Best Laid Plans: How San Antonio Grew (and Why)


First Friday Art Walk” is the moniker for the monthly block party in San Antonio’s Southtown, a neighborhood that consists mostly of late-19th-century housing and commercial nodes, has as its spine the meandering Alamo Street, and lies, well, just south of the downtown core. The neighborhood party’s name seems innocuous enough, but its last word is of first importance. What makes this event work is that its participants are on foot, strolling up and down Alamo, crowding into its many galleries and shops, restaurants and bars. When I joined the bobbing sea of heads undulating down the sidewalks between the trendy restaurant Rosario’s and Blue Star Art Space, a former warehouse converted into studios and a microbrewery, I was reminded how much the construction of communities depends on the ability to see others’ faces. True, some of the eyes that I gazed upon were a bit more focused than others, but whatever their inebriated state, my fellow travelers were reenacting what was once a daily ritual in 18th- and 19th-century San Antonio, people-watching along las calles of the city.

No one loved the passing parade more than Spanish urban planners. Everywhere they laid down a spatial structure that compelled the citizens of this New Spain outpost to revolve around the civic center, timing their movements to the comings and goings of their neighbors as they worked, played and prayed. That was the stated ambition for the villa of San Fernando de Béxar when in 1730 the Viceroy of Mexico issued the formal order designing this new settlement, soon to become home to 16 families from the Canary Islands.

Drawing on the prescribed urban form denoted in the Law of the Indies (1583), through which Madrid determined the shape and function of its New World cities, the layout of San Antonio began with San Fernando cathedral. The rough-hewn limestone edifice served as the pivot around which the rest of the civilian community would revolve. From its proposed western-facing front door, which in time would be reoriented, the calles and plaza were marked off, followed by surrounding public edifices and individual housing, all locked in a grid that marched proportionately westward, the whole forming “a cross with the church as a center.” This circulatory pattern stimulated a vibrant street life, especially in the plaza. Into its open-aired space crowded the joyful celebrants of the annual feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe and San Fernando Rey de España; local gossip, like the fragrant scent of grilled meat that permeated the air, wafted through the plaza. For 18th-century San Antonians, this urban landscape was the communal heart.

But its proper function did not come without major surgery. No sooner had the first civilians arrived in early March 1731, than Captain Juan Pérez de Almazán recognized a serious flaw in the city’s layout. “The land to the west of the presidio, the location of the said villa, has no facilities for irrigation,” he wrote. A crop failure would have doomed the new community. Since the mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo), claimed the heights on the eastern bank of the river, Almazán spun the 1730 plan on its axis, so that the church’s front door now faced east (making its orientation quite unusual in New Spain). This pushed the town into land situated between San Pedro Creek and the Big Bend of the San Antonio River, leading to some disastrous environmental consequences. The search for irrigable land, for instance, put the farming community smack in the middle of a flood plain. As a late-18th-century visitor complained: “the streets are… filled with mud the minute it rains.” Heavy storms brought greater danger. In July 1819, surging waters crashed through the “poor village.” From “the proximity of the walls of the San Valero Mission to San Pedro Creek, which crosses behind the city on the West, it was all one river,” wrote a sorrowful Governor Antonio Martinez. Residents and jacales (the local mud-and-wattle housing) were sucked into the “irresistible current;” it was “impossible to give immediate aid to the miserable souls who struggled against death,” he mourned, “because no one could do anything except to look out for himself.”

Yet even the devastating flood could not alter the physical shape or character of this walking city. Because San Antonio grew slowly during its first 150 years–in 1803 it contained an estimated 2,500 people, and only 12,000 in 1870–it readily absorbed these newcomers by expanding the original Spanish design. However, Almazán’s urban design could not withstand the arrival of the railroad. On February 16, 1877, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad screeched into town, heralding a new urban order. Within a year, mule-drawn trolley cars began hauling passengers between the eastside GHSA station, downtown offices and shops, and new, more-distant neighborhoods. By the early 1880s, another line, The International and Great Northern, laid its tracks down on the city’s west side, stimulating another round of development. San Antonio’s population grew quickly, rising to 37,673 residents in 1890. This boom established a new white majority, many of whom moved to suburbs built along streetcar lines that rose up the low hills to the north of San Pedro Park and to the east of downtown. Giving rise to an ever-sharper distinction between work and home, and carrying a population that had enough disposable income to make the transit between the two, the new transportation grid also reinforced, even as it transformed, social prejudice and class markers. In a walking city, the rich and poor–whatever they thought of the situation–were compelled to live in close quarters; that proximity was no longer necessary in the Age of the Iron Horse.

The best physical evidence that shared civic space was fast becoming a thing of the past was the disappearance of the once-open plazas. City Hall was dropped into the center of Plaza de Armas (Military Plaza), and obliterated its former role as a center of commercial exchange on the western edge of downtown. Main Plaza, the site of the communal marketplace, had a portion of its southern flank sliced off for streetcar and vehicular traffic. Even venerated Alamo Plaza was not spared reconstruction, as Crockett Street was cut through to enhance access. As late-19th-century politicians and developers reconfigured the community’s original spatial form, they did so in the context of the widening economic gap between its residents and alterations in the city’s ethnic composition. Whites now dominated by numbers and wealth; Hispanics were the largest minority, but along with the tiny Black population they were also among the city’s poorest residents.

