the Plaza. Historical standards dictate NOT replicating the past. We are not building a movie set. Foreman completely hogged the entire panel discussion held at UTSA. People were rolling there eyes not even halfway into it due to his complete lack of regard for the other panelists.

        I think you do a great disservice to the San Antonio Conservation Society by claiming we have a weak record on preservation. Yes, I’m very disappointed they had so little support on Univision. I’m pissed they caved on Main Avenue. San Antonio has a pretty amazing record of preservation in the pre-Sculley years at least. Perhaps do some research on a record of preservation unrivaled by any other city in Texas. For 15 years I worked for a preservation architect who at the time had done 33 major rehab projects downtown, many that would not have happened were it not for a very, very strong Office of Historic Preservation and the stalwart help of SACS. It’s only in the Sculley years that we see more and more historic buildings being demolished, compromised or worse done in the New Potemkin Style.

        • Hey Mary,

          Sorry you felt the article did a disservice. And no, I do not believe that SACS has a weak record in the slightest, and I never claimed they did – this was more aimed towards the city government, and not SACS in general. I realize that they have limited resources on a massive plate. With everything in San Antonio they have to manage, they’ve done a fantastic job. My attack on city preservation is generally meant for before SACS was around, or when SACS has little or no imput on something. Like I said, I’m aiming this towards the city, not you all.

          I’m “for” Gary’s project but I’m well aware the odds of it happening are incredibly slim. And I know nothing of Foreman’s personality, so it’d be ill-judged to comment on it. Foreman’s project may not happen, but it’s opened discussion as to what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate on Alamo Plaza, a discussion we’ve been needing to happen for years.

          Rebuilding the plaza is, in my opinion, worth looking at. We wouldn’t be alone – hundreds of historical sites across the United States have done that. At this point it’s less about authenticity and more about education.

          Thanks for the input, though!

          • Then you are talking about pre-1924 demolitions? That was when Emily Edwards and friends founded SACS. I do wish someone would research what I suggest: demolitions pre-Sculley and post-Sculley. There is a big story in what happened when Ann McGlone left the OHP. There was a pretty big exodus of well-qualified people. Now the department is a quite-different story. Someone needs to tell that story and analyze the difference in our OHP now and when Pat Osborne ran it so very well for all those years.

    • Really good point Rudy. You’re absolutely right. We need to make efforts to improve educational standards in the downtown and surrounding areas, and provide more opportunities for residents. We can never abolish the poor, but we should give them tools to start stepping out of it. (Author Chaz Miller wrote about the poor vs. richer residents in “Deep in the Heart of San Antonio”. You should check that out if you can, it’s really interesting.)

  2. Very good, and yes San Antonio is a lot like Paris. They have so many people that have lived in the city for decades that would never be considered French and wide scale gentrification. But just like SA an amazing world culture that can be celebrated among the plantation.

  3. Thank you for covering this topic.

    How we deal with our past as we reach for the future is the central concern that I have about the SA2020 vision. In my particular neighborhood, it remains to be seen how H-E-B and the City will follow through on the promises made to close a portion of Main Avenue regarding “activation” of the long-neglected city park known as the Commander’s House. While the park’s former home, circular drive, and formal gardens are related to our complex military past, its ties to the adjacent acequia share a longer and more rich history. Installing multiple historical markers is not really enough. (The USA’s conveyance deed already calls for one). Likewise, installing one or historical markers at the former Univision is not really enough to embrace the history of the place and to make it tangible to locals or visitors. History is not something dead that you read about on a sign but something real and invigorating that needs to be experienced.

    • Absolutely agree with you. San Antonio still continues to fail to understand history and the benefits of conserving it. The entire Univision mess just proves it. Did you know (you probably do) that there are markers where the bodies of the Alamo defenders were burned, on Commerce street right where the Rivercenter mall is? If you’re lucky enough to find them (I’m still not) they act as if it’s just a passing footnote in history. As a historical scholar/nerd I find it incredibly annoying. People need to understand that history, as you said, is real and alive, and that real people were affected by these events. Real people with hopes and dreams and family, had things that made them laugh, cry, and love… we need to promote that in this city.

      • Riley, you are simply off base in some of your comments. Why not go research at SACS and talk to Bruce MacDougal and learn a bit more about our rather long and compelling record of preservation. Have you read Lewis Fisher’s ‘Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage’? Good place to start. You are right that many citizens, developers and worse, city officials don’t give a tinker’s damn about preservation. The word ‘preservationist’ is now a pejorative. Opining we have a weak record does not help your story line. Why not do a follow up article about the many successes and research why the OHP was moved out from under the Planning Department and put directly under the City Manager’s control? Research demolition permits and compare numbers of demolitions in the pre-Sculley years. There was a ginormous fight brewing that exploded in Ann McGlone leaving her post as our Historic Preservation Officer. There’s a very good story in all of that record.

