What we've come to call The Alamo, the Mission-style structure that originally served as the sanctuary of the compound and was altered to its present form in the years after the battle, looms so large as the symbol of Texas's origins that visitors expect a monument of Texas-size scale. As many attest, however, it's surprising to encounter a modest, even small, building in a relatively small park and adjacent plaza in the middle of downtown San Antonio. The shrine itself, off limits to photography, maintains a hushed reverence and aura. One afternoon, a tall older man, gaunt and pale, as if he long held a deep spiritual connection to this spot, stood in silence within the frame of an arched doorway, holding his cowboy hat reverently to his chest.
Immediately adjacent to the north and west of the shrine, the Long Barrack Museum exhibits the maps and artifacts relating to the history of the former Mission San Antonio de Valero and its subsequent military occupation. The names and home states of the heroes of the Alamo during its 13-day siege are inscribed on a wall-size plaque, and of interest to local readers, the names of six native New Yorkers may be found among them. * To its west, the large sales museum, built during the Texas Centennial of 1936, does a brisk business in all matter of Alamo items but especially the coonskin caps associated with the famous Tennessean (don't call him "Davy," we learned, that's a "Disneyfication"), David Crockett. Just to the south of the Shrine, the DRT (Daughters of the Republic of Texas) Library maintains books and records, including biographical folders on each of the defenders. The surrounding grounds within the walls contain verdant semi-tropical plantings as well as the Acequia, remnants of the Spanish irrigation system that now ripple along carrying an abundance of koi fish. Despite the many visitors, it's peaceful here.
At the end of the morning's commemoration ceremony, with the smell of musket powder still hanging in the air, the sunrise began to illuminate the landscape beyond Alamo Plaza. The town of approximately 2500 residents in 1836, multicultural even in its origins, faded into the present-day reality of modern San Antonio. To the south of the Alamo, the stately Menger Hotel, built in 1859, still reigns over its corner of E Crockett St. and Alamo Plaza. In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders in the hotel bar. To the north of the Alamo, the Emily Morgan Hotel is housed in the beautiful Gothic revival Medical Arts Building, constructed in 1924. The hotel is named for "The Yellow Rose of Texas," the woman of color who mythically bewitched Santa Anna while Sam Houston's army vanquished the Mexican army at the Battle of Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Across from the Alamo, a string of tourist attractions, the kind typical of a family-oriented destination, lines the street. In the middle, a set of stone steps curves down through a series of fountains to the door and then through the lobby of the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Hotel and then out to the bustling restaurant-lined River Walk, the city's central watery thoroughfare.
Pulling back to the widest angle, the Alamo sits in the middle of a booming contemporary metropolis of 1.33 million people, according to the most recent census figures, constituting the third fastest growing city in the United States after Los Angeles and New York. (source: City Mayors) San Antonio has just passed Dallas as the second largest city in Texas, with Houston still in first position. (source: San Antonio Business Journal). Sixty-three percent of the city's population is now Hispanic, including descendants of multigenerational Texas families that can trace their heritage to the Spanish Texas era before the Alamo as well as those whose families came from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The city's population overall is highly heterogeneous and complex, accounting for a variety of values and opinions. Geographically, the city serves as a gateway city between north and south, east and west. The city thrives on a diversified economy, powered by the health care industry and tourism, and San Antonio serves as home to many active and retired military. Oil plays a part. Valero Energy Corp. (VLO), based in the city, is the largest oil refinery in the United States.
How will the city cope with its dazzling growth? The answer is unfolding. That's why it's important to watch San Antonio. Angelenos and New Yorkers need to check out the competition.
Visit San Antonio.
Also read In San Antonio: Stories of Remembrance and Reclamation, Part II. Reclaiming the River. The city is looking back to the natural feature that inspired the settlement in the first place, the San Antonio River, and expanding the River Walk north and south. Read Walking Off the Big Apple's 25 Great Things To Do in San Antonio. There's a Texas-size prize giveaway on these pages.
* The following Alamo defenders came from New York City or New York State: Robert Cunningham (Ontario County) Lewis Dewall (New York City, a mason who worked as a boatman on the East River, lived at 51 Lewis Street, long demolished, would be under the Williamsburg Bridge), Samuel B. Evans (Jefferson County), John H. Forsyth (Avon), John Jones (New York City), and James Tylee (New York City). Source: The Handbook of Texas Online. Thanks to the staff of the DRT Library for their help in this research.
Disclosure and notes: During my stay, I was the guest of San Antonio's Convention and Visitors Bureau, and I thank them for their hospitality and for the chance to share the city with readers of Walking Off the Big Apple. Observations and opinions expressed in this series are my own. I am a fifth-generation Texan, on my mother's side, but my ancestors in East Texas stayed far away from the Alamo. I now live on the island of Manhattan.
Images above by Walking Off the Big Apple, March 3-6, 2011.