San Antonio downtown view from Judson condominiums.
gary whitford

Our English blithely mongrelizes its collection of words gathered from the many cultures it consorts with, but “urban” has remained fairly true to its origin. “Urbs” came to Latin meaning “city,” and our Latin mother tongue made it “urbanus,” to mean “pertaining to a city life,” or “city dweller.” (Source: a new favorite website, Etymology Online.)

Urban San Antonio

A new wave of fascination with our charming downtown is cresting in the city, dominating this news site and buzzing through politics and economic development conversations. We have seen these surges in decades before, and welcome another (this time with condos on Broadway and in Southtown).

“Urban gardening” in this week’s Rivard Report coverage lauded our small community gardens, which neighbor backyard gardens throughout the Jefferson neighborhood, South Presa and even in downtown windowboxes and side yards.

The Jefferson community garden near Jefferson United Methodist Church at 2350 W. Gramercy Place. The garden space includes two park benches, two pagodas, and 4 compost bins.
The Jefferson community garden near Jefferson United Methodist Church at 2350 W. Gramercy Place. The garden space includes two park benches, two pagodas, and 4 compost bins. Photo by Catherine Meyrat.

Central San Antonio has always been highly livable (if you don’t mind driving to the suburbs to buy groceries) and now we have a whole new generation adopting an “urban lifestyle.”

How to Say “Black” without Being Racist

If you followed that Etymology Online link, you also discovered that “urban” has an additional meaning. In 1910, the National Urban League began as an organization to help migrating Southern blacks adjust to new conditions in northern cities. After World War II, white flight abandoned central neighborhoods for the ticky-tacky boxes of suburbia, and “urban” became a euphemism for “Black.”

“Urban renewal” was promoted as the solution to “urban blight” and inner-city stagnation, demolishing affordable housing in order to relocate the poor, and sparking Civil Rights riots in the late 60s. The “urban problem” was a way to describe a war on poor Blacks without seeming racist.

Co-opting the Culture

African Americans bought in to the “urban” moniker, proclaiming urban contemporary music as the successor to soul, developing urban fashion, urban fiction and other terms that initially signified African-American culture. That phenomenon has spread out. Teenagers feel disenfranchised at home, and they will seek alternative lifestyles that look very different from their parents. From jazz to soul to hip-hop, Black culture has always been more free, more radical and more forward. For a period of time, urban was cool, and it grabbed a market, saggy pants and all.

San Antonio downtown view from Judson condominiums.
View of downtown San Antonio from Judson condominiums.

“Urban” in its cultural partitioning sense has evolved to mean inner-city trends of all kinds – Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans and “gangsta” whites. I walked through an Urban Outfitters store last week (located in a suburban mall), and witnessed that the style has homogenized to fit teenagers of any household.

Easy Urbanity

The new urban zeal in San Antonio is also multi-ethnic. We live in one of the easiest places to live in the nation. Relative to other urban centers, San Antonio’s rents are reasonable, opportunity is obtainable and the people are friendly. The generation birthed in the suburbs of the 50s – the “baby boomers” – have raised their kids, and they are emptying their McMansion nests in search of less driving and a more basic style. They are coming to live within walking distance of the Pearl Farmer’s Market and the food trucks at Alamo Streets & Eats. They are biking from Southtown to downtown.

Thus, urban becomes my favorite variation, “urbane.” Suave, courteous, refined – the kind of person we could all aspire to become, and dress our inner San Antonio accordingly.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”

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gary s. whitford

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...