Many people who engage and contribute to The Rivard Report are striving to make San Antonio a more diverse, appealing place for the creative class and young professionals. It is an admirable goal and I wish them well—but I’m defecting.
I arrived 18 months ago from San Francisco, purchased a condo downtown, joined the Downtown Residents Association and did my best to make San Antonio work. But within months of moving in and exploring my new neighborhood, a sense of disappointment set in. You already know the story—no grocery story, no shopping for residents, few of the amenities commonly found in urban areas and most restaurants and bars geared more for tourists. The nearest pharmacy with extended hours? Four miles away. The grocery store downtowners recommend? Seven miles.
So, we’ve rented out our condo and are making plans to return to a larger city. Vibrant urban living may or may not be on its way to San Antonio, but I’m almost 50 years old. I don’t have a decade to wait for thousands of new residential units to spring up in downtown. I want walkable neighborhoods, jazz clubs, art house theaters, urban groceries, diverse locally owned eateries, cozy nearby nightclubs and lounges and easy public transportation, and I want them now.
To be clear, I think San Antonio is a great place to live—for someone unlike me. It is a terrific city for people raising kids who want a big, affordable home and who like it hot. If that’s what San Antonio wants to be, that’s okay with me, but I sense there’s a desire to have San Antonio be more than just a pleasant mid-tier city. There’s a lot of talk about making San Antonio “world class,” and if that’s really the consensus, then people have to get involved in supporting their downtown.
One of the shocking things I found about living here is San Antonian’s attitudes about downtown, which are very different from other cities in which I’ve lived. People seem to believe it’s dangerous or that it offers nothing for residents. Neither are true, but these beliefs mean that most people I know only visit downtown once a year—to see holiday lights—if at all.
Therein lies the real challenge with San Antonio’s downtown becoming the vital center of energy and culture some envision. Nothing the Mayor and City Council do will lure people downtown–to visit or to live–who have no interest in it (although it might help if the city stops handing our incentives to send jobs further from the city center).
To make the point, let me tell you a tale of two cities: San Antonio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’ve lived in San Antonio’s downtown and was part of Milwaukee’s downtown renaissance in the late 90s and 2000s. I suspect Milwaukee is probably not a city San Antonio considers for comparisons—after all, San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the U.S. and Milwaukee the 28th. But when you peel back the onion (and take into account San Antonio is more than 400 square miles), the two get a little more similar. San Antonio is the 24th largest metropolitan area, and Milwaukee is 39th.
But even though San Antonio is larger, Milwaukee has a much more vibrant and livable downtown. Milwaukee’s two-square-mile downtown zip code (53202) has 23,000 residents, while San Antonio’s two downtown zip codes (78205 and 78215) cover the same area but contain less than 3,000 residents (per the 2010 census). With Milwaukee’s greater population density comes amenities San Antonio residents dream about–two enormous full-service grocery stores, an active public market, a warehouse district full of boutiques, several weekly summer music events that draw thousands, and at least five successful performing arts venues.
Milwaukee’s downtown wasn’t always so alive. In the 1980s, its downtown looked a lot like San Antonio’s. So what happened? The city furnished incentives for developers, just as San Antonio is doing, but something else happened: people wanted to be downtown. The condo my wife and I purchased in the late 90s sold out the entire project of 79 units in a single week based on a demo unit and no construction underway. Compare that to San Antonio, where the Vidorra (a truly terrific building), Alteza and Broadway were completed more than two years ago and still have substantial numbers of unsold units.
If San Antonio wants to be a world-class city with a pulsating, diverse downtown, the thing that has to change is San Antonians. Let me repeat something I said earlier to try to avoid a wave of critical comments: I’m fine with San Antonio staying just the way it is, and if you’re fine with it, then everyone’s happy. But you can’t bemoan the flight of young people or the difficulties attracting talent to the city and at the same time treat downtown like it’s radioactive. Changing the city is something San Antonians have to commit to, personally.
Your downtown has a lot to offer; just ask the 26 million people who travel from around the globe to visit. Surely if people can travel from thousands of miles away to enjoy what your downtown has to offer, you can venture out of Stone Oak, Rogers Ranch or your corner of the city every now and again to enjoy a bite to eat, a drink and some entertainment.
Ironically, as I wrote this, I began to see tweets from excited San Antonians that the city was named by the AARP as one of the top 10 places to live for people over 50. That sounded exciting, until I saw the list of cities included–Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Gainesville, Florida, Grand Junction, Colorado and Las Cruces, New Mexico. I don’t think those are the places to which San Antonio wishes to compare itself, but it’s going to take more than blog posts and tweets to have San Antonio included in the same breath as Atlanta, Chicago or even Dallas, for that matter.
I have enjoyed my time here and met many good people whom I will miss. I have a few favorite haunts that I’ll pine for (such as The Esquire, Menger Bar, Taco Haven and Beethoven Beer Garden). I’ll be back to visit, and when I do, I hope I see the vision shared by those on The Rivard Report beginning to take shape.
Best of luck, San Antonio.
Augie Ray was a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin before joining Forrester Research in San Francisco as a Senior Analyst of Social Media. He moved to San Antonio to oversee USAA’s social media and social business efforts. Despite loving his job as Executive Director of Community and Collaboration, Ray recently left USAA and is making plans to depart San Antonio shortly. His post explains why.
You can connect with Augie Ray on Twitter.