Five leading individuals in the years-long quest to win World Heritage designation for the Alamo, the Spanish colonial Missions and the often forgotten Rancho de las Cabras appeared on stage Saturday morning to explore the meaning of San Antonio’s newfound “outstanding universal value” and what that means for the future of the Southside and the city at large.
The occasion was the inaugural World Heritage Symposium organized by the City of San Antonio, which drew a highly engaged audience of Mission district neighbors, community activists, historical preservationists, and public officials.
The first of what promises to be multiple World Heritage community meetings also drew the city’s senior leadership to the Buena Vista Theater at the UTSA Downtown Campus. City Manager Sheryl Sculley delivered welcoming remarks and was followed later by Mayor Ivy Taylor, who arrived from another event to also speak about the many opportunities and challenges presented by world heritage designation.
“The UNESCO World Heritage designation is a catalyst for socio-economic change, with increased visitation and tourist spending,” Sculley said, noting one recent study that predicted 1,100 new jobs and between $44 and $125 million in new spending by 2025 as a result of the designation.
She also emphasized the link between the Mission’s original builders and inhabitants with today’s Mission area neighborhoods and families.
“UNESCO determined the significance of the Missions lies in the unique culture that was created by the interchange between indigenous cultures and Spanish culture,” Sculley said. “The San Antonio Missions themselves are the built reflection of that unique culture. And the fact that that unique cultural heritage and its people still exist is an important factor in this designation. This less tangible aspect of the site must also be protected…Today’s symposium is the beginning of the dialogue that is necessary to set the framework for the next steps for a comprehensive planning effort.”
The planning behind the symposium, and the next event already scheduled for Dec. 5, was driven by Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) and her staff. The four Missions and the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River are located in her district. Viagran and other officials on hand won praise from attendees for establishing the symposium only weeks after the official World Heritage inscription ceremonies.
“As the council representative, I felt it was important for us to come together and exchange ideas,” Viagran said. “Today we are coming together to find workable solutions, not creating road blocks.
“Each development proposal around the Missions, big or small, should and will be evaluated individually to determine its appropriateness — each one of our Missions is unique and tells a different story about the history of our region.”
She drew loud applause when she added, “I do not support the current multi-family housing proposal across the street from the Mission San Jose Visitor Center.”
If there was a single question asked and answered in many different ways by different experts, it was this: Where does San Antonio go from here to realize its full potential as one of the very few U.S. cities whose heritage and historic preservation has earned World Heritage recognition?
Panelists included Father David Garcia, the Archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions; Susan Snow, archaeologist for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park; Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority; Betty Bueche, director of the Bexar County Heritage & Parks Department, and Bill DuPont, the director of UTSA’s Center for Cultural Sustainability. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard moderated the panel discussion.
Saturday’s symposium aimed to connect civic, political, educational, and religious leaders to the community members who live in the areas surrounding the Missions. Panelists stressed that it was the audience members, those whole live, work and worship in and around the Missions, who played the most important role in the World Heritage designation. Without the human element, the Missions would only be buildings, not the active, thriving, communal gathering spots that have helped shape the City’s Southside and the city’s singular profile.
“These Missions are not museums, they are doing what they were originally founded to do,” Fr. Garcia said, alluding to the Missions’ role as active Catholic parishes and community centers more than 250 years ago.
Fr. Garcia suggested that the Mission Reach, the eight mile stretch of hike and bike trails that wind along the San Antonio River, host a camino, or pilgrimage, for people across the globe seeking spiritual journeys. The camino, or sacred walk, would attract people from around the world and introduce them to the city’s cultural treasures and their relationship to the San Antonio River.
UNESCO designated the Missions a World Heritage site because they exhibit “the interweaving of the cultures of the Spanish and the Coahuiltecan and other indigenous peoples,” which is exemplified in the Missions’s architecture and frescos.
“We want to make sure that we continue to respect that interweaving of cultures and make sure that we are not a museum that looks to the past,” Snow said.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, who spoke midway through the symposium, said San Antonio can expect some significant changes and opportunities in the coming future.
“We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to tell our story, and show how it is not only part of the American story, but an important chapter in that broad sweep of human history,” she said.
San Antonio’s story is of global significance, Mayor Taylor said.
“It is a story of diverse peoples, of many countries and of several continents. It’s a story that we should understand and share; a story that we can continue to learn from; a story that we are writing and one we will tell our children and grandchildren,” she said.
