Local caterers told me it would never work, that I should move to Dallas instead. San Antonio was just too cheap to sustain any more event planners.
Or maybe, I now realize, San Antonians just like to throw their own parties.
When a business or cultural institution fails to take off in the Alamo City, a predictable trope is likely to play out, and it goes like this: Our city can’t have nice things. We’re too cheap, too lame, too provincial, too fat, too slow, too low-brow.
The critique grows louder when that business or cultural institution happens to be thriving somewhere else, especially in Austin, Dallas or Houston. You know, the three other big Texas cities that so often seem to overshadow us.
“There’s no doubt, historically, that’s correct,” said former San Antonio mayor and longtime Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “For years and years, we felt we lagged behind.”
Turns out, underneath that Alamo-shaped chip many of us carry around on our shoulder, San Antonio has some real civic anxiety. In some ways, it may be merited. But, experts point out, it’s also an old and bougie pastime, rooted in classism.
And the more we obsess over it, the more distracted we are from recognizing what makes us great as a city and correcting the longstanding inequalities that hold us back.
While what some people call the San Antonio inferiority complex plays out in everything from civic debate to cocktail party chatter, it can take its most extreme forms online.
When the San Antonio Symphony plunged into its most recent financial woes, a commenter on Texas Public Radio’s website urged the city to pull on its “big boy pants” and finally support its symphony. Never mind that orchestras across the country are grappling with similar financial strains.
Responding to a Rivard Report article on SA’s music industry, another commenter claimed that if a real scene was possible in the 300-year-old city, “it would’ve happened by now.” Never mind that internationally recognized performers as disparate as Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez and Girl in a Coma all launched their success from here.
Despite its proliferation on social media, San Antonio’s feeling of inadequacy isn’t new.
The city has strived to be something other than what it is since its founding, says historian and author Char Miller. Its Spanish colonial buildings and forced assimilation of indigenous people were backward glances at Spain and other “civilized” places — and colonialism always comes with a wannabe mentality.
As trade and trains brought in visitors, San Antonio became “someone else’s Disneyland,” said Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California who’s made an academic career out of studying our city. It was a frontier town with loads of color, but not necessarily the kind of place that could retain a sophisticated citizenry.
“[Visitors] can come in, look down on you, treat you like shit, drop some coin,” Miller explained. “But you’re always held at arm’s length.”
This Frontierland persona started shortly after Texas’ statehood as a comparison to the cities of the Northeast — Boston, New York and Philadelphia. However, by the ’30s and ’40s, Texas’ oil boom catapulted Dallas and Houston ahead of us and into that club of elites.
And, in 1936, flush with that new success, Dallas pulled a fast one on San Antonio.
Of the three major cities vying to host the Texas Centennial Exposition and World’s Fair — San Antonio, Houston and Dallas — SA was considered the natural choice, writes historian Richard Wuthnow in his book Rough Country. It was the oldest of the three contenders, the most iconic.
But, in the end, Dallas put up more money, more space and leadership (read: country club buddies) to close the deal. The exposure allowed the Big D to establish itself as the more sophisticated, WASP-y, monied face of the state. Meanwhile, San Antonio remained a dusty relic, too brown and poor to represent the Texas of oil barons and industry.
For a while, SA rolled over, according to Miller. It donned cowboy costumes and sombreros and played its assigned part.
- Courtesy of Char Miller
- Historian Char Miller traces San Antonio’s inferiority complex back to its colonial past.
By 1968, though, the city rallied, finally hosting its own World’s Fair, Hemisfair, replete with the tower that still dominates the downtown skyline. Other developments also temporarily elevated the city’s profile. Homegrown Datapoint Corp., for example, emerged as a pioneering computer company, joining the Fortune 500 and adding thousands to its payroll.
But as the cycles of business go, IBM and other personal computing companies pulled ahead and Datapoint went into a prolonged decline.
“We were ahead of everybody, but we lost it,” Wolff said, acknowledging his own frustration when comparing the city to the tech mecca of Austin — the latest in our long line of cities-we-ain’t. “If I have an inferiority complex, that’s it.”
What frustrates Wolff most is that San Antonio allowed Datapoint to rise and fall without a lasting investment in workforce or infrastructure. Perhaps consequently, investments in workforce development have become a hallmark of Wolff’s tenure as judge. The last 15 years, he points out, have been radically transformative for San Antonio.
As president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, Jenna Saucedo-Herrera also obsesses over workforce development. But she’s less worried about Austin — or even Dallas.
“Dallas can be plastic, Austin can be weird, but San Antonio is real,” she said.
If SA has failed to reap the same economic benefits as those cities, Saucedo-Herrera argues, that’s because it needs to get better at telling its story, “and doing it loudly.”
Others have made this argument — that San Antonio doesn’t brag enough. Or that maybe we do, but that we need to make sure we can back it up.