Flip through any tourist guide from this period, and it is clear that visitors to San Antonio were clued in to this growing divide in demography and power. The patronizing narrative tours of the “Mexican Quarter” were filled with stock figures of racist fiction. Somnolent males, their eyes shaded by wide-brimmed hats, loitered in doorways; winsome and barefoot children begged in the streets. It wasn’t just the “savory odors of mysterious Mexican viands” that lured local and tourist alike to Military Plaza, Frank Bushwick winked in Glamorous Days (1934); the famed Chili Queens’ “rich olive skin and the languorous grace and bewitching black eyes” had a smoldering appeal. In the hands of their literary creators, these romanticized types made exotic (and thereby denied) the real-life poverty in which many of their Hispanic subjects were sunk.

The automobile would further push their pain out of sight, out of mind. Beyond the means of all but the middle and upper classes, the early automobiles stimulated the development of high-end suburbs sited just outside the city limits. In the early-1920s, as the metropolitan population climbed to more than 160,000, a series of new subdivisions to house those of means were developed. Woodlawn, northwest of downtown, was constructed at the same time as Terrell Hills and Olmos Park, lying to its north and east; in between these latter two communities was an older streetcar suburb, Alamo Heights, which also absorbed a new wave of car-happy residents. The wealthy were pulling up and out, often taking their tax dollars with them into freshly incorporated towns, making ever more tenuous the links between the rich and poor. The growing physical distance between the classes had political consequences: The elite of this generation disenfranchised itself, calculating that it could continue to profit from the urban economy without shouldering its share of responsibility for the costs of governance.

That calculation would be harder to maintain as the city started to flex its annexation muscles in the 1940s, when the city’s population rose above 450,000. But even as the city pursued those fleeing its taxation powers, it funneled local, state and federal monies into expressway construction that sped up sprawl. City zoning ordinances and federal low-cost mortgages added further encouragement to those who could get out, to get out. This complicated process was especially manifest during the reign of the Good Government League (GGL), a North Side-dominated political machine that gained power in the early 1950s and governed for the next 20 years. Two examples: It located a much-needed medical center on land adjacent to the new intersection of Interstate-10 and Loop-410, approximately 15 miles from downtown, and it platted the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio another five miles out IH-10. The GGL thus flung crucial public assets onto undeveloped land on the north side, and encouraged increased dispersal of population and commerce. This produced the expected political gains–the strategy lined the pockets of developers who were major supporters of GGL policies; they in turn created new subdivisions that were annexed, and from which the GGL drew electoral support.

Although in time the GGL would fall, its development strategies have continued apace. Since the 1970s, as the population has swelled from 700,000 to nearly a million, many have found shelter in “Loopland,” a terrain arcing between Loops 410 and 1604, that was once home to cattle grazing amid thickets of oak and juniper. The area has attracted so much investment that it has become the new, if diffused, downtown. Its undifferentiated mass of tract housing, traditional malls, and big-box strip centers are perfect markers of the automotive era. Wheels, not feet, define this modern cityscape, and to this revolutionary process there seems no end. Exurban migration, which began in the 1920s, now spills out into the northern set of surrounding counties. Predictably this boom has spawned social problems reminiscent of the dilemmas that those who are moving north are desperate to avoid–more roads, more cars, higher crime, more pollution, greater angst.

Just as predictably, San Antonio has filed Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) claims on segments of the adjacent counties to corral this movement; it is no surprise that these claims are as deeply resented as they are hotly contested. Yet the ETJ dispute may be a blessing in disguise, for if successfully walled off from leap-frogging ever outward, San Antonio might be forced to acknowledge the central tension embedded within its ballooning size: how to build a livable community for the roughly 1.5 million residents living within its more than 460-square miles.

Part of the solution lies in putting the brakes on the northerly land rush. This would have an immediate benefit–preserving imperiled regional water supplies. Beneath the tree-studded hills so beloved by developers and homeowners lies the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer, the streams and sinkholes that replenish this sole source of the city’s potable water. Because sprawl compromises the capacity of the aquifer to replenish itself, and is a source of pollution due to parking-lot runoff, lawn fertilizers and oil spills, grassroots organizations since the 1970s have campaigned hard to counter these threats. Alas, legal challenges have had only a modest impact. But these campaigns have raised the community’s consciousness about the pressures building on the urban fringe; the fight for clean water and green space is a concerted effort to release that stress before it tears us apart.

Ditto for efforts to rebuild the central core. As the nascent drive to redevelop Southtown indicates, by salvaging older neighborhoods we can offer alternative living environments to those who might otherwise join the outward thrust. Redirecting population away from the booming edge, and reinvesting in the kind of mixed-use, socially integrated and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes the Spanish first platted in this city more than 270 years ago will also help eradicate some of the racial inequalities and economic disparities built into automotive suburbs. The well- heeled and the less fortunate may never see eye to eye, but they will have a harder time ignoring, disdaining or dismissing the other if they have to look one another in the face.

The benefits of that perspective are already visible. Activists in diverse neighborhoods have long demonstrated that restoration and in-fill pay off in ways aesthetic, economic and psychological. Similar gains may be realized on the city’s historic black East Side. We’ve already seen benefits in the once-toxic landscape on Cherry Street. Following revelations of dangerous pollutants leaching into the soil from a former iron works that was torn down in advance of the construction of the Alamodome, the surrounding area was flattened. It was then rebuilt: The historic echoes in the new homes’ architecture and the planting of indigenous flora suggest how we can turn a brownfield into a greensward.

If replicated citywide, these ambitious efforts to recreate human-scale environments and intimate walking districts will allow us to stitch together our disparate, far-flung neighborhoods into an urban whole. Which is another way of saying that we need more, and more fully realized, Southtowns. Sounds like a plan.

Contributing writer Char Miller is editor of a forthcoming anthology, On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (University of Pittsburgh Press), and a member of the Open Space Advisory Board of the City of San Antonio.