        I don’t know anyone that would want San Antonio to look like Santa Fe……maybe Gary Foreman fantasizes about it.

        • Again, I felt the need to respond to this comment simply because you aren’t understand the point of this article – nothing to do with SACS, it’s aimed towards city officials and locals. I stand by what I said in the previous comment towards you.

          “Preserving” for the sake of preserving isn’t necessarily good. If the building is literally abandoned and simply standing because it’s old not only adds worry in terms of safety, but criminals and homeless can find such locations to their advantage. It’s a worthy debate, and one I’d be interested in having or sitting in on.

          I don’t want San Antonio to look like Santa Fe – I was San Antonio to look like San Antonio. That was the purpose of the article. I brought up Santa Fe simply because they embraced the historical aspects of their society (when there were plenty of chances to do the opposite) and by not doing so, it worked wonders for them. My argument is that San Antonio needs to embrace it’s origins – just like Santa Fe – and use it to the advantage of San Antonio. What makes us “us”? That’s what I want and that’s what the article claims.

          I’ll absolutely check that book out, and thank you for that suggestion. I think this is a very important conversation that we all need to be having. Your input is valued.

  4. Nah, I think we need another $33 million highway interchange for people who want to live as far away from San Antonio as possible, but still be able to get around quickly.

  5. San Antonio natives and students of Texas history know from experience that one of the reasons Texas history disappears or gets razed is because for the most part Texas history does not flatter Mexico or Mexican culture. Mexico’s response to the various Texas rebellions was cruel and harsh. Even though Texas is a child of Mexico and the USA make no mistake San Antonio looks the way it does today because of FDR and the WPA funding work from the early 20th Century. If the appearance of San Antonio had been left to the native Hispanic majority population San Antonio would more resemble El Paso or Piedras Negras today. And there is a deliberate and methodical effort going on in San Antonio to change Texas historical sites (Including the Alamo) into Hispanic exhibits and sites. That effort lost the Institute of Texan Cultures their position as the Texas State Museum. That effort can be seen again with the DRT losing control of the Alamo. If this effort continues and is successful in the future we may see the Alamo shown as just another Spanish Mission and its role as the symbol of Texas liberty severely minimized.

    • If you’re confident in your beliefs then please write an article in RR explaining – in detail – why and provide references.

    • The DRT are losing control of the highly-profitable Alamo site, but not due to any racial or ethnic agenda – DRT are losing due to internal fighting and mismanagement.
      However, it sounds like you think that’s what Tejanos would have done to the whole city if Anglos had not taken over, right?

  6. In 1938, Mayor Maury Maverick released Emma Tenayuca from jail after being indicted for protesting the lowering of wages for Pecan Sheller’s on SA’s westside. The following year she held a rally, on behalf of the Communist Party USA, on the steps of Municipal Auditorium, with a permit granted by Mayor Maverick, only to encounter an unruly mob of thousands hurling bricks and breaking down police barricades to attack the meeting. The police escorted Tenayuca and others to safety through a tunnel leading to the river. Tenayuca was forced to flee SA and remained in California for years.
    While dining at the Mayor’s victory party night at the King William Garden House, I overheard a discussion of community activists and city employees advocating for a statue of Emma Tenayuca to be erected on the grounds of the new Tobin Center(formerly Municipal Auditorium). I certainly agree and would consider the monument an outstanding exercise in historical preservation.

  7. I get your point in your article and thanks for the “Things we can do” section; but I think you confuse your own enlightenment with that of the “locals”.

    San Antonio already has “culture, diversity and distinguishability”. Will Rogers is said to have called San Antonio “one of America’s four unique cities,” along with San Francisco, Boston, and New Orleans. He was referring to a class city back then and that culture is still here now.

    Santa Fe looks Santa Fake! I have seen it devolve over the last 25 years and am unimpressed. What we can learn from them is what not to do.

    Looking at the maps you provided does not prove that ” San Antonio has a weak record of historic preservation, and any tourist can get that idea from a simple glance at a map of the Alamo Mission from today versus back then.” With your argument, we should have preserved the unfinished blown-out Alamo instead of creating the mission revival facade in 1849 that we all know the Alamo to look like.

    In your response to Mary, you say “nothing to do with SACS, it’s aimed towards city officials and locals”. The SACS is made up of locals! We also have the oldest historic district in Texas formed by locals.

    Adina De Zavala, granddaughter of the Republic of Texas Vice President Lorenzo De Zavala, was a “local” and fought for preservation in the early 20th century. My family has been here since the mid 18th century, and for over 8 generations we have created and maintained history and historic sites.

    I am glad that you are coming of age and learning these things, but please don’t assume that we “locals” aren’t already preserving culture and history.

  8. While Mary and Oscar are correct that folks here in San Antonio have done great preservation deeds, there is still more to be done. It’s a never ending battle. The nod toward history planned for the new Tobin Center will be the result of past litigation about the project. That’s not preservation at its finest but at its most desperate. We can do better.

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