San Antonio is a place that loves to celebrate its history. Our civic leaders hail the military and cultural developments that have helped build and shape the city, and praise civic celebrations (most notably Fiesta and the Folklife Festival) that tout the diversity of ethnic and racial groups that contribute to the city’s character and make us distinctive from our Sunbelt peers.
Yet beneath our history of forward progress and unity is a different, unexalted history — a history of differences, of divide and separation, where a few decades earlier, and a few miles from the River Walk, a visitor would have encountered a very different kind of San Antonio.
“The Church of Guadalupe stands upon the fringe of what has been described to me as the most fearful slum in all America,” Heywood Broun reported in the New York World-Telegram in 1939. “At first I thought that the extreme description might have been dictated by local pride ... But after my third back alley I had to confess defeat … I did not quite comprehend the character of the alley until I discovered that what I took to be a toolhouse was a residence for a family of eleven people.”
Broun’s discovery of San Antonio’s slums may have come as news to the New Yorker and his readers. It was far from new to Texans. Years earlier, in December 1911, the Dallas Morning News had devoted a series of articles to statewide housing problems. Its reporter devoted particular attention and relish to San Antonio and the West Side, noting that “In its housing problem, as in many things, San Antonio is thoroughly unique.” The article deemed the local “Mexican corrals … among the showplaces of city,” sought out by tourists who are “amazed, perhaps by the squalor, and dumbfounded at the manifest contentment of the occupants under conditions revolting to the eye and nostril.”
The conditions of what was long called the city’s “Mexican Quarter” were the product of extreme poverty and civic indifference. With effectively no public regulation and no real investment in the basics of streets, sewers, and water service, housing on the West Side was of remarkably poor quality. And the City Water Board, for years unwilling to extend water lines to users with low incomes, assured the continued existence of outdoor privies. Even as late as 1960, a study of housing and minority groups in San Antonio could describe “great numbers of shacks on rutted, wholly unimproved streets, without inside plumbing or running water.”
The effective segregation of San Antonio’s Hispanic population was sustained by a combination of low incomes and social norms. The 1960 study by the Commission on Race and Housing concluded that “the behavior of real-estate agents and lending institutions tends to limit the housing chances of Latin-Americans … Real-estate agents will be very careful about introducing Latin-Americans into Anglo areas — and they will admit this (‘Too many Mexicans can ruin a neighborhood’ or ‘People can never tell about Mexican neighbors’). At the same time, they deny there is any discrimination.”
For San Antonio’s African-American population, the segregation line was much more dramatic and rigid. Formal segregation in private facilities, like restaurants, hotels, and entertainment centers, continued until well into the 1960s. While public facilities were desegregated a little earlier, the legacy of separate schools, community centers, and parks sustained the separate identity of the East Side. At least for the East Side, a history of organized political participation dating back to the 1920s had yielded the paved streets, sewers, and parks that were largely absent from the Hispanic neighborhoods of the West Side.
Today, the separate and very different historical “cities” of San Antonio’s minority majority have a larger lesson for all of us. For decades, City officials, often wedded to a vision of community-wide development and improvement, were capable of blaming the city’s abysmal housing and health problems on someone or somewhere else. This obliviousness allowed a 1942 “economic and industrial survey” of San Antonio to argue that “Latin-American” migrant farm workers were “responsible for whatever problems as to employment, health, and housing conditions that might mar the reputation of San Antonio in the minds of the uninformed.”
Today’s needs, for better education, for improved public facilities, for quality neighborhoods, echo out from the days when every San Antonian did not receive a fair share of public attention, investment, and concern. It’s a history we should neither emulate nor overlook.