A unique characteristic of the Missions is their location along the river within San Antonio’s city limits. Scott and Bueche, both of whom grew up on the Southside, noted the entrepreneurial spirit of those who live on the Southside, where small, family-owned businesses have long formed the foundation of the economy.
“There are great restaurants in the Southside that have been there and family owned (for generations,” Scott said.
When tourists come to San Antonio, they have to eat, and they most likely want to experience an authentic dining experience, which opens a new thread of potential for those family-owned restaurants.
Snow said the many rundown motels along the Roosevelt corridor hold the potential to be transformed into businesses that cater to World Heritage visitors who want an authentic neighborhood experience and more affordable prices than can be found on the downtown River Walk.
“We don’t want to make it Disneyland, the whole idea here is to make it authentic,” Scott said. “San Antonio is authentic and people come here because it’s authentic.”
Because the old motels are historic buildings, the owners can file for economic incentives if they decide to redevelop the properties. DuPont encouraged small business owners to contact UTSA to gather information about building and growing a business.
“The University stands ready to work with the City to try to do the fine-grain work necessary to assist in a one-on-one way with people in the community to say, ‘This is how you launch your business,'” DuPont said. “We’re like a giant think tank.”
Bueche said the Southside is now moving beyond a long era of neglect into one that gives residents “super powers” to imagine a new Southside, one where some traditions will fall by the wayside as new opportunities are embraced.
An extensive Q&A session followed the panel discussion. Audience members wrote down questions on note cards which were then presented to the panelists. One audience member wrote, “There is no doubt that the Missions are a wonderful intact cultural asset that tell the story of early colonists. The less discussed aspect of the global story of colonials, our piece included, is one of cultural destruction. So it is a strange and beautiful irony that the vestiges of that colonial history are now being enshrined at the highest level of cultural preservation without casting a shadow over this undoubtedly positive ‘superpower’ that we now have. How should reality inform how we proceed?”
“The indigenous people, while they had many trials and tribulations, they did not merely submit to Spanish rule, they had a major role in what our culture is today. I think we will continue to tell that story and the World Heritage status lets us better tell that story,” Snow said.
The Rivard Report will post all of the questions gathered during the symposium to the website in the coming week and ask experts to respond to the questions.
“As things have progressed in this area of town, and somebody finally realized we are world-class, it is like waking up in the morning and realizing that you have a superpower and you have to figure out what you do with the superpower,” Bueche said. “When you wake up with a superpower you can’t have an ordinary life anymore, but you have the ability to define what you want it to be in the future.”
A group of Southside residents who belong to the San José Neighborhood Association attended the symposium on Saturday. One of the members, Armando Santiago, opposes multifamily developments near Mission San José and Mission Concepción.
“Our goal is to protect the Missions from bad development,” he said. Instead of building large apartment complexes near the Missions, he would rather see structures that would “involve the entire community.”
“When (Fr. David) talks about this Camino San Antonio, hostels would be perfect for (the visitors),” he said.
Rivard described a recent World heritage tour of Italy he and his wife experienced weeks after the vote in Bonn that elevated he Missions. Families whose roots dated back hundreds of years at sites there, he said, now are the backbone of a thriving World Heritage economy characterized by family-owned small businesses catering to visitors whose spending has lifted local populations to a new level of prosperity.
The Dec. 5 event – time and place to be announced – is expected to focus on development, gentrification, City policies protecting the Mission viewsheds and district, and related issues.
The Rivard Report offered 2017 Bond Surveys available in both English and Spanish to those who attended the symposium. The goal is to collect as many responses as possible and share the results with City Council members before the idea-gathering stage of the process closes in December. Click here to take the 2017-2022 Municipal Bond Survey.
Individuals who were unable to attend Saturday’s event but want to be made aware of future events and other World Heritage-related matters can join an email listserve the Rivard Report will establish in the coming weeks. Send your name to firstname.lastname@example.org. Rivard also announced that the Rivard Report and Overland Partners, which jointly produced and published a new series called Place Changing in September, are discussing a second series on the Mission area neighborhoods and Mission Reach. The first series, which focused on historic Dignowity Hill on the city’s near-Eastside, can be viewed here.
*Top image: The World Heritage symposium panel. Photo by Joan Vinson.