The Where I Live series aims to showcase our diverse city and region by spotlighting its many vibrant neighborhoods. Each week a local resident invites us over and lets us in on what makes their neighborhood special. Have we been to your neighborhood yet? Get in touch to share your story.
On February 22, 2013, an algorithm determined I would move to San Antonio. This algorithm was part of a matching process to efficiently connect students with training sites that serve as the capstone to their professional education. Its benefits also come with some stresses: money sunk, unceremonious wrenching from loved ones, competing with friends, and navigating eggshells around the unmatched.
A dear friend, who was also initiating me into the world of backpacking, decided to guide me away from this stressful milieu. On match day, we took a multi-hour trip punctuated by a winding descent into the floor of Palo Duro Canyon and a lamplit walk to our campsite. With our tents set up, my mind yielded to the dark stillness of the canyon floor. Hours passed in an instant that stillness was interrupted by soft, irregular thuds against the tent and lava lamp silhouettes before the twilight. Snow? The long zip of our tent door revealed a quiet, blanketed landscape; a moment suspended in time before quickly melting to reveal new paths.
The road to San Antonio, unlike Palo Duro’s, was not unknown. Having been mostly raised on the South Texas border, San Antonio was the nearest American city. As a child, that meant it was a field trip destination and source of fascination (Shamu! The Alamo! River malls!), though that perspective soured with the lens of adolescence.
Despite being raised on the border, I had been imbued with an idealized perspective of cities by my parents. One had been raised in the migrant enclaves of Chicago and the other lived in Guadalajara where, per divorce agreements, I spent some months annually. Cities were homes to intellectual cross-currents, cultural enrichment, diverse cuisine, novel technology, occupational challenge, substantive abodes set in towering masonry, and concrete that bore passive witness to history. For all of South Texas’ charms as an unhurried and centering place, it was ultimately these kinds of metropolises where one’s mind was sharpened.
After moving outside Texas, I never really had a reason to update my adolescent, city-in-name-only perspective of San Antonio until years later when a friend — a budding architect — disabused me of my ignorance. His appreciation of San Antonio’s rich history, built environment, and latent potential was infectious; a condition that became increasingly intractable with each passing visit en route to family.
I searched and came across an open apartment in a converted Builders Exchange: central in location, substantial in construction, and — most key — attainable with an intern’s meager salary. From this new base, I began to experience the city’s mainstays with renewed childlike earnestness, sharp and free of sense-blunting cynicism and routine.
Propelled by a variety of wheels (B-cycle, VIA, Amtrak) my rehabilitated perspective was allowed to take in the world while en route to obligations. On downtown’s narrow streets, you could coast right up to historical and cultural sites that rose before you. Meandering routes outside downtown allowed appreciation of different neighborhoods within the diamond points of Cattleman Square/Near West, Olmos Park, Eastside Promise, and San Jose/Missions. My soles were not deprived of experience either, with restorative evening paseos ennobled by history, architecture, and culture. Little historical tidbits provided levity and the opportunity for vivid imagery, like reading a Cormac McCarthy passage in the very bar where it took place.
What was previously an indistinguishable parade of buildings slowed into differentiated styles that become the timestamped layers of an urban canyon: Aztec revival, Spanish baroque, American renaissance, Chicago school. And the churches! They embodied the cultures, nations, and denominations that have met here, and served as a reminder that we are more than ourselves; a part of something greater.
These experiences: underscored by a custom soundtrack. I recall one ruminative walk where an underpass with a reverberating cacophony of birds ceded to cascading noise and punishing rhythm from the open doors of the Ten Eleven bar, before being punctuated by a tight groove and winding accordion on the VFW #76 stage. There are few cities where switching from musique concrète to post-hardcore/sludge to Tejano would be so natural.
While solitary experiences recharge me, San Antonio’s charms have not been exclusive of people. The warmth and sincerity from folks of all stripes recalled Alexis de Tocqueville’s portrait of America’s intersecting strata. In my building, I interacted with cooks, nurses, hospitality workers, architects, service industry veterans, city managers, retirees, students, entrepreneurs, artist-teachers, counselors, real estate brokers, neurobiologists, and engineers. The diversity of thought and experience that funneled people into those professions enriched our pre-pandemic happy hours.
Walking into my nearest post office, I met the bassist of Mickey and the Soul Generation. On the streets of San Antonio, drive-by strangers have shouted affirmations. Below the streets, beside the river, a koan-contemplating man directed me toward a mammoth bald cypress, urging me to slow down and fully appreciate it. These happenstance and kind acts have a strange way of lingering and endearing you to a place.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a city without friction. Pre-vaccine non-maskers in close quarters, migrants’ furrowed faces lining the sidewalks outside City and charity centers, red tape drawn up around a body, and ill-behaved tourists also are part of the experience. Although unpleasant, I see these experiences as necessary checks of the hubris that can develop when one is siloed with echoing like-mindedness. It reminds me that I am a part of a messy whole, that well-formed policies can still have winners and losers, and not all suffering is instantaneously soothed.
Some trends are longstanding, such as rent and property cost increases outpacing income growth. I would no longer be able to afford my building with an intern’s salary. The city sprawls farther out despite underutilized property within the city’s core, and the growth observed has not been equitably distributed.
For example, although the Pearl redevelopment received over $13 million from the City to support it, the cost of living is outside the reach of most San Antonians. The Pearl’s once-homey farmers market has ceded ground to luxury goods. Previous proposals for food stamps to have more buying power when used on farmers’ produce were shot down, to the detriment of nutritional health for lower-income individuals in communities that used to surround the Pearl. Cycling infrastructure proposals have also been shut down, to the detriment of physical and environmental health. These are just some anecdotes from ongoing trends that disadvantage large segments of society and have been exacerbated thanks to the pandemic.
The City has been making efforts to combat this, including allocating budgetary resources and setting bond proposals. San Antonio has also been gaining ground in its vaccination efforts, outpacing both the state and country. Beyond its health boon, widespread vaccination also promises to encourage in vivo economic activity, which may dovetail with predictions of 2020’s pent up resources manifesting into a new roaring ‘20s.
Amid this, eight years later, snow again stuck to the ground beneath me. As in Palo Duro, this chilly blanket held an uncertain crossroads. As South Texas’ golden rays thawed out the city I, again, found the enveloping dread of opaque challenges giving way to hope that we would overcome them.