Still, historians point out that better marketing can’t make up for the city’s biggest deficit.
Development in the 1960s wasn’t happening willy-nilly. It followed a pattern of inequity and internalized classism, if not racism. More than anything, that segregated, unequal approach to San Antonio’s modern development is the real ghost that haunts the city.
For all the temptation to define SA’s shortcomings as results of provincialism or backwardness, its biggest failing is economic disconnection. Miller credits decades of the city’s sluggish growth compared to Dallas — or more recently, Austin — to “an inability on the part of the elite to think of the city as a metropolitan whole.”
Even now, the city is working to build downtown into a utopian island without addressing the disparities among the sea of neighborhoods in which it floats, critics charge.
“The only way to fix it is to look at our problems square in the face,” Miller said.
For many of those who grew up outside of San Antonio’s elite neighborhoods, the whole notion of comparing the city to its far-flung neighbors can seem like an alien concept.
“I thought that the South Side was San Antonio. We really didn’t go north of [U.S. Highway] 90,” explained Ray Tijerina, chief of staff for charter school Compass Rose Academy. “But I though it was great, so did people that I knew.”
Easier to observe were the inequalities within San Antonio. Councilman Rey Saldaña, also a native South Sider, remembers traveling with his high school baseball team to a North Side game and seeing his first Barnes & Noble, then a Borders.
The two big box outlets sat within miles of each other, while his side of town didn’t have a single bookstore.
Concerns over San Antonio’s apparent backwardness aren’t limited to its economic development, though.
Kevin Peckham was gigging regularly with his New York City punk band Ghost Ghost when his wife’s job pulled him to San Antonio. He assumed he’d easily break into the music scene here, but when he realized there was almost no rehearsal space available, that sent up a red flag.
For Peckham, that absence signaled an underdeveloped music scene. But that lack of development doesn’t mean that there’s a shortage of local interest or homegrown musicianship.
“Not underdeveloped in terms of talent, and not in terms of people interested in music,” he said.
What lacked was a professional infrastructure.
Bands need rehearsal spaces as much to practice their songs as to build community, according to Peckham. He even briefly considered opening one — a sort of Geekdom for musicians, where artists could store gear and industry pros could offer workshops to help bands, promoters and venues up their game. Such similar places are readily available in “music cities” like New York, Austin and Nashville.
However, he points to upsides such as the growing number of clubs like Paper Tiger that are professionalizing the local scene, making it friendlier to touring acts from larger markets. Local flavor is great, Peckham said, but venues and promoters must be reliably professional if they want out-of-town artists and booking agents to work with them.
“The music industry is a trust industry,” he said.
To leverage its musical strengths, San Antonio must break from its Fiesta mindset, Peckham added. Festivals don’t make a local music scene. Incubators, education and local opportunities do.
Despite San Antonio’s emergence as a visual art hotbed, that scene also suffers from a lack of professional training opportunities, participants argue.
“There’s a real gap there,” said local visual artist Harvey Morales.
To that end, Morales opened La Printería, which offers young, talented artists access to the screen printers as well as informal mentorship.
While a few, like Cruz Ortiz, have gone on to develop a recognizable brand, Morales acknowledged that many here still struggle to balance commercial appeal and authenticity.
To be sure, San Antonio isn’t alone in dealing with that lack of support. Like many mid-tier cities, it doesn’t have a coastal commerce center’s wealth of corporate foundations or a deep bench of patrons that can help bankroll every aspect of its artistic growth.
Even so, finding and supporting local excellence is well within San Antonio’s reach, said Adriana Rios, project manager for local startup space Geekdom.
After growing up in Miami and living in New York City, Rios came to San Antonio with Venture for America, a fellowship program for aspiring entrepreneurs. She represents the kind of talent that San Antonio is pining for, but she’s a little ambivalent about her role in “revitalizing the city.”
Rios gets what city officials are trying to do downtown, but she worries that they’re ignoring its real magic.
Much of the development she sees along Houston Street looks like it could be anywhere, but when she travels the West Side, she sees the kind of place-based culture money can’t buy — even though places like New York City are trying.
New York is commissioning murals to make certain neighborhoods less drab. On San Antonio’s West Side, murals fostered by organizations including San Anto Cultural Arts are already serving their intended purpose: telling a community’s story.
“The Latino culture in this city is unique to this city,” Rios said.
When Shelley Grieshaber returned to San Antonio from Austin to serve as director of education for the Culinary Institute of America’s local campus, she wasn’t sure her hometown was ready for it. After all, SA prided itself on a low cost of living, and that included food. Paying for quality ingredients and chef-driven menus didn’t seem like part of the conversation.
- Courtesy of Shelley Grieshaber
- Pearl culinary chief Shelley Grieshaber said the city is growing to appreciate its culinary scene.
“It’s changed tremendously,” said Grieshaber, who now heads culinary operations for the Pearl.
