A few months ago, my father, who was considering moving from his apartment in Alamo Heights to a town house down the street, asked me to drive in from Houston to help him assess the new place. The family selling the home was extremely well-off, and as I walked from room to room, I had the eerie sense of having entered a lost world: high-quality Western art hung on the walls, crystal glassware gleamed next to the good whiskey on the wet bar, and old-fashioned floral wallpaper adorned the master bedroom. Dozens of family photographs—taken mostly at what looked to be The Ranch—lined an upstairs hallway. I suspected that if I took the time to snoop seriously I would find a Fiesta week picture of someone serving as either King Antonio or an Order of the Alamo Duchess. I knew without looking that there was at least one hunting rifle stashed in a closet somewhere, along with several pairs of custom-made cowboy boots. I had never been in the house before, of course, but I instantly understood where I was: the San Antonio of my youth, amid the rich South Texas Anglos who used to run the city.
What interested me more than the surroundings was my reaction to them. For the first time I could remember, I did not feel the old, familiar resentment of the klutzy, bookish child toward a crowd of anti–intellectual, outdoorsy, blond-haired, blue-eyed extroverts. Instead, the place made me oddly cheerful, like Margaret Mead stumbling upon the remnants of a supposedly lost tribe.
I left San Antonio a little more than forty years ago, when I started college in 1972. In the four decades since, I’ve returned only to visit. The city I was raised in was as advertised in the tourist brochures: mostly a sleepy, charming tourist town. Before I was ten I was staying out late at Little League games without fear and riding horses unchaperoned in Brackenridge Park. I lived for the rodeo and Fiesta week, with its zany parades and egg cartons of fluorescent-hued cascarones. Like so many San Antonians, I learned to speak Spanish at about the same time I learned to speak English. Everyone, it seemed to me, knew my mother and father, and my mother’s mother and father, and my grandfather’s mother.
Charming though it was, however, that San Antonio also had its drawbacks. Progress was not necessarily considered an attribute; busier, richer Dallas and Houston were looked down on as sort of … tacky. One bookstore, Rosengren’s, served as the center of intellectual life, and despite San Antonio’s reputation as an artists’ haven, the pressure to conform could be oppressive. And there was the bigotry, as pervasive and acceptable as any in sixties-era Mississippi: the “Mexican” kids in my public elementary school somehow always ended up in the back of the classroom, silent and ignored.
For all these reasons, I came to feel, early on, that San Antonio was a place where nothing much was ever going to happen, especially to me. By the time I was eighteen it seemed a lot easier to live as a nostalgic exile than a restless, disappointed native daughter. My late mother, who lobbied for me to try Houston—it was booming, I had a job offer—certainly knew better than to try to get me to stay. Which is why, for nearly four decades, I have treated San Antonio with polite disinterest, like a distant family member who doesn’t demand much. For years, going home meant dragging my parents to El Mirador for sopa azteca on Saturdays and the roasted lamb plate at Liberty Bar on Sundays, then getting on I-10 and speeding right back to Houston, the real city.
I tell you all this because it is the easiest way to convey my shock and awe at the way San Antonio has changed over the past ten years. San Antonio’s population has boomed so much in that decade that it bounded ahead of Dallas to become the second-largest city in Texas and the seventh-largest in the U.S. It ranked first on the Milken Institute’s 2011 list of best-performing cities, a directory that rates job creation and sustainability in U.S. metropolitan areas, jumping thirteen spots up the list in one year to surpass, yes, Houston and Dallas. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s annual report named San Antonio one of the top 25 metro areas for tech-business growth from 2010 to 2011. Last fall, the New York Times, adding modifiers like “progressive” and “economically vibrant,” called San Antonio “a kind of Berkeley of the Southwest.” Southtown, the section of San Antonio that includes the King William Historic District, the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, and the neighborhoods between what was long a no-man’s-land between South Flores and South Presa streets, has evolved into an arts quarter that teems with seductive restaurants, shops, and bars. There are plans, finally, to turn the forgotten HemisFair Plaza into a sprawling, central city park. Northwest San Antonio, which twenty or so years ago was converted into an avoidable theme park mecca with the likes of Fiesta Texas, now feels like a rich enclave of Mexico City, with a Neiman’s and a Nordstrom. Lately, when I return home, I feel more and more like a South Texas version of Rip Van Winkle.
On one of those perfect San Antonio winter days—the sky crystalline, the breeze cool, the December temperature holding firm in the mid-seventies—I was scheduled for lunch with Julián Castro to discuss the changes in our mutual hometown. The mayor had chosen La Gloria, a newish restaurant that specializes in authentic Mexican street food, a cuisine that is now popular but for decades was neither available nor desired. La Gloria sits on the edge of the Pearl, a former brewery that, together with its adjacent buildings, has been converted into one of those fashionable low-rise, multi-use developments like West Ave in Houston or Uptown in Dallas. But since this is San Antonio, where the past