San Antonio Rose
I used to think my hometown was a sleepy, slow-moving place where nothing much would ever happen. But forty years after I left, the city is a bustling, economically vibrant, progressive place I hardly recognize—in a good way.
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 is never past, the brewery itself is being restored and repurposed as a luxury hotel. An old stable on the property has been restored and repurposed to serve as a special-events venue. The old can factory on the same parcel has been restored and repurposed for loft-like apartments. There are hip, local-centric stores, top-notch restaurants, a yoga/Nia studio, cool rental bikes waiting attentively in their racks, and smart, native landscaping everywhere you look.
This scene would undoubtedly charm most people. But like anyone raised in San Antonio when it was smaller and more insular—and like anyone, willing or not, who was raised with its passion for the past—I am often distracted by what used to be instead of what is. Waiting for the mayor, for instance, I recalled that the landscaping along the river beside La Gloria was fashioned as a memorial to the late child of a late acquaintance, whose own life, despite great wealth, was never any picnic. Turning my gaze from the river to the brewery, I remembered that I used to take sips of real Pearl beer there when I was a little girl, long before local beers were trendy. My grandmother’s maid, Katy Steiger, used to take me with her when she’d go to meet other German immigrants on her day off; the brewery offered the comforts of home while initiating newcomers to the Texas way of combining serious drinking with serious shooting. The walls here were covered with big-game trophies taken from all over the world by, I think, some head of the brewery. When we were tired of the Pearl, Katy and I went to the Lone Star Brewery, which featured even more taxidermy at the Buckhorn Saloon Hall of Horns (the two-headed calf was my favorite).
In other words, by the time Castro walked into La Gloria, I had traveled back to 1962, where I was alternately sampling beer and trying to stroke the trunk of a giant stuffed elephant overhead. I barely made it back to 2012 in time to shake his hand.
Suddenly, I was face to face with modern San Antonio. Castro, at 38, is a small man, with a round, open face, and even in a nicely cut suit, he looks ten years younger. As he must know, it is impossible for people of a certain age—like me—to avoid comparisons to Henry Cisneros, San Antonio’s previous celebrity mayor, who served from 1981 to 1989. I met Cisneros sometime in 1987, and what I remember most is the way people gawked or reached out to touch him when he walked into a room, I think to see if he was real (this was before he was brought down by a benighted extramarital affair). By contrast, Castro entered the restaurant virtually undetected, except for our very anxious waitress. He is enormously popular in the city, and following his role as keynote speaker at last year’s Democratic National Convention, he is increasingly well-known nationally, but people in San Antonio aren’t bowled over anymore by a famous Latino mayor.
“San Antonio represents the new face of the American dream,” Castro told me, settling into a seat in the sun. He ticked off the city’s current assets matter-of-factly: the robust, diversified economy; the health care opportunities provided by its ever-expanding medical institutions; the young population (“We have more college students than anywhere in Texas but Houston,” Castro noted); the second-largest University of Texas campus; a second Texas A&M campus; the country’s largest new military medical complex. “The demography, the economy, and the pragmatism here represent the Texas of the future,” Castro insisted. The battles for ethnic equality, he said, were fought here a long time ago. “There’s an equipoise here in terms of the different groups, a kind of balance.”
In fact, there are fewer and fewer people who recall how difficult San Antonio’s growing pains were. I was a teenager in 1970 when NBC focused on San Antonio’s abysmal poverty in a report on hunger in America. The story was a turning point in the life of the city because it shined such a powerful light on what was then the status quo: families like mine had maids who may or may not have been legal immigrants, whom we drove home down caliche roads to tiny, listing frame houses that may or may not have had electricity or running water. It was accepted because it was the way it had always been. At that time, the most common work for Mexicans—that’s what they were called, even if their families had lived in Texas since the nineteenth century—was as maids or yardmen. It was very hard for minority kids to get any sort of leg up: as late as 1989 the poorest school district, Edgewood, had $2,900 to spend annually per student, while Alamo Heights School District had $7,200, even though the former was taxed at a higher rate. This is why, decades after graduating from Alamo Heights, I still answer with a hint of shame when people ask where I went to school.
