San Antonio: Cool and Cultured, and Secure Enough to Say So Politely

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Even cats played instruments this weekend at the Josephine Theatre. Photo courtesy of Taylor Allen

Even cats played instruments this weekend at the Josephine Theatre. Photo courtesy of Taylor Allen

rachel hollandYesterday I read a rather disheartening article that went viral about “San Antonio’s Simple Appeal to Millennials” in Atlantic Cities.

While I am thrilled that we are gaining traction as a city on the rise, I couldn’t help but wince at the journalist’s boring and unsophisticated description of our social scene. Unfortunately, author Nona Willis Aronowitz missed some of the liveliest and most charming parts of San Antonio during her visit.

In an effort to change this outdated but sadly common perspective of our city, I promptly invited her back for round two in San Antonio. This is what I wrote:

Dear Nona,

I just read your article on San Antonio’s appeal to Millennials, and I want to thank you so much for checking out the city and helping us spread the word about what’s going on here. All of my friends have been sharing your article and we are all excited. At the same time, there was one part that I wanted talk more with you about:

“Let’s get this out of the way: San Antonio is not cool.”

On that point, I would have to strongly disagree with you. I firmly believe that we are a city on the rise and would like to invite you to take a second look. (Some text is hyperlinked, please click to find out more.)

Spontaneous dance party at Meatopia last Sunday. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Karney.

Spontaneous dance party at Meatopia last Sunday. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Karney.

What sets San Antonio apart from other cities is our confluence of cultures that we have been celebrating for almost 300 years, and our honest and friendly local culture.

Just this past weekend, I went to First Friday (a monthly art, food, and booze walk in Southtown where the street is basically closed off for pedestrians), rode my bike to Diwali Festival of Lights and Dia de los Muertos celebrations across from each other in the same afternoon, and sampled 30+ different dishes from chefs all over the U.S. at Meatopia, (a world-class food festival held only in New York, London, and San Antonio).

Amazing artistic alters at Dia de los MuertosCelebration in La Villita. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Amazing artistic altars at Dia de los Muertos Celebration in La Villita. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

We are a city that historically has not told our story well or marketed to the right audience. But I am part of an electric movement to change that.

I work for a transformative public redevelopment project, Hemisfair Park, in the heart of downtown, where we are creating a series of beloved urban parks embraced by a vibrant, high-density district. I’m a 28-year-old San Antonio native, went to college at UT-Austin, lived in Houston, Chile, Spain, and France, and moved back to San Antonio after nine years to be part of San Antonio’s transformation into a place where my friends want to live and work.

Hemisfair Holiday Lights

Hemisfair Holiday lights. Photo from Hemisfair Park’s Facebook.

It is a completely different city now than the San Antonio I grew up in, and I am proud to say that I love it here. The picture of “1005 Faces” that you posted in your article was part of a project I helped fund as a Trustee of Awesome SA—a foundation that gives monthly, $1,000 grants to projects that make San Antonio “more awesome.”

Even cats played instruments this weekend at the Josephine Theatre. Photo courtesy of Taylor Allen

Even cats played instruments this weekend at the Josephine Theatre. Photo courtesy of Taylor Allen

I live in the King William neighborhood in Southtown, just south of downtown, the first neighborhood designated “historic” in the State of Texas.

The neighborhood is full of young professional friends, outdoor beer gardens, art galleries, and fantastic local restaurants. There is a bustling food scene in both Southtown and The Pearl, all connected by riverside trail extensions north to the museums (the Museum Reach) and south to the historic Spanish Missions (the Mission Reach).

We have one of the largest bike share programs* in the United States (San Antonio B-Cycle), one of the largest start-up incubators outside of Silicon Valley (Geekdom), and a city-wide Fiesta celebration each spring.

The Something Monday on their way to Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A Something Monday (a casual, social bike ride in partnership with San Antonio B-Cycle) crew on their way to Alamo Plaza via South Alamo Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

One of the most appealing parts of San Antonio that I think you missed is that while a young person can move to Austin, San Francisco, or Brooklyn and participate in coolness, they can move to San Antonio and create it. You literally can see your own splash here.

Don’t wait too long before your next trip to San Antonio, because you will honestly not recognize the place in five years. My friends and I invite you to come back for a follow-up visit to your series and challenge you to reconsider the coolness factor. If funding is an issue, let me know and I can find it. You are more than welcome to stay at my place. Thanks again for putting our city in the spotlight and I hope to hear back from you with your availability.

Best wishes,

Rachel Holland


Rachel Holland is a San Antonio native, executive assistant at Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation and all-around firecracker. She is a proud graduate of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin where she received a BBA in International Business and a minor in Latin American Studies. She enjoys spontaneous globetrotting, adventurous dining, volunteering, and a good dive bar. If you can catch her, she just might talk your ear off about her plans to save the world.