But, she acknowledges, it took a long time, and the city still hasn’t completely grown up. Restaurants still get pushback when they use more expensive, higher quality ingredients — like top-quality beef or locally sourced greens — in favor of cheaper options.
The Pearl, she explained, has become as much about educating aspiring chefs to stand behind quality food as it has been about educating patrons about life beyond Tex-Mex.
“It’s about exposure,” Grieshaber said.
Exposure is a huge part of visual artist Morales’s model as well. By getting Mexican and Chicano art into the hands and homes of more patrons, he wants to see appreciation for their traditions rise above trendiness and kitsch.
Teaching emerging and local artists how to broaden their market with lower cost prints, Morales hopes to spread more local art through the city.
Like other fields, San Antonio’s art scene suffers when most of the investment capital is sequestered up on the North Side. Some live entire lifetimes without ever driving on Zarzamora, Southeast Military, or East Houston (except for the blocks around the AT&T Center). On purpose.
Equity is about more than the city budget. It’s about the city’s identity. What is essential and representative of San Antonio? Is it Fiesta princesses or chili queens? Can it really be both?
No U.S. city seems to have fully figured that out yet. And that’s the dirty little secret about all the places we covet so much.
Because we don’t know other municipalities like we know our own, we don’t always see the downside of their apparent growth and vitality. We don’t notice, say, the disappearance of the working-middle class from San Francisco. Or that Houston rounded up its homeless and exiled them from downtown.
Much of the time, we only see their parks full of picnicking millennials, and we want some too. We want their people.
And to get their people, we think we need to have their stuff.
One of the key arguments against San Antonio’s ill-fated 2014 streetcar initiative was that the city had latched onto Portland’s solution to Portland’s problems. Then-councilman Ron Nirenberg argued that for rail to catch on, it needed to solve a real problem.
So, he proposed light rail running along a major traffic corridor and voted against the streetcar proposal, which ultimately failed.
Now that the councilman has become Mayor Nirenberg with the power to commission Blue Ribbon panels, San Antonio may get a chance to leapfrog the streetcar and seek a transportation solution that serves the whole city.
Until recently, such practical investments were out of character for SA. Only recently would the renovation of Wheatley Courts and Bibliotech, connecting hike-and-bike greenways and the development of Pearsall Park have been possible. Even so, there’s practical stuff to achieve at a more granular level — neighborhoods still fight for sidewalks, and school districts battle to close the digital divide.
- Courtesy of Rey Saldaña
- Councilman Rey Saldaña is among the San Antonians who saw the inequality in the city before he compared it to the outside.
The Alamodome further illustrates who gets screwed every time we have to find a place to put our shiny new toys. Figuring out the health effects of the toxic soil displaced by the dome’s construction was a post-facto debate after the dubious dirt had already been foisted upon the East Side.
The construction of new freeways has a similar habit. U.S. Highway 281 goes so far out of its way to avoid treading on the toes of Alamo Heights and Olmos Park that it spends half the day in absurd quarter-mile traffic jams while people navigate its curves.
Guess whose neighborhoods were not so painstakingly spared.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
While the business community was investing in sprawl and stadiums, the West Side and in the city’s historic neighborhoods, San Antonio has been putting in some lasting infrastructure of a different kind.
Our city led the state in whole-neighborhood preservation, designating places like Dignowity Hill and Monticello Park as historical places, instead of going structure by structure as Austin has done.
“Instead of the tool of the gentrifiers, historic preservation has been the tool that has kept neighborhoods whole,” Austin preservationist Kate Singleton said. She praised San Antonio’s early adoption of a “preservation ethic.”
Community organizing has also served as a powerful reminder of San Antonio’s rich history of activism. Organizations including COPS/Metro Alliance have staved off some of the more parasitic development efforts over the decades and brought neighborhoods into 2019 ready for a new approach. Community-driven revitalization requires strong community organizing and progressive governance.
But San Antonio can’t rely solely on that kind of activism to help shed its inferiority complex. To do that, we all need to love our neighbors.
San Antonio must focus on deep, whole-city excellence at home instead of pining away after the dreamy facades of other cities. We have plenty to learn from them, sure, but at the end of the day, the solution cannot be to make our people and places look more like their people and places.
Because, ultimately, that’s what all the striving is about.
If we take care of the people we have, we’ll thrive and continue creating our own kind of cool other cities can envy.
“Name your metric that helps us understand the capacity of a city to meet the needs of all of its citizens,” Pomona College’s Char Miller said. “If you’re not working on those, then you’re not going to be a good city, let alone a great one.”
In other words, the antidote to San Antonio’s inferiority complex isn’t another year of rah-rah-ism, or another decade of downtown, or another slogan about us being on the rise. The city is in its 300s now. It’s time to own what we’ve done and what we haven’t.
If we wise up to that, we could be the first U.S. city to get it right.
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