Castro grew up poorer than Cisneros, whose family is descended from Mexican aristocracy, but he and his twin brother, Joaquín (who was sworn in last month as a U.S. congressman), had ringside seats for San Antonio’s fierce civil rights battles; their mother, Rosie, was one of the most vocal activists for Latino rights. Thanks to her and others like her—and some pretty substantial demographic shifts in town—the last decades of the twentieth century saw growing numbers of San Antonio’s Latinos finally heading for Ivy League schools and living in big homes in pricey north side neighborhoods. By the mid-nineties, the Anglo power structure was crumbling as old-line leaders were forced to admit that the world of San Antonio could turn just fine on its axis when run by Latino doctors, lawyers, teachers, and politicians. When I asked Castro how his San Antonio childhood differed from that of older Latinos, he winced just slightly before saying, “There was a significant difference. You could see somebody like you who was doing great things.” Cisneros had a vestigial eagerness to please his Anglo constituents; Castro, who got his BA at Stanford and a law degree from Harvard, has an ease with himself and others his predecessors could only dream of.
Yet Castro knows that if he doesn’t make big changes in San Antonio, his political ambitions will come to nothing. For decades, the city owed its healthy economy to a seemingly infinite supply of cheap labor. Now the companies here—like companies in all of Texas’s major cities—can’t find workers ready for twenty-first-century jobs. (A mere mention of the call centers that once passed for vibrant new business here can make Castro’s irises darken and his nostrils flare.) For this reason, Castro risked some of his valuable political capital last year by pushing for a small tax increase to fund broad-based pre-K in San Antonio (research shows unequivocally that it’s easier to keep kids on track if they never fall behind in the first place). That victory last November could prove pivotal for the city’s future. “We need education and innovation,” Castro explained. “It worked for Houston in the twentieth century.” The only time Castro let an edge creep into his voice was when he noted that these changes were needed to help Latinos who continue to lag in terms of “wealth creation.”
As we were leaving La Gloria, a tall, thin, young Anglo, also in a good pinstriped suit, waved to Castro from the parking lot. He looked to me, as did so many people I’d gone to high school with, like one of those handsome, well-tended boys whose futures were set before they were born. I figured he was going back downtown to a law office or a bank. “He’s going to work for my brother in D.C.,” Castro told me, giving me the biggest grin of the day.
One of the most exciting things to happen in San Antonio when I was little was the construction, in 1964, of the Sky Ride in Brackenridge Park. By then the park proper bored me—I had exhausted the zoo and the Brackenridge Eagle train, and I was too young to appreciate the stolid elegance of the buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The Sky Ride seemed impossibly modern to my ten-year-old sensibilities, especially when the gondolas lifted me high into the air on a slow, creaking wire until I could see the limitless horizon just beyond the city skyline.
I had forgotten about the Sky Ride completely—it was closed in 2002—until I went to visit Rackspace, the $1.1 billion company that is currently the most talked-about business in town. Located in, yes, a repurposed north side shopping mall, Rackspace is essentially a souped-up IT service, providing companies around the world with everything from web hosting to cloud computing. Visiting the headquarters can feel a lot like journeying to Seattle or, uh, Austin, with battalions of food trucks parked out front, dozens of multiethnic employees in jeans and fleece, miles of open cubicles delineated by the names of breakfast cereals and game shows, and a coffee bar serving locally roasted product. On a tour, I noticed some brightly colored metal structures used as funky “conversation pods.” They were the gondolas from the old Sky Ride.
“The city is becoming indistinguishable from what it was,” Rackspace’s CEO, Graham Weston, told me. Tall and blond, bespectacled and very pale—his ancestry is genuinely Anglo, as in England—Weston, age 48, is a San Antonio native and an Aggie. His name is spoken around town in the same reverent tones as Castro’s, which makes sense, because his company now has close to 200,000 customers globally and 4,100 employees, and Weston is a billionaire. Much has been made of the fact that he lives with his wife and children in a double-wide trailer on the Guadalupe River. Weston met me in a small meeting room with a jumbo-sized computer screen on the wall and a desk made of whiteboard. He wrote on it frequently.
