On the Elbe River in Hamburg
On the Elbe River in Hamburg

Seven years ago, Jeremy Fields and Heather Weiler,  two talented, 20-something architects working at Lake/Flato Architects, helped form a cycling team that came to be known as the Third Street Grackles. I worked across the street as the editor of the San Antonio Express-News and was the team captain.

Over the first two years of the team’s life we shared many a day in the saddle, exploring San Antonio, all roads south, and every hill and turn in the Texas Hill Country. Along the way, the journalists, architects and others who formed the core of the team became fast friends. We passionately debated everything from food to music to politics. We talked constantly about urban life and design and what it meant to live and work in San Antonio compared to other cities we knew.

Then one day, more than four years ago, Jeremy and Heather announced to the team they were leaving Lake/Flato and San Antonio. And Texas. And the United States. They moved to Hamburg, Germany with their savings, their dreams and their ambitions, and their belief that talent and hard work would see them through any challenges.

Jeremy Fields
Jeremy Fields

We’ve never lost touch and I’ve never stopped hoping they will come home. To achieve its potential, San Antonio needs Jeremy and Heather and others like them. When we launched The Rivard Report, Jeremy was one of the first to find us on Facebook and remark with some humor that what  he liked most about TRR was the building in the backdrop of my photograph on the home page . That building, of course, is the Full Goods Building at the Pearl, a project that was at the heart of Jeremy’s work at Lake/Flato.

Heather Weiler--photo by Jeremy Fields
Heather Weiler

Jeremy tells his and Heather’s story below: why they left, what they’ve accomplished in Hamburg, and how they see the future. Perhaps you will leave a comment at the end of the story and join me in telling them it’s time to come home. Or, perhaps, you will decide it’s time to share your own story with The Rivard Report.

—Robert Rivard

“It’s impossible to live without a car”

Story by Jeremy Fields/Photos by Jeremy Fields and Heather Weiler

So why in the hell would my wife Heather and I leave behind our family (my parents and my brothers in and around San Antonio, hers in Austin), a great job with rewarding work as architects with super talented, engaged co-workers, and a wonderful group of friends?

What would possess us to pack a few bags, sell all our stuff, say goodbye to my hometown and hop on a plane to another country with no place to live and no jobs waiting for us?  Did I mention this was at the beginning of one of the largest global recessions in our history?  Why Hamburg?

I grew up with a foot in two worlds.  Born to an American father and German mother in the late 70’s in San Antonio, I was brought home from the hospital to an apartment on Starcrest Boulevard just outside Loop 410.  That didn’t last long.  Six months later my parents packed up and moved, as most military families do.  And though I had no memories of the city myself, San Antonio made a large enough impression on my folks that my Dad, offered a position at the Pentagon a few years later, accepted on the condition he be stationed afterwards in San Antonio where he could then retire.

Shortly after leaving San Antonio the first time, serendipity intervened, and my Dad was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, less than 20 miles away from where my Mom grew up.  I was one of a privileged few Army brats who grew up with family around.  My early formative years were spent with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Those early memories stuck. Despite my very American upbringing, I always strongly identified with my German roots, too. That dual identity played a huge role when we began looking for a new city to call home. As you can tell from my wife’s last name — Weiler — she, too has her own German roots if not the same two-world upbringing.

Watching a soccer game in Hamburg
Watching a soccer game in Hamburg

My family moved backed to San Antonio in time for me to finish elementary school in Windcrest. I graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1995.  Afterwards, I began my studies at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Architecture (yes with a capital A).  There I began to study, analyze and understand, as my fellow architecture students did, the effects of our surroundings on us.  As Winston Churchill once famously said, “First we shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us”.  Or something like that.

I graduated after a couple of lost years and returned to San Antonio, and soon after married a wonderful women in King William Park.  We eventually ending up living in Southtown off S. Presa Street, working for an amazing office, Lake/Flato.  It was there that I spent a great deal of time working on the Pearl Brewery development, including two projects I’m very proud of: the Culinary Institute of America startup building and the Full Goods Warehouse /Il Sogno project.

I had a front row seat to many of the changes now taking place in the city.

