Page 22


Town of Many Borders By Mike Greenberg Pho to by Jo hn Davenp or t SAN ANTONIO is a border town. That is something you won’t learn from looking at . the map, which shows a space of some 150 miles between Alamo Plaza and the Rio Grande, but borders are no respecters of treaties, wars, INS stations or Rand McNally. The border defined by history twists and twines into a fat, messy, protean knot called San Antonio. Many borders: Between the U.S. and Mexico, Europe and Aztlan, Protestantism and Catholicism; between fast and fiesta, rich and poor, mainstream and backwater, the 19th century and the 21st. A Freudian might say that San Antonio is paranoid schizophrenic with manicdepressive tendencies. So are a lot of the best people, but you have to be careful with them. At the most obvious level there are three geographically distinct San Antonios, designated in the local jargon as “South of Hildebrand,” “North of Hildebrand” and “Loopland.” \(Hildebrand is a major east-west artery that for many years until the 1940s was the city’s northern boundary. Loop 410, once called Loop 13, is a peripheral freeway and another former ne plus ultra charming, historic, literary, illiterate, Mike Greenberg, senior critic at the San Antonio Express -News, is completing a John S. Knight fellowship at Stanford University. poor, compact, liveable, Catholic San Antonio of Texas myth is the one South of Hildebrand including downtown, the historic districts, and the Mexican barrio. North of Hildebrand, the area built up between roughly World War II and 1970, is home to the old-line middle and upper classes; holding a great many “starter homes” for returning veterans and, “step-up homes” for the rising managerial classes, this swath of the city has little distinctly local character, except in the upper class enclaves of Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills and Olmos Park. Loopland, built up since 1970 but especially in the boom years 1980-1986, is home to the city’s recently imported professional class, the nouveau riche and the children of the old middle class; the built environment is frenetic, congested, incoherent, glitzy, much like expressway suburbia in Houston and Dallas, but with more hills and an occasional try for South of Hildebrand flavor. The point of this geography lesson is to guard against generalizations: The mythical San Antonio, which is to say the real San Antonio, is the city South of Hildebrand. It is not reproducing itself, because history doesn’t reproduce itself, and even on its own turf it is being invaded and eroded by newer ways. In part, the real San Antonio’s character relates to economic history. For example, the city’s stress on historic preservation, including the presence of many active downtown historic churches, can be linked to a well-timed cycle of boom and bust: Boom in the years 1890-1930, when the city’s European merchant class gave San Antonio a fine collection of ornate period architecture; extended bust from the Depression to about 1970, with low land prices holding down the pressure to destroy what had been built earlier; and boom again in the 1970s and early ’80s, putting money into the city at a time when tax incentives favored preservation and there was still plenty left to preserve. The River Walk was a positive benefit of the Depression construction began in 1939 as pant of the WPA although extensive tourist exploitation waited until the ’70s. The relative compactness of the old town has to do with the fact that San Antonio was already a major city in the 1890s, before the reign of the car. A pedestrian grid yields short blocks, which are still a factor in the old city’s human scale. Furthermore, for most of its history the city’s core has been dominantly Catholic the parish church, to which many Hispanic Catholics still walk, brings with it a compact, cellular urban form. Protestantism, fragmented into many sects and historically distrustful of urban concentration, tends to draw its worshippers from a wider territory. As a result, Protestant churches are adept at building parking lots. The tensions between Protestant and Catholic world views, between linear and cyclical time, between progress and tradition, between individualism and communalism, are constitutive of San Antonio. They are expressed in the built environment, which is not innocent of culture and ideology, although it may disclose its meanings only with reluctance or on special occasions. The River Walk, for example, can be accurately read only once a year, the night of the Fiesta River Parade: The poor watch from the bridges, for free; the middle class and most tourists buy seats at river level; the well-connected, those who run and care for the city, gather in private parties on balconies or raised patios where they can observe and be observed by the crowd while remaining literally above it. The River Walk was marginal to San Antonio culture until balconies became numerous enough to accommodate the city’s leadership for the River Parade: The balcony is the ideal form for expressing the tension between participation and separation. Like the River Walk, much of old San Antonio’s built environment can only be understood in theatrical terms, as a stage 16 MAY 29, 1987