However you feel about the proposed Alamo Plaza Interpretive Plan, last week was not one for forward progress on the most important redevelopment project in contemporary San Antonio history.
Mostly it was a week where the plan’s valiant but hapless creators spoke at public hearings while audience members sometimes listened, often booed, robotically waved “Do not Move the Cenotaph” placards, and occasionally shouted insults.
“Go back to London!” one audience member yelled, interrupting a surprised yet admirably composed Boston landscape architect.
All that was missing were locals hurling tomatoes and raw eggs. Except not all the hecklers were locals. Some were out-of-town members of This Is Texas Freedom Force, the same gun-toting crowd that filled Travis Park months ago to protest the removal of a Confederate soldier statue.
I knew even before entering the third hearing, held Wednesday at Brooks, that it would be an eventful meeting. As I waited for the remote parking bus to ferry us to the hearing site, an older white woman approached the small group and singled out the only black person among us.
Pointing a finger and not even saying hello, she said, “You’re a black man. You black men and women should know Juneteenth was started right here at the Woolworth Building in 1960, right here in San Antonio. Isn’t that amazing? Y’all should know that.”
I’m usually pretty good at holding my tongue, but I blurted out a response: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in 1865. It has nothing to do with the Woolworth Building. It didn’t even start in San Antonio.”
“No, I am not wrong, it was right here, Juneteenth in San Antonio, 1960,” the woman snapped, waving her hand in dismissal and turning her back to me.
Ben Olivo, a fellow journalist who publishes the recently launched local news site San Antonio Heron, was standing next to me. “It happened in Galveston,” he added, not that it mattered.
Later, as I scanned the audience, I saw the woman again, one of many holding aloft “Don’t Move the Cenotaph” placards throughout the speaker presentations, a sort of in-your-face, “we are not listening” protest.
Public hearings have their place in the democratic process. Having attended hundreds of them, however, I can say they hardly ever seem to represent society-at-large. Too often they attract a disproportionate number of individuals chronically suspicious of all things government.
Last week’s Alamo hearings certainly included many people deeply interested in the thoughtful redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, but voices of reason tended to be lost in the noise. Click here to read the hundreds of text messages posted by audience members during the four meetings.
The hearings certainly didn’t advance the community debate over the future of Alamo Plaza. Protest, of course, is the right of all citizens and something to be guarded and defended. At some point, however, the shouting has to stop, the placards have to be lowered, the flintlocks set down, and people need to start talking, listening, and negotiating.
On the other side, the power groups – members of the Alamo Management Committee, Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald, members of the Alamo Endowment, and City Council – must address the many legitimate challenges to different elements of the proposed plan. Many of those concerns have been voiced by major stakeholders in San Antonio’s historic preservation, downtown development and vitality, cultural leadership, and visitor economy.
It’s regrettable that any call for change seems to attract a racist, xenophobic element still very alive in San Antonio, which for three centuries has sat at the crossroads of empire, war, revolution, independence, and a constant mixing of peoples. We were always meant to be a frontier city, a confluence of people, cultures, and ideas.
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Present-day acrimony triumphed over a better appreciation of the city’s past and a better path to its future last week. The challenge now is to have a serious conversation about how to transform a long-neglected Alamo Plaza without seeing this historic opportunity lost in the shouting.