As someone who cares intensely for the built environment and believes it can influence us in tremendously positive and negative ways, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile those feelings with the city I was born in and still love very much. I constantly felt San Antonio, despite its best efforts, was and still is stagnant.  Like it couldn’t get into gear.  Sure, there are some nice projects. Some, like the Pearl, are very forward thinking and quite large.  Bikes lanes are indeed being built.

On the Elbe River in Hamburg
On the Elbe River in Hamburg

Hamburg, though, has 1,100 miles (yes I said miles) of dedicated bike lanes, almost enough to bike from San Antonio to Chicago.  Our largest urban renewal project, the HafenCity, is 550 acres (about 22 times the size of Pearl). Lest you think these numbers are the result of Hamburg’s greater size, the city covers an area of about  292 square miles, compared to San Antonio’s 412. The populations are not that different, either: Hamburg has about 1.8 million people, San Antonio about 1.4 million. I compare the two cities, but I’m not sure converting San Antonio into a center of creative life is possible.  Those who know me know this one is of the few areas where my optimism, indeed, knows bounds.

Part of the problem is certainly the decisions city leaders have made over the course of the last several decades.  If one were to write a guidebook on how not to make a vibrant city, placing a large university with 30,000 students on the outskirts of town and moving your very successful sports franchise’s arena out of downtown would be chapters in and of themselves. Decades of developing and catering to the tourist industry in San Antonio haven’t helped either.  Having  once lived downtown in the Exchange Building, I often felt like an animal on display at the zoo, or some unofficial guide to many a lost tourist.  Downtown didn’t belong to the people who lived there, rather the people visiting.  A city designed and built around the tourist industry most usually ends up a wonderful place to visit…well, you know the rest.

But that was then, what about now?

San Antonio certainly has many wonderful and exciting projects on the boards and being realized.  These projects should be encouraged, and despite my tone in this little missive, that is my intent.  An engaged citizenry is needed for San Antonio to become a better city for those who live in it, and for those of us who still call it home despite being thousands of miles away.  To become a real draw for young, creative people, however, very serious discussions addressing the underlying changes need to be had. I felt, and still feel, this isn’t happening.

The new der Spiegel building in the Hafencity.
The new der Spiegel building in the Hafencity.

To become great, San Antonio must be made more livable in the most mundane sense.  Many people think that the key to a great city is place-building, and to some extent they’re right.  Museums, performing arts and concert venues, parks, all these are important amenities for any city.  Add to these great bars and restaurants, and you’re almost there.  But how do you get to them?  What about the places and time spent between these hotspots? What about commuting to work? Equally important to where you are going is how you get there, and in this regard, the automobile is often not the best choice.

Most people who live in San Antonio spend a lot of time in the car. The automobile is most certainly about the destination and not the journey.  You’re usually in your car because you are going somewhere, not because you are somewhere.  You’re isolated from everyone around, listening to the music you like, the political talk show that shares your views.  Interactions with others is usually limited to emotional outbursts provoked by someone else’s thoughtless or reckless driving habits.  The immediate environment within the car is static and unchanging.  And in San Antonio it is just about impossible to live without a car.

Believe me, I tried for a year and a half.

In this sense, Hamburg is a perfect city.  No matter what we want to do or what time we want to do it, we just walk out of our apartment.  We can walk to work, or take our bikes, or hop on the subway if the weather is bad. Whether we’re going to a restaurant, cafe, concert…it doesn’t matter.  Along the way we occasionally run into friends, catch up quickly, or change our plans all together and head out with them to one of the many watering holes around town (and this is Germany we’re talking about, so a great bar is never far away).  The best part: if we have one too many, we don’t have to worry about who’s driving.  We just walk home.  Life is very spontaneous, not a series of points and destinations on a map and expressway entrances and exits, but a dynamic, flowing and energetic space in which one travels.  Creative energy often feeds on spontaneity, which Hamburg provides in abundance.

Over the course of the next couple of months,  I’d like to expand on some of these ideas on The Rivard Report.  We come back to San Antonio as often as possible, and every time, I’m pleased to see the progress made.  Just don’t expect us to move back anytime soon.

Jeremy Fields and Heather Weiler are architects who live and work in Hamburg, Germany. 

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.