Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.
Riley Gardner Headshot

One morning two years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my mother and I were enjoying a breakfast at our hotel. The conversation was mellow, but at some point we ended up mentioning San Antonio in passing.

A few moments later an older man suddenly stepped in, asking us if we were from San Antonio. Yes, indeed we were, and what followed was a fantastic conversation with this gentlemen about the city, which he’d visited a few months back.

One thing he said has stuck with me strongly: “I’ve been all over the place, and the only two places that mesmerized me are San Antonio and Paris …”

Yes, Paris. Paris, France. I’m sure many locals reading this now are scratching their heads, wondering how in the world the cultural, artistic and grandest city in Europe – if not the world – can compare with our city. I can’t lie about it either – the comparison stunned me. I’d just left San Antonio, ready to start my life in Santa Fe (some would call the “southwestern capital of culture”) and this man just pushed the greatness of San Antonio right back into me. I began to miss that city. I plan on returning to San Antonio to join its urban renaissance within the next few years.

I do think the man’s comparison, even today, is a little off. We are not in same league as Paris – yet his words struck a chord with me. Those words continued to haunt me throughout my time in Santa Fe, and truth be told, it took years to understand it. Both Santa Fe are world champions in what they do. San Antonio is making strides still to figure itself out, yet there is a fundamental difference between those established cities and ours.

Santa Fe's decision to embrace it's history has led to worldwide recognition for history, culture and architecture. The El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. is an example of modern architecture that pays homage to its regional history. Courtesy photo.
Santa Fe’s decision to embrace it’s history has led to worldwide recognition for history, culture and architecture. The El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. is an example of modern architecture that pays homage to regional history. Courtesy photo.

The two embrace their history, while San Antonio pushes it aside.

The truth has to hit us before it’s too late: we need to radically re-think the way we view the history of San Antonio.

With the declaration that we’re going to make San Antonio a world-class city by the end of the decade (from our community and friends at SA2020), it leaves a lot of things open for debate and interpretation. How do we get there? What do we need to do? How can it happen?

We’ve already been making great strides, from growth in urban living to economic expansion of the arts industry. Yet one of the most important aspects in a world-class city is something we may overlook: what makes us different? What makes a company decide to settle here, or a family on the search for a new home? What makes people stay?

To make a world class city is not simply to build, build, and build. We can have hotels and office towers nestled between fine dining and gift shops all we want, but a true first class city comes from certain things: culture, diversity and distinguishability. San Antonio has a weak record of historic preservation, and any tourist can get that idea from a simple glance at a map of the Alamo Mission from today versus back then. It’s been said that we need to embrace our history many times before, and yet we don’t do it. History, our biggest asset, is grossly underdeveloped.

Alamo Plaza (Church of San Antonio de Valero and the surrounding grounds within the 1836 walls) illustrated by author and artist George Nelson.
Alamo Plaza (Church of San Antonio de Valero and the surrounding grounds within the 1836 walls) illustrated by author and artist George Nelson.
Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.
Alamo Plaza circa 1919. Photography Collection Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center University of Texas at Austin.

Look at it this way: in 2012, Washington D.C. attracted a record of 18.9 million visitors in the year. Pretty spectacular, but San Antonio brings in an average of 8 million, while Paris brings in nearly 70 million. Do we need more tourists? Debatable. While San Antonio’s tourism industry is focused mainly on the fine dining and entrainment sectors, Washington and Paris put enormous effort into historical immersion – the entertainment, fine dining and tourist trade grew around those efforts.

We must invest in our historical roots, roots that delve farther and deeper than our Spanish Colonial Missions. San Antonio is a city that has been defined by the battles fought within it, but also by the absolutely stunning resilience of the people who have lived here, some of whom have been here since it’s founding.

In 1813, revolutionaries in Texas were annihilated by forces under General Arredondo in the Battle of Medina, where the general’s forces killed nearly 1,300 people. Following this, Arredondo came to San Antonio, where he imprisoned hundreds of men in a single home where many suffocated. Women were imprisoned, raped, beaten, and forced to provide food for the army. Executions were held in main plaza. The only clue this ever took place in our city is the Spanish word for pain, grief or sorrow, dolorosa, in Dolorosa Street, named by it’s citizens to remember the horror of that year. Where are the monuments to that?

(Above) Veramendi Palace in 1860. The building was ultimately demolished to make way for a street widening project in 1912. The doors in the upper photo can still be found in the Alamo grounds. (Below) The now abandoned Solo Serve building now sits where the palace once was. Photo via Flickr user Paul Bubel.
(Above) Veramendi Palace in 1860. The building was ultimately demolished to make way for a street widening project in 1912. The doors in the upper photo can still be found in the Alamo grounds. (Below) The now abandoned Solo Serve building sits where the palace once was. Photo via Flickr user Paul Bubel.

The stunning Veramendi Palace, home of famed Alamo defender James Bowie and the site of the death of Ben Milam, leader in the Texas Revolution, who was shot by a sniper in the courtyard. It was demolished to widen Soledad Street.

Plaza de Armas, one of the cities main plazas where much of the Battle of Bexar took place was once part (along with Main Plaza) of the center of town. One would never guess it. There is hardly a mention of the massive battle and siege that took place from October to December of 1835, or the Battle of Concepcion, where the battle location is paved over by a highway and industry.

Where are the Chili Queens of Old San Antonio, who would venture towards the main plazas of city to cook chili for passers-by, with the smell of fresh chili filling the streets? What happened to the famous fandangos that attracted people from all walks of life and all across Texas? Or the explosion of colors of women and men in traditional Mexican dresses and suits, proving to the world the beauty of their culture and ethnicity? We simply paved over those aspects in our quest to build.

We have to embrace every era; from its native origins, to the Spanish founding, time under Mexico, the Texas Revolution, the Civil War era, the Roaring Twenties, and more. Don’t think of it as a way to bring in the tourists. It’s time to start thinking about how our history benefits us. Sit back and imagine what we could do. It’s more than simply making a city look pretty. It’s about giving San Antonio back an identity, one that isn’t just the Spurs and the Alamo.

Things we can do:

  • Award tax breaks or subsidies to businesses and architectural firms (or possibly through city ordinance) that build in styles that reflect our history, from Spanish and Mexican architecture and other styles that had an impact on our city.
  • Promote artwork that celebrates Old San Antonio all throughout the city and downtown.
  • Work with various groups such as the San Antonio Living History Organization to increase awareness and education within the city, and promote similar educational groups.
  • Improve our landmarks, museums, and art galleys.
  • Increase and promote the amount of historical markers, statues, artwork and other educational memorials. Double the current amount by 2020.
  • Promote history through various events – such as NIOSA and the Battle of Flowers – by putting stronger emphasis on our European, Mexican, and Native roots.

History will always draw tourists. Tourists bring in artists. Artists bring in youth, which brings in business and education. Education brings in higher quality employment and industry, higher standards of living and healthcare as well. A historical renaissance in San Antonio will bring them in. We can be a city like Santa Fe, or Washington, or – dare I say – Paris. Our biggest asset is not what we have in the future, but what can embrace from the past that helps create the future.

Let’s make San Antonio the best it can be.

Riley Gardner is a current student at Santa Fe University of Art & Design, where he is studying in Film Production. He plans to continue his education is studies in English and Public Administration. You can follow him @RileyRandom

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