I remember gathering with my closest friends and thousands of other San Antonians on a warm night in June in front of the Alamo to wave flags and cheer on our Spurs after they beat the Miami Heat and got payback for a bitter loss 12 months prior. I remember weaving through crowds of parade watchers, vendors, and volunteers as I made my way back to the stands in front of the Alamo after a quick detour to The Menger Bar.
It’s understandable that the Alamo Management Committee is proposing a more sacred space around this Shrine of Texas Liberty, but I cannot imagine architects at Preservation Design Partnership being so willing to give it away if they had a sense of ownership over it the way so many of us here in San Antonio do. If they had shared in some of these celebrations and understood how San Antonians from all walks of life can come together around our shrine – our shared space – and become one, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to wall it off from this community and hand it over to tourists.
Our city relies on tourism, but that doesn’t mean we should forget that it is ours. I was born in Florence, Italy, and spend a considerable amount of time there. This is another city that lives and breathes tourism. Florentines certainly make accommodations for tourists who come from all over the world to see the birthplace of the Renaissance, but they also know how to keep the heritage that is shared in the blood of every Fiorentino for the people who call the city home.
The Florence Cathedral is one of, if not the most, iconic architectural structure in Florence and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits on the site of an earlier cathedral that dated back to the 5th century and is the final resting place for multiple popes and fathers of the Renaissance. It is a sacred place and to this day a house of worship for Florentines who can attend mass, get baptized, married, or even eulogized there. It is for the world and for Florentines, and when a parade makes its way through the city, the plaza in front the Cathedral is the best place to see the show.
Throughout Florence you find one ancient and sacred place after the other that is preserved both for tourists and for residents. Piazza Santa Croce sits in front of a church that was founded in 1294 by Saint Francis himself. It contains the funerary monuments of countless historic figures including Galileo, Michelangelo, and Dante. The plaza is also home to parades and historic games of soccer called Calcio Storico. It’s also where I saw my first concert, Paul Simon. The space is alive, and that means everything sacred within that space is also alive.
The world is full of ancient and sacred places, but they are all vastly different. Some of them are locked away, inaccessible to the people and communities that live around them, existing as relics of a bygone era. Others are alive, and the blood of the community they reside in flows through them, endowing them with meaning not just for tourists and history buffs, but for everybody.
We don’t need to put Alamo Plaza behind glass in order to make it more sacred. Do away with the cars and buses that cut through the plaza. Remove the tourist traps selling kitsch that nobody needs. Reimagine the space, but keep the people of San Antonio in mind when you do it. We cannot and should not make our shrine to Texas liberty an inaccessible, quiet, and solemn place where only tourists go. Closing it off and sticking it behind glass is like shooting it, stuffing it, and mounting it on the wall. That’s fine if all you want to do is show it off to your guests, but it loses the majesty it had when it was alive. Don’t kill this alive and vibrant space. Don’t put it behind glass.
I invite the members of the Preservation Design Partnership to join the people of San Antonio on April 28 for the Battle of Flowers Parade. Join us in front of the Alamo where we will show you what a living and vibrant public space looks like. You would think they would already know what a vibrant, sacred space looks like. Their hometown is Philadelphia, home of Independence Hall, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The plaza in front of that sacred shrine to American independence isn’t shut off from the city of brotherly love. It is not walled off behind glass. When the pope comes to visit, the plaza fills with his devotees and his motorcade is unobstructed. Parades pass in front of that hall every year, ensuring the space is alive and not dead.
I remember the Alamo. I hope the Alamo can still be more than just a memory for me and for millions of San Antonians for generations to come.