Since childhood, I’ve looked upon the Alamo with a sense of deep historic importance –even if I could not fully understand, articulate, or appreciate, its importance. Over the years, its meaning for me has changed. The earliest memories were formed by seeing the landmark in motion pictures, with the iconic image of John Wayne in an epic Hollywood film.
Decades later, its meaning would change again when living in London and learning from a middle-aged couple describing what the Alamo meant for them: liberty versus tyranny wrapped up in the romantic imagery of the “Wild West,” a timeless, enduring quality that echoes across generations regardless of nationality and cultural identity.
Its meaning would change again later in life when I witnessed the events of 9/11 in my beloved New York City – events captured in Letters From Ground Zero. Any romantic imagery of liberty versus tyranny is lost at Ground Zero. The 9/11 Memorial isn’t typically associated with triumph; it is mainly about remembering lives lost by carefully highlighting the faces, facts, and personal stories of the victims in the aftermath of America’s worst terrorist attack.
In contrast, we will never see the faces of the majority of freedom fighters who fought from inside the walls of the Alamo, with the exception of those few prominent leaders who have risen to legend (Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Bonham, Esparza, and others). Perhaps in another century, new layers of meaning will be applied to the 9/11 Memorial and Alamo Plaza sites. The ugly truth these two sites share: the harrowing and dramatic loss of human life against the backdrop of a clash of civilizations.
With all the drama going on about how to best “reimagine” Alamo Plaza, it may be useful to uncover how New York’s 9/11 Memorial became revelatory as San Antonio contemplates renewing its city center. The events sweeping New York City after 9/11 gave rise to the reimagining of lower Manhattan by the creation of an international design competition for a new memorial at Ground Zero.
Whereas both sites share many common attributes, there are significant differences: The 9/11 Memorial is about remembrance, whereas the Alamo embodies a deep sense of pride. These two, remembrance and pride, are expressive in their own respective ways: One is a landmark laced with tragedy and hope, the other a touchstone of gallant bravery. One is archetypal, the other archeological.
The Alamo was not planned as a memorial site – it was a battlefield where forces representing opposing world-views fought. The World Trade Center Tower footprints are left as the essence of an unanticipated attack, by design. The Alamo is a symbol of pride and heroism, whereas the 9/11 Memorial is a symbol of eloquent remembrance standing against terrorism. In San Antonio, you feel the pride stemming from an unyielding allegiance. In Lower Manhattan, you sense reverence stemming from solemnity and purpose.
And the materials at each site reflect these values: Stone is evocative of a hardened purpose. A waterfall conveys reflection and yearning for hope. To be sure, the evolving design of the Alamo Plaza should incorporate these materials and not glass walls that further perpetuate the lingering commercialism at the perimeter of the shrine.
Maybe it’s the distance of time that changes our perceptions of these sacred public spaces. We are over 180 years removed from the pivotal events at the Alamo that today appear mythical. The 9/11 Memorial is not evocative of a mythological event – it is too recent yet to achieve the historical residue those first Texians paid with their lives. Paying homage to a sacred debris field in the city center shouldn’t be “reimagined” with materials that are ephemeral, rather, it should take cues from what is already there: an enduring tribute that has unified Texans across three centuries.
The story of a furrow in the ground still resonates today and is easily identifiable by all peoples, cultures, and faiths. In 1836, a line drawn in the sand represented stark terms: You must choose sides. There is no in-between, no safe zone. The line drawn by saber in the South Texas soil should be a rallying cry for today’s citizens and force city leadership the awakening of a better choice.
In San Antonio, when you look up into the stars at night, you see the souls of heroes.