When the Alamo and four Spanish-colonial Missions achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, many touted the potential impact for the community. Increased tourism and development could be an economic boon to the areas immediately surrounding the missions on the city’s Southside, and many anticipate the historical restoration of Alamo Plaza. However, as the plans for the plaza have revealed, preservation does not always begin with agreement.

“Everyone in San Antonio loves the Alamo, but they all wouldn’t describe their love in the same way,” San Antonio Conservation Society Executive Director Vince Michael said.

The Office of Historic Preservation‘s first-ever Living Heritage Symposium invited academics, architects, urban planners, preservationists, and other experts to discuss the cultural elements at stake in the preservation of the built environment. It takes place during the second annual San Antonio World Heritage Festival, which celebrates the world heritage designation.

“What are we trying to preserve, and what is this fanfare all about?” panelist and preservation expert A. Ege Yildirim asked those gathered at the Bexar County Courthouse on the first day of the symposium Thursday.

The symposium will look at case studies and best practices to help San Antonio make the most of its World Heritage sites, ensuring that they become anchors for culture, not just buildings with inadequate context. 

“Sometimes it’s easier to find pieces of value, but one misses the big picture,” Yildirim said.

Organizers agreed that “cultural heritage improves the cohesion of cities,” but to do so the conversation must move beyond the built environment and its visual impact. “How can heritage promote inclusiveness and resilience?” asked symposium moderator Andrew Potts.

That will be the question posed in several breakout sessions during which attendees can develop recommendations for San Antonio.

While local, state, and federal policy can help preservation efforts, “perfect legislation isn’t really the point,” Yildirim explained. What’s more important, she said, is how sites are managed within their context. In that effort, grassroots organizations, community groups, and local planners have the opportunity to contribute.

The community’s voice is an essential piece of an improved preservation process, Michael said. “What we’re really trying to focus on is how to take the existing process and integrate cultural heritage as well as buildings.”

The conversation is more complex when that culture includes voices that have been historically excluded, he added.

Many times members of historically oppressed communities – the Latino community, for example – will give the answers that they think will keep them safe. They will try to reflect the values they think those in power want to hear, especially in the United States’ current political climate, Michael said.

He cited recent conflict over Confederate Monuments as an example of how preservation can mean different things to different communities. “Heritage, like we saw with the monument removal, can become a polarizing issue as well. It’s easy enough to say, ‘Let’s ask the community,’” Michael said, but the community doesn’t always speak with one voice. 

While only one panelist represents the Latino identity, Michael said that the panelists’ expertise would be put before many Latino participants who could utilize it as they set their own priorities and worked together toward recommendations for the City.

Michael hopes to develop concrete policy from the symposium. Whether it is a legacy business ordinance like the one in San Francisco, or adding cultural heritage components to surveys, he hopes to see practical tools put in place in San Antonio.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.