Weston’s other space—at Geekdom, an ideas incubator located downtown—was once the office of the most powerful attorney in town, Wilbur Matthews, who served afternoon tea on a silver service well into the nineties. It is impossible to imagine the assiduously casual Weston doing anything like that, much less serving as King Antonio, dressed in the Texas Cavaliers’ powder-blue military-style jacket and plumed hat, handing out play money to poor children on the West Side, like the city fathers of old used to do. Weston’s company, after all, fired a client after its leadership decided to burn Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11.
It’s easy to see the economic surge that’s benefiting both Castro and Weston as a kind of perfect storm. A lot of San Antonio’s success is due to its long-standing relationship with the federal government, which always kept the city relatively recession-proof. Even when military bases were closed or combined in the past few decades, civilian aircraft maintenance and cyber-security companies moved in to take up the slack. Then, too, military medicine teamed up with the civilian variety, which was already thriving thanks to Cisneros’s ability to lure biomed companies. Fort Sam Houston, for instance, recently got $2.2 billion from the government to build the country’s largest medical training center for the military. The city’s obsessive commitment to conservation and preservation, once so derided, now looks prescient: when AT&T left town for the Dallas area, for instance, San Antonio “barely missed a beat,” Weston said, because so many of its executives and employees chose to stay—they liked the quality of life here. San Antonio is also the closest big city to the Eagle Ford play, which, thanks to enormous oil and gas finds courtesy of fracking technology, means that companies like Weatherford and Halliburton are starting to build or buy a lot of office space in town. The proximity to Austin’s tech businesses also makes for useful synergy. The two cities would already be one, Weston assured me, if plans for an Austin–San Antonio regional airport had ever gotten off the ground.
Finally, there has been a change in local philanthropy—it’s become local. In the old days, many of San Antonio’s wealthiest citizens tended to send their money elsewhere. Weston, for one, keeps his money here—not just by adopting the high school next to Rackspace but by forming a public-private consortium of San Antonio’s leaders to redevelop downtown and beyond. The goal is to draw workers from outside San Antonio while keeping locals from leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
I guess that might have been me. Listening to Weston’s descriptions of San Antonio’s future, I could envision a place for myself here, or, maybe, a place for my 21-year-old son, an irony that was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that much of what I heard took me back to Houston circa 1976, when the whole world seemed to be beating a path to its door. I’ve learned since then that a lot can happen to a city with promise to make it less promising: the most creative politicians can move on, leaving work unfinished; technological changes can render what was once so new obsolete; a shift on the other side of the world can bring on fiscal crises here. Then too, a headlong push forward can sometimes leave a lot of people behind. But San Antonio has always been slow to change, and while that characteristic has historically been both a blessing and a curse, such care and thoughtfulness might now spare it some of the problems other Texas cities have ignored at their peril.
Sometimes, no change is still the best change. A few weeks ago, my dad and his girlfriend—yes, both repurposed in their eighties—took me to a restaurant in Alamo Heights called Bird Bakery. It was a lovely sandwich shop: locally roasted coffee, gluten-free options, and so on. My dad mentioned that the place was run by “some Hollywood people.”
“Who?” I demanded, curious to know who would leave Los Angeles to serve lunch in San Antonio.
My dad didn’t know. I asked his girlfriend, Pat; she didn’t know either. “Just some Hollywood people,” she said, dismissing them with a wave of her hand as she bit into her sandwich.
I couldn’t stand it, so I got up to ask the cashier about the owners. She handed me an article about Elizabeth Chambers, an actress lately of L.A. but originally from an old San Antonio family, who had moved back with her husband, Armie Hammer, who starred as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and as Clyde Tolson in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
It was nice to be home again.