*Updated: A previous version stated that San Antonio B-cycle was the nation’s second largest bike share program. The local program is actually the second largest B-cycle program – second to Denver B-Cycle.


Related Stories:

A Local Millennial To Atlantic Cities: Next Visit to San Antonio, Dig a Little Deeper

Meatopia: San Antonio Worships A Weekend of Meat

From the City of Brotherly Love to Falling in Love With The Alamo City

Why I’m Stubborn About San Antonio

The Water Line: A New Blog About What Defines Us in San Antonio

Where I Live: Monticello Park/Deco District

Where I Live: A Carved-out Local Music Scene

SA2020 Then and Now: Brainstorm to Reality to Report Card

People Want a Park: San Antonio’s Passion for Hemisfair

Where We Live: Two Perspectives from the Pearl

Downtown Kickball: Why Not?

San Antonio Celebrates the River’s Mission Reach

Mission Reach and Museum Reach on the San Antonio River: There’s an App for that


38 thoughts on “San Antonio: Cool and Cultured, and Secure Enough to Say So Politely

  1. While I agree that San Antonio IS cool–quite so–one of the big reasons it is…is that it goes about its being cool in a really un self conscious way. Fabulously cool Austin so exhaustively documents its coolness that it looses that funky spontaneity San Antonio has by the truckload. Therefore documenting SA’s coolness is, in a sense, the road to making it less so. At least that’s my (rarely) humble opinion.

    • Christine, you said it very succinctly. The whole “Keep San Antonio Lame” concept is one I support, not because I think SA is lame, but because I like that it a place that the uber-cool hipsters think is lame. Last thing we need is to become known as a “cool” city and have all the trust-fund hipsters come in here and drive the rents up.

      • Exactly! That’s what came to mind when I read this article as well. San Antonio is an affordable place for artists and other creative types to live, something I would hate to lose. Keep San Antonio Lame!

        • All,
          I realize that “cool” is a very relative word, and is not the most important thing for a city to “strive” for. I wrote this in response to a declaration that San Antonio uncool (to millenials as article states), not cute or charming, and has little to offer socially besides taco trucks and $1 Tecates.
          Additionally, I agree that SA is wonderful as is! And that our charm lies in the honest, friendly residents and our culture of not trying to impress. On the other hand, I am saddened when I hear “Keep San Antonio Lame” because it carries such negative connotation to outsiders (and young people) and contributes to the major challenge our city has in attracting and retaining top-talent. If we want to remain relevant and competitive in a global capacity for future generations, we have got to stop losing our college graduates to other cities that have a better track record of embracing progress. I, for one, am tired of my friends and siblings not giving San Antonio a chance because they have heard it’s lame here.

          • Yeah, not only do we use and Austin qoute “keep austin weird,” but we also say negatively “keep san antonio lame.” I’ve like “Puro San Antonio,” that should be made into a popular bumper sticker.

  2. I just wish I knew at 28 years old (like Rachel) what I know now. I have never had such a crush on this city as I do now at 41. The future for SA is looking bright.

  3. Great rebuttal Rachel! I agree that the Atlantic Cities article didn’t put our city in the best light, but I think the author saw the San Antonio most people see, and wrote from that perspective. You and your South town brethren are part of the few. (The exclusivity makes it more cool, right?)

    SA is working hard to amp up its coolness factor, its not there yet, perhaps that was the author’s unspoken point. Although a mention of the city’s development and future plans would have been nice, especially considering it was an article geared on Millennials moving in.

    I must say, however, as a Millennial who moved here 18 months ago, I have yet to experience any of the “cool” happenings of this city, including everything you’ve mentioned in your rebuttal (apart from Fiesta). This is due in part, mostly, to my inaction in reaching out to find these events, and also my proximity to said events. If I lived in South town, or the Pearl, then I’d be in the thick of the excitement, I’d know, and I’d participate. But for those of us who live outside the “cool” zones (which is the majority of this city), we aren’t aware of these events. Perhaps it is a PR, or marketing issue? I shouldn’t speculate. I’m simply giving you the perspective of a new San Antonian Millennial who doesn’t live in King Williams. And for me, my experience in this city, at work and around town, the Atlantic article was spot on.

    • Beth, Southtown is anything *but* “exclusive.”

      The events aren’t limited to Southtowners. Everyone is welcome. When I first moved to SA I lived in the outer burbs. After 6 months I realized I was living in anywhere USA. Why? So I took it upon myself to move into the downtown area. Back then it wasn’t cool, trendy, or hip. It was still considered scary by those unaware of the area (it was totally safe, but there were very few bars/restaurants then).

