Twilight on the Plaza: Dining al Fresco in the Shadow of the Alamo

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It's no secret that visitors dominate the Alamo Plaza and the adjacent Plaza de Valero.

And they have every incentive: Nearby businesses cater to the spending habits of tourists – from the tacky merchandise shops and chain restaurants to the entertainment that might as well be in any city. The 3D Adventure and Wax Museum have almost nothing to do with San Antonio and contribute to a carnival atmosphere where many would expect to find a greater sense of history and inspiration.*

The Plaza is just barely a pleasant place to eat a sandwich on a lunch break, but there are no tables.  It’s a mandatory stop for family coming for a visit, close to the Rivercenter Mall, a good spot to catch a streetcar and a popular place to panhandle for change and cigarettes. Other than that, there are very few incentives for local residents – or visitors looking for a more “authentic” San Antonio – to visit more than once.

On Nov 16, however, the Center City Development Office hopes there will be plenty of incentive for locals and visitors alike to get a new perspective during the Twilight on the Plaza event.

The Plaza's elaborate white holiday lights will be turned on early this year to highlight the grounds and a cornucopia of local musicians, food , vendors and artists. Interpretive lantern tours of the Plaza walls will also be held throughout the night.

The event itself is free, but the pop-up three-course dinner catered by Tim the Girl is limited to 100 people. Tickets are on sale now through her website. A portion of ticket sales will be donated to Mayor Julian Castro's Fitness Council.

Tim the Girl is Tim McDiarmid, who spent most of her childhood on a family farm in western Canada and then 17 years in New York City cultivating an understanding of fine cuisine. McDiarmid and Peter Zubiate started The Special Projects Social in 2011 and started catering pop-up dinners, a once-a-month event that is never in the same place or ever in a restaurant, in 2011. Zubiate's hand-crafted pecan tables and benches often serve for seating and are available for purchase.

“I worked the menu based around very limited facilities,” McDiarmid said. She will work without a refrigerator and without access to a kitchen – save for John Fahle and the Outlaw BarBQ food truck working with her.

Her pop-up dinners feature fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and the dinner on the Plaza de Valero – the area closer to the plaza gazebo than the cathedral – will be no exception, she said.

“The point (of the event) is to include the community at large,” McDiarmid said. “There is still a pretty big split between downtown and the rest of the city …  this event can show how downtown can be more than just for tourists.”

Cryin' D.T. Buffkin & the Bad Breath performing on Mike Casey's porch in King William.

Cryin' D.T. Buffkin & the Bad Breath performing on a porch in the King William Historical District. Photo from Cryin' D.T. Buffkin & the Bad Breath's Facebook Page.

Live music will be performed by local band Cryin D.T. Buffkin and The Bad Breath, who can usually be found at The Esquire. Spanning genres, their music has been described many ways, but the most accurate probably comes from the band members themselves in an interview with The Paisano, UTSA's student newspaper:

PAISANO: How would you categorize your band?

(Lead Singer/Pianist Daniel Travis Buffkin): Yeah, I just say Ol' Timey.

(Bassist Andrew Maley): Or Classical American. We pretty much have roots from all of that. We like to bring a lot of different things to the table. It kind of just makes it what it is.

(Buffkin): We've even played some Honky-Tonk. It depends where we play sometimes, too. If we play somewhere with more of a jazz vibe, we'll emphasize more of our jazzier stuff. Not everyone, believe it or not, likes Hank Williams.

Local artists and businesses will also be showcasing and selling their wares at the "Twilight Market," a mini-marketplace set up on the Alamo Plaza grounds. Sloan Hall, The Richter Co., Fresh Urban Flowers, Cruz Ortiz Art, Scott Martin Photography, Bakery Lorraine and Delizia Empanadas will set up shop, just to name a few.

"The CCDO is trying to fine-tune an event that can occur on a quarterly basis," said Lori Houston, director of the CCDO, "and give people an excuse to go to the (Plaza) and experience it in the evening, both locals and tourists."

Local business owner Teal Thompson of In Full Bloom Creative has been hired by the CCDO to produce the event, sponsored by MBS Fitness, Pioneer Wine, and Yelp. Thompson is still looking for more sponsors, interested parties are encouraged to contact her.

This event ‘s features, which (fortunately) have no relation to vampires or werewolves, were inspired directly from this summer’s demonstrational Better Block event, both organized by the CCDO's place-making initiative. By request of the CCDO, Team Better Block came into town, looked at the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) study of San Antonio, and worked with the City to produce the event last August.

(Read our coverage: Alamo Plaza y Plaza de Valero: A new vision for the heart of downtown San Antonio and For One Weekend, Team Better Block Transforms Alamo Plaza.)

“This is going to be a great way to kick off the holidays,” said Melissa Burnett, communications director at the Downtown Alliance, “And a really great way to showcase the Plaza as a public space."

The Better Block event was basically an experiment in how to engage the community to take in the historical aspects of the plaza while making it a contemporary place to gather and hang out. The answer turned out to be simple: people like to have seating, shade, something good to eat and drink, and something to do.

