The latest battle of the Alamo (There have been many. See Adina Emilia De Zavala versus Clara Driscoll.) is over. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, unlike William Barret Travis, chose to surrender.
Of course, if Travis had surrendered, his fate and that of all his men would likely have been the same. Only three weeks later, more than 400 Texians surrendered at Goliad and were cold-bloodedly executed under the orders of the Mexican general, Santa Anna.
If Travis had surrendered, hundreds of San Antonio buildings wouldn’t mimic the facade of the Alamo, and our fearless State Board of Education wouldn’t be publicly appalled at textbooks failing to label the Alamo defenders as heroes.
And we wouldn’t be arguing bitterly over exactly how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to close Alamo Street, move the Cenotaph (there would be no Cenotaph), and wall off the city’s most vibrant historic plaza.
That last part is where Nirenberg had made his stand. In an editorial last July, joined by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), he led by describing Alamo Plaza as “perhaps the most important civic space in our city.”
He described it as the place where “San Antonians celebrate our heritage, demonstrate, protest, gather for vigils, watch parades, and conduct presidential politics.”
He gave ground on some issues, suggesting that Alamo Street might have to be closed, the Cenotaph moved. And he expressed hope that the historic buildings on the west end of the plaza would be saved.
With his two co-signers, he insisted on only one thing: “As we pursue needed revitalization to preserve and showcase this sacred site with the proper reverence, the Alamo Plaza must remain at the heart of our civic life.”
The statement was unequivocal: “We oppose any type of barrier that would limit access to the Plaza at any time, other than for special events.”
That’s exactly what a coalition of the city’s top architects and city planners had argued, as well as for keeping Alamo Street open.
But last week Nirenberg reluctantly relented. He joined Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in signing a resolution that will result in the plaza being turned over to the State in a 50-year lease under a plan that will fence off the plaza with only one entrance during most waking hours. Only when a planned museum is closed will all six gates to Alamo Plaza be opened.
At least Nirenberg acknowledged that he was reversing his position. Treviño lacked that grace. Last month, in his role as a member of the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee, Treviño voted to close the plaza during museum hours. When challenged by journalist Ben Olivo, whose San Antonio Heron focuses on downtown, Treviño said his joint statement with Wolff and Nirenberg had said the plaza would be open “aside from special or scheduled events. And so that is addressed by what we’re telling you: Museum hours are special and scheduled events.”
Olivo said he guessed he needed to go back and reread the statement. “Yeah, please do,” Treviño said.
The statement, of course, does not refer to “scheduled events.” It says only “special events.” That’s going to have to be some museum to be daily considered a special event.
The stated reason for having only one entrance is to nudge visitors through the museum to shape their experience, making it more reverent and majestic. I hope it works. Those of us who live in San Antonio are giving up our most vital and historic plaza for that tourist experience. (At most, San Antonians are likely to go during museum hours once, and then when we take visiting relatives.)
My feelings for Alamo Plaza may be shaped by many years of living and working downtown. It started early. As a summer intern at the San Antonio Light in 1967 one of my duties was to go to the police station Saturday mornings to check overnight police reports. The most pleasurable route was through Alamo Plaza, where most Saturday mornings I would pass a group of a couple of dozen citizens standing at the front of the former church, quietly and respectfully protesting the Vietnam War.
What made it especially memorable was that one of the protesters was Margie Kilpatrick, widow of Charles Kilpatrick, who was then editor and publisher of the San Antonio Express-News. The newspaper supported the war, so I was impressed at seeing the editor’s wife in a protest line.
I asked Margie about it the other day. Now 92, she said Charles was privately against the war.
“He would have preferred that I didn’t protest,” she said, but he wouldn’t stop her.
The Alamo is such a powerful symbol that the plaza has continued to host an occasional protest. Most recently an open-carry group used it as a backdrop. Most protests have been respectful, though there was a rough patch in the 1980s. Three self-described Communists scaled the outer wall in 1980 as a protest. The following year, a couple of fellow travelers raised a red flag on the Alamo flag pole as an echo of the previous year’s event, but ran when a maintenance man spotted them.
For the next few years a small Ku Klux Klan group vowed to protect the Alamo, but such protection has rarely appeared necessary, Ozzy Osbourne aside. Meanwhile, the Alamo has been a bustling place for parades, civic Christmas celebrations, presidential visits, general good spirits, and the happening of history.
It is famously, for example, where barbed wire was first demonstrated to a convention of cattleman who scoffed at the notion that massive bovines would be restrained by such thin string. That demonstration changed the West.
Planners say there will be a “free-speech zone” in the open plaza in front of the Menger Hotel just south of the Alamo. The idea of a “free-speech zone” makes me nervous. The First Amendment made the United States a free-speech zone. That’s not to say we shouldn’t mark some areas as protected from hurly-burly. For example, I have no problem keeping those crazy zealots from Kansas from yelling hateful things at military families burying their sons and daughters. But those should be “no free-speech zones,” not the reverse.
Why did Nirenberg retreat from his bold statement? I don’t know. I do know that Bush, as the official custodian of the Alamo, has both more power than Nirenberg and he answers to a different electorate. Outside San Antonio, folks know only the myth of the Alamo, what happened in late February and early March 1836. They don’t know its history before that nor the history of the desolation turned to vibrancy afterwards. Their most powerful image of it derives from Hollywood.
No statewide politician or member of the Legislature from outside San Antonio would want to defend the Alamo on any other ground than that of the origin myth of Texas. I don’t blame them.
But the real history is much more complex, messy, and fascinating than the myth. We’ve been promised the museum will deal with the real history. I’m skeptical, but that’s yet another battle for another day.