      You can easily fix your problem – move to an area of town with more activity, or seek out that activity. Events are posted on many many websites (Start with the Downtown blog on the Express News site), the Current, various FB pages. They’re not secret. They’re not exclusive.

      • “You can easily fix your problem – move to an area of town with more activity, or seek out that activity.”

        Right, like I said “This is due in part, mostly, to my inaction in reaching out to find these events, and also my proximity to said events. ” and “If I lived in South town, or the Pearl, then I’d be in the thick of the excitement, I’d know, and I’d participate.”,

        • Beth,
          Don’t let that stop you. I lived in Oakwell Farms (just north of Alamo Heights and Tobin Hills) for a year and still trekked it to Midtown/Southtown almost every day. I can’t help you with the inaction, but I suggest if you are happy doing what you are doing, then who is to stop you? If you would like to participate more, I suggest getting involved. 18 Months is a long time to not have fun if you were not before.

    • Hi Beth!
      I agree about the message not translating throughout the many enclaves of the city–that is one reason we all have such a big job to speak up and change the conversation. The more people we get to buy in to the excitement, the bigger the movement becomes (and the more fun we will all have). Let’s get in touch offline–I want to rope you in. Look forward to hanging out!

      • This comes a bit late, but this is regarding your comments on ‘lame S.A.’ I was born and raised here and graduated from Alamo Heights. I recently moved back from Portland, Or. Portland is one of the coolest cities in the U.S., attracting more college grads than just about any city. I used my bicycle as transportation due to the thousands of miles of bike lanes in Portland. Portland has a no urban growth policy;San Antonio has businesses that can’t even be reached by bus…and it’s only going to get worse. That’s one small example why San Antonio will never,ever be cool. I dread the summer and reckless drivers.

        • Jason, I lived in Washington state for a few years. I totally agree about the summers here as I grew up south of town. My plan is to stay here in the winters and out there in the summers. Not sure if this is feasible for you but it’s just an idea. Have a good day my friend.

  4. I just read the article this is a response too, and she definitely missed many of the things that make San Antonio a special place to live.

  5. This is a great article! I have lived in Portland, OR, Chicago, and DC and when I first came to San Antonio I hated it. I thought it was lame and very uncool. I have decided to stay put in San Antonio and I am very excited about the changes I see happening!

    • Noelle, I couldn’t agree more! I was one of the nay-sayers about San Antonio for a long time too. And then I started participating. Nobody can argue that SA is lame anymore–I cannot stop doing enriching and fun activities!

  6. There’s more to being a productive citizen than being cool. Cool is passé. We were doing cool back in the 50’s. What San Antonio needs are producers. People who aren’t afraid of getting out there & getting their hands dirty. This is a hard scrabble town. What San Antonio needs is People who don’t ask the first question out of their mouths is “how difficult is this?”
    If you’re scared of “difficult” you won’t cut it in South Texas. There’s too many of us already here who will eat your whimpy cool you know what. Because I’ve got news for you, San Antonio is very difficult. Difficult to live in. Difficult to make a decent living in. Especially, difficult to raise a family in. It’s even difficult to secure your home and property against the constant threat of thievery. The rose colored glasses are soon going to come off these Millenials and they’d better be prepared to get down and do some serious real time work. There’s nothing cool about work. And I don’t give a flip about whether you like the bars here. When you grow up you won’t have the time or money to hang out in them anyway.

  7. Thanks, Rachel, for the great response. I was taken aback by the author’s description of our city.

    Beth, pick up the Express-News (or check it out online) on Fridays and you’ll see all the cool things that are happening in our city. There are also a number of places on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with what’s happening. The events are all marketed in many places so I’m not sure why they aren’t appearing on your radar. You’re welcome to check in on my Facebook page where I post many events regular.

    As a baby boomer who has been living at Pearl for the past 3 years, I have found a whole new San Antonio I really didn’t know much about. I just knew when I moved from the suburbs that I wanted to be around people and Pearl seemed like the right place for me. I haven’t been disappointed for a minute! One of these days I’ll write that story of life at the top of the CIA Building that I’ve promised Bob and tell you all about it.

    Downtown is one great big welcoming neighborhood and the neighbors down here welcome people from all over town to come down and join in the party!

    • Lynn, My first experience with the Express News was reading that San Antonio adopted Whataburger as their #1 burger in a reader vote. I never read it again! Ha!

      I do try to keep connected with the city as best I can. I appreciate you reaching out and offering assistance. My point, really, was that without me seeking these events out, I really have no idea whats going on. Apart from Fiesta.

    • Thanks so much Lynn!! You are so right about the overwhelming non-exclusivity of our city. I love that so much about San Antonians–we are such a “more the merrier” type of breed.

