The dawn ceremonies commemorating the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo had concluded, the crowds dispersed, the day’s calendar of events still ahead. Temperatures climbed toward 70 degrees with wisps of clouds promising a vintage March day in San Antonio.

A burly Davy Crockett posed for photos with a few tourists while Gen. Santa Ana and his orderlies huddled under an oak tree collecting donations. Something was wrong with this picture as the morning stretched on: The Alamo Plaza was largely deserted on this important anniversary day. Where was everybody?

All quiet at the Alamo on the 176th anniversary
Morning at the Alamo: But where are the crowds?

Santa Ana made change for a small donor, and explained that a 9:45 a.m. walking tour had been canceled due to a lack of people as a local television reporter and cameraman interviewed a few Defenders.

Events later in the day undoubtedly would draw more people, but shouldn’t such an important day in Texas history yield a steady stream of locals, visitors and school children?

Who exactly today is remembering the Alamo?
A lonely Davy Crockett stands sentinel at the Alamo

This day seems to be the right time to ask: Can San Antonio find more authentic and inspiring ways to remember the Alamo?

A good starting point for such a conversation comes Wednesday when the non-profit Project for Public Spaces presents its preliminary recommendations for “Alamo Plaza Placemaking.” The first presentation will take place at City Council chambers during the B session, then from  5:30-8 p.m. at the Central Library.

The PPS specializes in helping cities create public spaces that enhance cultural and economic activity, exactly what the Alamo Plaza was missing for most of its anniversary morning.

Anyone from San Antonio who has visited Independence National Historic Park in downtown Philadelphia can sense the possibilities here. I recently spent a few days there and at the National Constitution Center, a few blocks away. The Center advertises itself as “America’s most interactive museum.” It is more than that. It literally teems with the most racially diverse mix of people I’ve ever experienced in an American museum, all staking their individual claim on the freedom story.

The red brick buildings at Independence Hall that echo with the footsteps of the Founding Fathers were deemed too important to be politicized. The words “We the people” are inscribed on the cracked Liberty Bell, and accordingly, the U.S. National Park Service is guardian there, as it is at the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

Two essential impediments stand in the way of   making the Shrine to Texas Liberty an inspiring destination for all who live or visit here.

One is the 19th century carnival of cheap attractions that line the western side of the Alamo Plaza, appealing to the lowest common denominator of American tourist and gawker. All that is lacking is a bearded lady exhibit and, perhaps, a few of the South American shrunken heads that can be found on nearby Houston Street in the collection of curiosities once housed at the Lone Star Brewery.

And nobody drives through Independence Hall in their vehicle.

The other unprofessional dimension to the visitor’s experience is rooted in the nature of the non-professionals who zealously stand guard over the premises and the Alamo narrative. For years, the credibility of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as custodians and conservators of the Alamo has been challenged, particularly in recent years as the DRT has been fraught by financial woes and lapses in conservation, and riven by petty political score-settling among its most powerful matrons.

Give them credit for preservation more than a century ago, but do not give them title. The Texas Legislature took half measures in the 2011 session and passed legislation designating the General Land Office as the new custodian of the Alamo, but the DRT ladies remain in day-to-day control. For the Alamo to achieve financial solvency, establish a constant program of conservation, and to fully tell the site’s rich history, the state must relegate the DRT to a support role.

Independence Hall is supported by a private-public partnership that infuses the park with a diversity of funding, scholarship and vision that no single entity could ever hope to muster. Is the Alamo any less inspiring than the Liberty Bell? Only, perhaps, for those who have sat by for generations, teeth gritted, as the John Wayne myth became the Texas textbook version force-fed to every school kid, while the larger Alamo story went unexplored and untold. By that, of course, I mean this state’s indigenous and Mexican-Americans, whose presence and part in history was largely excluded, or consigned to the ranks of enemy forces.

Vistors celebrate the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo
A couple pays homage to a memorial for Alamo Defender Col. James Bowie

Most of us would rally around a more complex presentation of the Battle of the Alamo and an acknowledgement that well before the 19th century the Alamo was Mission San Antonio de Valero, built in 1718, the first Spanish Mission to be built on the banks of the San Antonio River. That anniversary, by the way, is May 1 and merits its own respect and re-enactment. Why isn’t it a significant date on the city calendar, especially as San Antonio contemplates its coming 300th birthday celebration?

Some will accuse me of tearing at old wounds. My intention is not to stir rancor, but to insist on history being told in the most professional manner possible. Others have tried in this city, and they have failed. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying again.

Downtown San Antonio will always be defined, for better or worse, by the Alamo Plaza. In the end, we are a city that sends its visitors home with coonskin caps and other cheap trinkets, or a city that embraces a  more profound understanding of history and thus ourselves. Which of those two cities do we want to be?

Photos by Robert Rivard

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.