By Johanna Sawalha

What a crash landing that was, moving from New York to San Antonio.

We were pretty well set up with both work and social life in New York, so the thought of moving to, the to myself unknown, San Antonio, seemed unnecessary.  Near unthinkable, at first in fact.  But we did jump.

And for a year thereafter, I wished every day that I hadn’t.

According to the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a personality assessment test, my top strength is Activator.  That means basically that I jump in first, and then learn how to swim.  This test says your strengths are your natural born gifts.  If you hone them well, they will serve you well in the world.

However, in the case of my moving to San Antonio after two decades in New York, being an Activator, did not feel like a strength.  Why?  Because I left New York without ever having even visited San Antonio, not knowing anyone and thinking that I was just as nimble a gypsy as I had always been.

Not so.

I remember arriving at what we later dubbed Hell on Blanco (Haven on Blanco condo community–God bless’em), which was where Rackspace, where my husband Ziad Sawalha accepted a position as director in the cloud division, had their relocation apartments.  It sits in the middle of a desolate part of the northwest side of town near Blanco and Bitters.  It did feel like bitters.  We hadn’t yet acquired a second car so when my husband was off to his new appointment at Rackspace, I was beating cabin fever in the sweltering heat with my infant child, but unable to go anywhere except to walk-able Walgreen’s.  It’s a really bad sign when all the employees at Walgreen’s know both you and your child by name.  The nearest and only restaurant was a fondue chain. And I enjoyed it.  That’s how starved for options I was.  I didn’t know it then, but in San Antonio, I had started at a low point.

Where to live

After my Haven on Blanco experience, I quickly turned biased once I found Southtown. I hear most people love where they live in San Antonio, but myself, I fell in love with Southtown.  As both a European and a New Yorker, a “walking culture” is a necessity.  I could do that in Southtown (writing this I may just blow this well-kept secret).  I call Southtown the SoHo of San Antonio.  This is where the artists live, work and play.  There are galleries and restaurants and eclectic house designs–overall a vibrant community of creative souls.

Sawalha found her spot in an 1871 Lavaca home.
Sawalha and family found their San Antonio spot in a Lavaca home built in 1887.

Southtown houses an intimate, friendly, tight knit community that shares woes, childcare and political views.  Plus there’s a fun, friendly sibling rivalry going on between the Southtown and Lavaca neighborhoods (where we–the up-and-comers–live) and the more established, more conservative and cleaned up King William district.  The neighborhoods frequently, albeit anecdotally,  “steal” residents from each other.

First Friday

On the first Friday of the month, artists open their studios at night for you to see where they do their work.  Beer flows freely and tents are set up along South Alamo Street, the main thoroughfare, with various “artsy” things for sale.

Although I’ve since discovered some of the drawbacks of First Friday–traffic congestion and more nicknacks than good art being sold–I must say that my first exposure to it saved me from my own extinction.

My husband had been diving in head first into his new job position at Rackspace, so I fended for myself in finding my way around.  Some people we’d met invited us to Blue Star Brewery for First Friday.  It was a perfect evening with the misters piercing the summer night balm, the potent King William brew flowing (a specialty of Blue Star Brewery), my Mom visiting (which really helped the transition to move here) and good people having good conversations.  There we were, sitting around: babies, moms, everyone chatting, people watching and drinking beer.  As more and more people joined our party, I realized that I had hit on a gem.

Home sweet home in Lavaca
Home sweet home in Lavaca

This was my area, where the artists were, where I could walk everywhere.  This was like home.  My last stop in Manhattan had been Hell’s Kitchen, just as it was about to tip from edgy to “becoming Chelsea,” i.e bought up by people with serious disposable income who made it so fancy that others who couldn’t keep up moved.  During all my years in New York City, I had always done that –moved into neighborhoods that weren’t “done up” yet, and moved when they had become homogenized and a bit too clean for my taste.  Southtown had the same feel.

Wait, I’m on extended vacation in Mexico!

That was the turning point.   Although it was piping hot out, I remember walking down South Alamo Street saying to myself, “I get it.  I am not in exile.  I am actually on extended vacation in Mexico!  Yoohoo–where’s my margarita?””  During my travels, I had spent many glorious vacations in Mexico.  My sister had lived in Guadalajara for a year, so in my mind, Mexico had always represented a vacation paradise.

For a Swede, who’s still thawing from her childhood where cold and darkness abound three quarters of the year, it can never really get too hot.  So if there’s no heat to complain about, what is there to complain about in regard to San Antonio?  Not much.  Maybe the Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and Tomb Raider attractions situated across from the historic Alamo, but otherwise–nothing really.  Anymore.

The Eats

With the new Culinary Institute of America in the Pearl Complex, as well as Southtown restaurants like Bliss, some amazing eats have moved into town.  And the moms of San Antonio will fondly remember The Cove and The Friendly Spot as the watering holes they could go and still bring the kids when they were little.  Both places sport live music, good food and brew and best of all–playgrounds right by the bar.

The Arts

I’ll give Austin first dibs on live music, but San Antonio has first dibs on the visual arts.  I eventually had the pleasure of meeting and working with great local artists.  And I have never seen so many arts outlets in a city of comparable size: The McNay, The Witte, San Antonio Museum of Art, ArtPace, Blue Star, etc., etc., etc.  What a privilege.

The Community

I couldn’t help but compare San Antonio to New York for a long time, although the comparison began to tip more and more in SA’s favor.  The people, the people, the people….it had SO much to do with the people…who seek each other out and create fun and creative group formations.  In my neighborhood alone we formed the Foodie Friday group that sample new restaurants every month, and the Southtown Wineaux group who does the same with wines, among many others.

I also formed my own–the Lavaca Playgroup (so I didn’t have to sit depressed and play alone with my son Sami, tossing soft dice in front of him and pining for a Gansevoort martini in Manhattan) or my own little Group Me gaggle, “The Real Housewives of San Antonio” – entrepreneurs who meet at Madhatters as our virtual office.

There’s the Lavaca Neighborhood Association and the Next Door Lavaca group that report the goings on in the hood, and the Thursday Lavaca Happy Hour at Belgian Bistro La Frite.  It seems like we have more clubs than people.  You know we’re chummy when we’re getting together for the Lavaca Watermelon social… and then there are the pop-up restaurants and private chef and other events, and this all has kept me thinking, “This is ever so New York – without the elbows…”

I was quoted in the paper as saying, “San Antonio is the town that under promised and over delivered.”  I stand by that.

Johanna Sawalha is a private and executive coach.  You can connect with her through her website or @johannasawalha on Twitter.