Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Editor’s note: Henry Cisneros was elected in 1981 as the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city, a post he held for four consecutive terms until 1989, the only person to do so in contemporary times. He was mayor when the Alamodome was first conceived and then approved in a highly contested city election in 1989.

Cisneros served as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development under President Clinton from 1992-97, and then became President and COO of Univision Communications, the nation’s largest Spanish-language broadcast network. Today he serves as founder and chairman of CityView, a San Antonio-based company that provides “smart capital for smart growth” in urban markets nationwide. 

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros

Perhaps the best way to comprehend what the Alamodome has meant to San Antonio is to imagine what the city would be like if it had not been in place the last 20 years.

Before it was built, San Antonio was the largest city in the nation not to have a facility that could seat in the range of 50,000 people.  Our largest public facility was Alamo Stadium, a 25,000 seat stadium built for high school football during the Great Depression.  If Alamo Stadium were still San Antonio’s largest assembly place today, we would have missed out on many events that we now take for granted which have accommodated millions of people and generated hundreds of millions of dollars for our economy.

We would not have the Alamo Bowl; we would not have hosted NCAA men’s and Women’s Final Fours and Regionals, an NBA All-Star game, or high school state football championships; we would not have expedited UTSA’s ascent into a Division I conference; and we would not have had a venue large enough for numerous conventions, exhibits, concerts, and shows of all varieties.

The Alamodome, a view from the Market Street underpass. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Alamodome, a view from the Market Street underpass. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

These activities and others have made possible countless hours of enjoyment, supported our hospitality industries, and assured San Antonio’s place on the itineraries of entertainment tours and sports events that garner the attention which a major city can leverage into a national profile.

Beyond the litany of events and opportunities we would have missed, there is a larger concept that goes to the heart of the very purpose of a city.

Throughout human history, cities have been places where people live, work, pray, learn, govern themselves, and assemble.  The last function – cities as places to assemble – is not trivial in the history of urban places.  From the earliest times cities were gathering places for traders to market goods, for pilgrims to conduct religious rites, for athletes to compete in legendary spectacles, and for kings and leaders to conduct ceremonial events of state. The great cities of the world have always had their public squares, plazas, forums, agoras, coliseums, monumental centers, malls, stadia, auditoriums, fields, and concourses.

Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

It is in the nature of humans as social beings that we come together in large numbers. Even though we live an age of instantaneous communications and retreat to more private lives, we have not lost the need to come together. It is logical that the more people who live in an urban place, the larger the gathering site must be.

As San Antonio grew past one million people and on to the list of the ten most populous cities in the nation, if we were to keep pace with the functions of a great city, then the creation of a large public facility to bring people together was and is not only a legitimate public purpose but an essential public priority.

The Alamodome has not fulfilled every goal we had for it.  But many important milestones have been attained which would not have been possible without it.  And many more will be reached in the years to come.

Coming Thursday: Robert Marbut Jr., a key aide to Mayor Henry Cisneros in the 1980s, recalls the many key players on both sides of a bruising fight to win legislation and a city election that led to the building of the Alamodome.

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The former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros is the chairman and co-founder of American Triple I, a developer, investor, and manager of infrastructure...