Better Block seating and shade

Seating, shade, and things to do at the Alamo Plaza Better Block in August. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Unfortunately, for now, these events and features at the plaza(s) are few and far between. The morning after Twilight on the Plaza, the vendors and tables will be gone and the plazas will slip back into the normal routine. However, it’s events like these that show locals and tourists the potential for this public space, and may eventually allow for more amenities that “activate” it in the future.

*Most local residents, including myself, are not so jaded that they can’t see the value of tourism, both economically and socially. Tourists and visitors are people on vacation, here on business attending conventions, foodies, art aficionados, etc. According to the Destination SA Update 2011 [PDF], "Every major convention attracted to the Convention Center (assuming 10,000 attendees) can generate between $12 million and $14 million in new spending and up to 36,000 added room nights ... (and) the reported annual hospitality industry (local economic) impact (is) approximately $9 to $11 billion."

Which is good for all businesses and the tax revenue from such activity supports infrastructure and programs that benefit local residents.

Tourism is deeply rooted in human nature. People traveling to far-off places is how ideas spread. It's how people become comfortable in understanding other cultures. It's still the most effective way to connect to the rest of the world and the people who actually live there – not just other visitors.

Is the Plaza currently facilitating this kind of unique and powerful connection? Some would say no. Some would throw a party and invite everyone.

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at iris@rivardreport.com.

8 thoughts on “Twilight on the Plaza: Dining al Fresco in the Shadow of the Alamo

  1. Events like these are not available to me, unfortunately, as pleasant as they sound. Even though I am officially invited (as, as you note, everyone is invited) — I simply can’t afford $80 a plate. We need to continue brainstorming for something between this type of event and the normal routine, as well as considering for which San Antonians the “authentic” experience is being created.

    • Agreed. The music, art and atmosphere are free – but the event as a whole is too extravagant to be sustainable for an extended period of time (certainly not permanent in this form). I think authenticity depends on who is willing to participate, so we – the city and its citizens – would need to ensure equal access to the Plaza.

  2. Until 1792, Alamo Plaza was part of Mission San Antonio de Valero. Back in 1836, Alamo Plaza was part of the Alamo fortress itself. Were you to go back in time and walk the Plaza on March 6, 1836, you would be ankle deep in blood. People suffered savage, horrible deaths there. As Alamo Plaza was once a mission and a battleground, it needs to be set aside as a pedestrian Plaza, free from traffic, or other city noise where visitors may pause in quiet reflection to remember the sacrifice that soldiers from both sides of the battle lines paid. It is certainly not a place for throwing wild parties, or for having a “good time”. If absolutely “necessary”, Plaza de Valero may be set aside for fun and frolic. But let Alamo Plaza be returned to a place of reverence. I’m, sure you would never really consider setting up food and drink booths in a cemetery. But that is what you are suggesting.

    • Ned, well said! It is beyond my comprehension why the city hired a New York consultant and then Dallas based Better Block. Neither of them had a clue where the Alamo battlefield was. I was on the tours given both. Even had to explain who Jim Bowie was.

  3. I am in agreement with Ned Huthmacher and Sarah Revely about the need to preserve Alamo Plaza in an appropriate manner which respects the sacrifices made there in 1836 which directly led to the establishment of the Republic. What exactly is the “authentic” San Antonio experience which is being sought? When I lived in SA years ago, the RiverWalk was a pleasant and relaxing place for a stroll to escape the heat. I recently stayed at a hotel overlooking Alamo Plaza, and found myself retreating there as it was the only respite from the constant noise and revelry which have completely overwhelmed the RiverWalk. Is this the atmosphere planned for Alamo Plaza?

  4. What really should happen is that the city should re-route traffic and close Alamo Street, take over the inappropriate businesses under eminent domain and restore them to what they were in 1836. That seems more appropriate than the light rail ego trip that the city fathers are on. The streets around the San Fernando Plaza were changed for what seems to be less important reasons. I would bet that it is not used to its potential. Do people visit Ft. McHenry, Bunker Hill, Cowpens, Valley Forge, King’s Mountain, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Little Bighorn, Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Normandy to have snack lunch under striped umbrellas, buy snow cones and listen to junk music? Much less than to attend thrill shows and buy trinkets. Why should they expect that at the site of a pivotal battle for Texas? Thankfully, the Presidio at Goliad doesn’t have that atmosphere. Also, the Cenotaph should not be moved. It’s not inappropriate and would not be a wise expenditure.

  5. The Alamo is known all over the world as an endearing symbol of freedom, courage, and self-sacrifice. Today, this deeply historic site is threatened by crass commercialism and an insensitive city government. If we don’t take a stand, the “money changers” will overrun this revered and hallowed ground. Please add your voice…please sign our petition. You don’t have to be a Texan to express your concern for our nations history.
    http://www.change.org/petitions/to-the-texas-legislature-acquire-alamo-plaza-from-the-city-of-san-antonio .

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