Most of us learn about the Alamo in grade school. I vaguely recall watching a low-budget educational movie on VHS “Remember the Alamo!” during fifth grade in Colorado. Those cheesy reenacted images of cannon fire, unbearable sun and solemn ruins had seeped into my expectations when I rode the VIA streetcar to the Alamo Plaza for the first time last year.
I guess I expected it to be more secluded. More mysterious.
Standing in front of the Alamo chapel, I realized I was also standing in front of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, about a dozen souvenir shops, a hotel and more than 100 other people.
I’m obviously not a native San Antonian – of course the Alamo is in the middle of downtown, I just couldn't really grasp it until seeing for myself. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I quickly got my picture taken, sent it to my mother, and left.
My experience is exactly what the Team Better Block (TBB) demonstration events over the weekend were designed to help change for future visitors and residents of San Antonio.
Team Better Block is a consultancy and community organizing group based out of Dallas. The concept is simple: take an underutilized pubic space, get a community conversation going, and show people the real possibilities so real change is embraced. Developers, city governments and other stakeholders have worked with Team Better Block in 33 cities since its start in April 2010.
“The goal is to encourage people to not just go in front of the chapel, take a picture and leave,” said Ashley Shook, an intern at TBB, “ (But) to give people more to do while they’re here.”
The temporary installations were informed by a study by the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces, commissioned by the city, which outlined areas ripe for improvement in Alamo Plaza. One such area, Shook said, is “vertical definition.” The plaza remains relatively flat – save for the modern gazebo, chapel and connecting courtyard walls. An earlier Rivard Report story explored the PPS presentation to City Council.
A large, wood-framed structure stood south of the chapel on S. Alamo Street. The white, clean wood brightly contrasted the darkened stone of the Plaza. It’s meant to be a representation of the 1836 main gate. Structures like this gate, a wooden recreation of the Palisade wall, and a cedar informational kiosk aim to give the Alamo Plaza more depth.
“As it is now, it’s hard to picture how it was,” said Kenneth Pfeiffer, District Representative for the Sons of the Republic of Texas (SRT). He, and the other men wearing tan cowboy hats and white, long-sleeved shirts can tell you almost anything you want to know about the plaza, the battles and historical significance of both.
Pfeiffer said he looks forward to seeing improvements to the historical features of the grounds. Informational markers need to be more prominent (at eye level) and lighting is a problem at night, he said. SRT’s mission is to preserve the history of Texas Independence history, “to protect Alamo Plaza from disrespectful activity ... to maintain what there is – and there’s not much left,” Pfeiffer said.
Another goal of the weekend public event was to explore ways to transform the plaza into a casual meeting place. Organizers found that achieving that may be as simple – and as cheap – as having moveable seating on the grounds.
“Food, seating, the shade, and something to do,” said TBB Co-Founder and Construction Director Andrew Howard. He smiles at the simplicity of it. Chairs, tables, chess, dominos and umbrellas are by far the most used amenities.
The Plaza came alive with locals Friday night as food trucks from Southtown's Alamo Street Eat-Bar parked on the Plaza, and people queued up for a draft of Alamo Beer, which will be brewed one mile away on the city's Eastside after its new brewery is completed in a few years.
A long picnic table built for the occasion by the city stretched across the plaza, capable of seating nearly 100 people. It quickly filled with patrons eager to enjoy al fresco dining courtesy of the San Antonio Chef Coalition. Some of the city's top chefs manned temporary grilles nearby or mingled with guests, including Andrew Weissman, Jason Dady, Chad Carey and Steve McHugh. Proceeds from the dinner benefitted the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.
“Create a human environment,” Howard said, “by a mixing of times. Modern and historical.”
A compromise between historical preservation and modern downtown use seems to have been made by the temporary structures and activities. Which features will become permanent in years to come rests solely on the response that volunteers, organizers and the city receive from the public by both observation and communication during the event and coming meetings.
City officials have $1.2 million Alamo Plaza improvement funds from the recent bond election to start the process of transforming the plaza. Lori Houston, the assistant director for the city's Center City Development Office, said the 1994 historical interpretive plan needs updating and the space itself needs to be brought back into the community.
“Make the Alamo the gathering place that it should be, an activated space with both locals and tourists,” Houston said.
Others believe historical sites should be left for preservation alone. Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, opposes vendors in the plaza and alcohol sales and consumption so close to ancestral burial grounds.
“The city wants to make a profit, making this a ghetto marketplace,” Torres said, “That’s desecration.”
Torres would like to see more emphasis on education about native cultures and site preservation. She and three other protesters held posters and set up a symbolic display of a pile of plastic skulls on a small rug.
“Because this is a cemetery,” she said.
Approaching the Alamo Plaza Saturday morning was a bit like walking into a movie. Dramatic, inspirational tracks from various American patriotic movie soundtracks (including, literally, “The Patriot”) were played at a high volume during most of the weekend’s festivities. Watching couples play a quiet game of dominoes with music that should be accompanying an enthusiastic charge to battle was a bit surreal.
An event that combines so many elements of history and modern culture in the heart of downtown is bound for some interesting moments. Customers browsing through local art in the market were startled by screams from the Haunted Adventure across the street. Children laugh as they straddle a cannon and say, “Cheese!” A young man with a spiked leather jacket pauses to watch a member of the San Antonio Living History Association reenact how a spinning wheel works.
“We’re in the Alamo and they have soda machines,” said a young boy, amused by the combination of history and modern amenities.
New to the Rivard Report and San Antonio, Iris Dimmick graduated from Central Washington University with a B.A. in journalism with an emphasis on online media and energy studies. Iris currently works as a freelance reporter, phographer, and web designer.