    • Haha I know. I have a love/hate relationship with that sticker. We need to start a grassroots new brand about how SA has the best outdoor patios and margaritas year-round, etc. Just ANYTHING else but that….lol!

  8. Also, about the bike share…San Antonio’s isn’t the second largest in the nation. It is one of the largest but ahead of SA’s in terms of number of stations and cycles are New York’s new Citibike, DC’s Captiolbike, Boston’s Hubway among one or two others…(here’s a list of current/planned bike share programs: )

    BUT, I will say that SA is definitely one of the largest if you look at other ‘sunbelt’/southern cities.

    (again, I love this article!)

  9. San Antonio is getting cooler, for sure!! But stop telling everyone!!! I don’t want all the New Yorkers and Californians making it another Austin and making rent prices rise so no can live there but them!

  10. To add in making San Antonio a funner place to live, add a one mile bikecross to Brackenridge Park. There are already some natural hills within the wooded area that I’ve seen bikers playing on. Also the city should subsidize startup musical groups to play in restaurants and/or bars.

  11. Sherry…what the? I don’t know which San Antonio you live in that’s so difficult. I’ve lived here my entire life, raised a family and even without a college education managed to secure a job at one if SA’s premier financial institutions. Worked my way to a great position, saved enough money to leave that job and open a business which has turned into opening my 2nd successful business in the heart of the city. I live in the urban part of SA and haved managed to feel relatively safe in my hood. I surround myself with positive, hopeful, supportive, diverse, creative minds that see hope for the future of this city. Down with the naysayers & negative nancys.

  12. Rachel,

    Really well written. It’s a great time to live here now and it’s getting better. I’m with a group of people this weekend who live in Dallas, Houston, Austin and NYC. Where they live they are hearing about San Antonio as a city on the rise. As Austin moves further into being AUSTIN – I went to school there but it reminds me of LA more each time I go (and I still enjoy it) – there is no doubt in my mind that people will gravitate south looking for somewhere less expensive, less scene-y, more manageable. Somewhere with less hype but opportunities to find or create authentic experiences in culture, art, food and social interaction.

    I’m a realtor and in the past 12 months I have worked with more people who decided to move here without any previous connection to the area than in my previous nine years combined. They researched places they wanted to move and San Antonio was the winner. Having lived in Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Denver, these people remind me of people I saw in those cities. Many of these are Millenials – they are highly educated and they have money and the desire to make decisions based on lifestyle rather than just for employment.

    It remains to be seen whether this ultimately will be good for San Antonio as it will continue to change the city in ways both big and small. But, we can’t stuff that genie back in the bottle.

    For the foreseeable future, I think it will good.

    • Jason, that is awesome news–I LOVE hearing that the conversation is changing about San Antonio. I also went to school in Austin and barely recognize it anymore (it’s Dallas’d out basically). I genuinely don’t think our dominant laid-back culture will ever change due to downtown development–our population is too large, proud, and spread out. We will just be able to offer more options for those interested in an urban lifestyle. I’m glad you are here serving as an ambassador to San Antonio!

  13. I tend to side with NONA WILLIS ARONOWITZ. San Antonio’s lack of coolness resides in its lack of entrepreneurial opportunity and innovation in comparison to other major cities.

    The operative phrase is “in comparison to other major cities.”

    It isn’t that we don’t have innovation, entrepreneurship, etc., but it’s about moving from boutique store to national boutique store. Allowing opportunity, inclusion, and fairness permeate to the population which is 76 percent minority but only gets 16 percent of the contracts at the City of San Antonio.

    Low incomes have led to limits on what the community can do to go out. Young people don’t go out any more in the ways they used to before the recession hit in 2008. Entertainment and cool things to do can only do so much when they can’t be financially supported. The lack of education often leads to a low amount of exposure and an unwillingness to try new things or even worse the stigma that San Antonio gets–oh we were doing that in our city a long time ago.

    Rachel Holland’s analysis of the transformation of Hemisfair Park misses the forest for the trees. She is talking about us becoming more cool and redeveloping our downtown. The other major cities in America did it 30 years ago…

    The redevelopment is a case in point about why San Antonio’s wages don’t increase the same popular architects and construction companies got the contracts.

    It reminds me of being in the third world.

    You see wealth only consolidated with the same contractors and new YOUNG entrepreneurs in the upper echelon of industry and the information age have very little upward mobility because they are crowded out by the power of campaign contributions in our cow towns version of municipal oligarchy, ugh I mean government where we pay our council people $20 dollars per meeting thanks to the puppeteering of the wealth 17 men who run the town and have for 60 years.

    Until San Antonio becomes a place not just where we import innovators but where we foster education that allows the masses of the population to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams and have the income to support a young, thriving metropolis. We will remain uncool and stagnated in San Antonio.

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