Is San Antonio America’s Most Progressive City?

From Immigration to Education, My Hometown Is Paving the Way for the Future. But It Took Me Years to Realize It

When people ask me where I’m from, I say I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, but grew up in San Antonio. I start with Caracas because it’s an instant conversation starter, while the mention of San Antonio triggers a momentary lapse in discussion—as if I’m suddenly on a time-delayed satellite. The awkward silence is often followed by a tentative: “San Antonio, oh…”

As a famous American observer (Mark Twain or Will Rogers, depending on your source) once said, there are only “four unique cities in America: Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, and San Antonio,” but he must have said it an awfully long time ago. San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country, the fastest-growing among the top 10, but I don’t think there is another major U.S. city that conjures up such a blank slate of emotions and associations.

If you know only one thing about San Antonio, it’s probably the Alamo, but it’s hard for some to get too excited about a monument to a last stand. Even locals have mixed feelings about the Alamo. Better to dwell on other things. The Spurs are an easy rallying point. So is the River Walk, a network of walkways along the San Antonio River lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and other attractions. There’s native son Flaco Jiménez, a Grammy-award winning Tejano accordionist who was born here and calls San Anto home. We also claim one of the world’s largest Virgin Mary mosaics. But I know, I know. These hardly qualify as landmarks on par with the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, or the Hollywood sign.

There’s something about the pace of life and the city’s culture that makes it seem like a really big small town.

The truth is, I too used to feel underwhelmed about my hometown. Growing up in San Antonio, I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out. I lived in a suburban bubble on the city’s north side that felt oppressively boring. There were strip malls full of retail stores. There were dozens of gated communities with almost identical houses. There were good schools and churches.

There was no arts scene. No community “center.” I rarely saw people walking around, or riding bikes.

My parents moved us to that side of town in the mid ’90s because the real estate agent had told them that rest of San Antonio was battling a major gang problem. There was some truth to that, although I wonder today whether the problem blown out of proportion by someone looking to land a larger commission.

When relatives visited from Venezuela, we would pile into the car and head to Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas. (Ok, we have theme parks.) And then we would go downtown and drown in the heat as we strolled the River Walk or visited the Alamo.

Looking back, I felt as if San Antonio was boring because the sum of its parts was—when not stitched together—pretty homogenous. The north side was dull. The south side could be dangerous to those unfamiliar with where to go. Downtown was an abomination of underwhelming tourist traps. I knew nothing about the east or west sides.

Unlike some other major cities, San Antonio has always lacked a core that everyone is tapped into, or a matrix of public transportation connecting culturally diverse and historically distinct parts of town. People who grew up in one part of town rarely felt it was worth their while to venture beyond their immediate vicinity.

I went to college in Austin, a city where you could find people walking and biking for pleasure. A city where you could hear live music on almost every street corner and order a donut at 4 a.m. I moved to Chicago after graduation, until the end of a relationship sent me packing my bags for home in 2010. Mending a broken heart, I dove back into life here. I got a job at a nonprofit close to downtown and moved into a place within minutes of the San Antonio River—the part with fewer tourists and more wildflowers and bike paths. I started to appreciate the Tower of the Americas and the downtown skyline. I shopped at fruterías and met my neighbors. I walked to restaurants, read in parks, and used my Spanish. At night, I listened to the train pass by.

Slowly and then all at once, I discovered San Antonio. I fell in love with the city. I also fell in love with the freedom to define my hometown for myself, in the absence of some overpowering narrative of the place that we are all supposed to abide by.

I began to pay attention to what was happening around me. I got a job at the local newspaper as an editorial assistant and worked my way into the newsroom. I learned that the city was one of the fastest growing in the country. I watched as former Mayor Julián Castro launched his national political career. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the technology industry bloomed. Eagle Ford Shale, one of the nation’s most active oil and gas drilling areas, pumped billions into the local economy. In June, the city elected its first African-American mayor, Ivy Taylor, who is only the second woman to hold that office.

In 2011, the city began offering free exercise classes in a dozen parks, an effort that has flourished. Public housing developments in some parts of the city have started to integrate mixed-income residents as a way to give struggling families a road map to upward mobility. Schools here began experimenting with restorative discipline reforms that are helping more kids graduate—a model that could be emulated across the state.

The Spurs continue to make us really proud. We now have a legitimate culinary scene with diverse, affordable restaurants. Businesses are moving here, along with tens of thousands of people. San Antonio’s population is expected to double by 2040.

There’s something about the pace of life and the city’s culture that makes it seem like a really big small town. We should be heavyweights in our own right—we’re the second largest city in Texas behind Houston. We have a robust economy and are experimenting with progressive initiatives. Yet, we get left behind in name recognition and appeal, eclipsed even by other Texan cities like Austin and Dallas. Radio personality John Lisle once said that San Antonio is like the Barney Fife of metropolitan cities: “We have the gun, we just don’t have any bullets.”

The Dallas metropolitan area is actually far larger than ours: San Antonio ranks seventh among U.S. cities (second in Texas), but 25th among what the Census calls “metropolitan statistical areas.” Those differing measuring sticks (size is important in Texas) mirrors San Antonians’ ambivalence about our hometown. Josh Brodesky, a former colleague of mine at the San Antonio Express-News, points out that “we’re big, but we’re small.” He added “and we don’t want to be viewed as small, but we kind of don’t want to be big.” What really annoys us, if you want to know, is when The New York Times says that Austin has the best breakfast tacos. Give me a break.

San Antonio does know how to pay homage to its past, and has more of a past than any other Texan city. But we’re also a forward-looking city, and predominantly (almost two-thirds) Latino, mirroring what the rest of the nation will someday look like. We’re at the forefront of immigration, poverty, and education issues. People from across the country are looking at San Antonio and taking note of how we handle some of our toughest problems. An ambitious citywide preschool initiative and efforts to treat violence as a public health concern deserving of community intervention are becoming models for other cities to emulate.

Still, we San Antonians have a sense of humor about our city’s branding problem. Playing off of the “Keep Austin Weird” moniker, a local artist created the slogan “Keep San Antonio Lame” in 2004, with the “a” in “lame” being a picture of the Alamo. People went crazy for it, rallying around the slogan like a battle cry. It was easy to love. First, it was a slight jab at our self-consciously hip neighbors to the north. Second, it was a slight jab at ourselves, but also subversively deceptive.

We think our town is pretty special, but we aren’t going to lose any sleep if you don’t find that out for yourself.


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