Place and Space in San Antonio

One of my first posts on this blog was an attempt at two projects which I have, since then, more or less neglected: to describe the West Side of San Antonio, where I live, and to keep my postings short!

The post in question highlighted one of my favorite murals on the West Side, an epic panorama entitled “8 Stages of the Life of a Chicana.” It comes to mind because I recently wrote to a friend expressing jealousy that she lives in New York City, where art cinemas, an opera and ballet, theaters, museums, and great architecture — in short, a world of culture — are all within reach. The same cannot be said anywhere near as enthusiastically about San Antonio, a sprawling postmodern fantasy of strip malls and interstates. As you cruise along the I-10, I-35, or 410 Loop, you are treated to endless reiterations of fast food joints, like base sequences on a DNA strand: Sonic, Luby’s, Sonic, Taco Cabana, Taco Cabana, Sonic, Wendy’s, Luby’s, Luby’s, Wendy’s, Taco Cabana. The famed Riverwalk has its beauty, but its loveliest spots are hard to find; most of it is a consumerist mishmash of kitsch, steakhouses, and Irish pubs. Its historical centerpiece, the Alamo, is a masterpiece of irony, both for how tiny it really is (earning it the distinction of “most disappointing tourist attraction ever” on a number of killjoy polls) and for its prominence as a symbol of all that is confused about Tex-Mex / Mexican-American historical identity. Jean Baudrillard, in a hardly unimpeachable study of America, explains the paradox in the book’s only paragraph concerning the city of San Antonio:

The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. But hard as those ancestors fought, the division of labour won out in the end. Today it is their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are there, on the same battlefield, to hymn the Americans who stole their lands. History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and work here.

Of course, I’m not sure that “ruse” and “cunning” are the best words to describe the United States’s illegal immigrants — even if “stupid” and “unwieldy” are the best words to describe the country’s current immigration laws. And while it is true that third-generation Mexican-Americans are often proud of their American identity, to the point of scorning and mocking those newly arrived and unable to speak English, I am also not sure how tenable this alliance will continue to be given the recent news-making passage of “the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law” in its recent history, SB 1070 in Arizona. Parishioners I know here at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church were up in arms against the law, and interest runs high in the immigrant-friendly “immigration academies” that many local churches — my own parish included — have begun hosting for their communities.

I cannot but remark that it is precisely the voices of the marginalized that have contributed to the most interesting and beautiful areas of San Antonio. The West Side blossoms with murals like the Chicana one to which I’ve linked, above. This is important to me, and provides the ammunition for a battle more pitched and complicated than may at first meet the eye.

The most difficult and intriguing argument I’ve heard for something like the “glory” of major Texas cities — whose paradigm, truthfully, is not San Antonio, but Dallas — comes from a Canadian-born, Texas-bred consultant to major oil companies whom I met at a French club meeting. I expected to find nothing but sympathetic liberals, eager to compliment me on my studies in Paris and my origins in a “cultured” American city like Boston, at this reunion (held at a French chain restaurant called La Madeleine. Is it less corporate if it has a French name?), a reunion of francophones whom my father would affectionately call “frogs.” (The word is grenouilles, Dad.)

Not so. This gregarious gentleman, a tall, broad-shouldered octogenarian whose arms moved spastically and whose lips trembled furiously with a perpetual tic, mumbled forth, in Canadian-accented French, a sweeping condemnation of the classical study of philosophy and of classical cities like Boston and Paris. “They’re out-of-date,” he argued. “We live in a world of information, not wisdom, and the smart and the powerful alike will want to live where information is if they are to survive in the twenty-first century. Even ethics takes its cue from informatics now. It is a foregone conclusion that people will continue developing bigger and better weapons and becoming better and better skilled at blowing each other up. The morality of war, the meaning of a ‘just’ war — these have become moot points. The ethicist’s function has been taken over by the engineer: it remains to us only to end wars swiftly, and the best way to do that is to develop the best tactical weapons and eliminate war’s messiness.” Self-righteously protesting that I, at least, was glad to have a philosopher-king, and a son of Chicago, as president — rather than an ignoramus like Bush (I was sputtering on my high-horse now) — did no good. “I’ve known Bush since he was this tall!” The consultant gestured towards his own waist. “And let me tell you something,” he said, leaning in closer, “it’s those who understand oil who are the real postmodern presidents.” I was floored. This was something I had never thought of before: to structure a defense of the cultural wasteland of Texas (whatever defense of the GOP that may or may not entail) as a defense of the postmodern.

I do wonder what this gentleman would have to say about the current disaster in the Gulf Coast, which threatens Texas itself: the other weekend, my housemates and I went to the beach in Galveston, whose waters may (or may not, depending on whom you ask) be un-swim-in-able by August. I wonder what he would say about the fact that in his Oval Office address yesterday, Obama — who may be an intellectual but who is not so averse, it must be said, to adopting a realpolitik-al approach to foreign affairs — had the wisdom not just to promise sound management of the Gulf crisis but to call us to ditch our dependence on oil.

Anyway, the man does still have an argument. One traditional antinomy at the center of the modernist-postmodernist debate is the distinction between place and space, and most contemporary postmodern arguments use laudatory catchwords like speed, freedom, and possibility to describe the postmodern emphasis on space in architecture and urban design. By way of an apologia for postmodernism, here is an extended citation of a thesis I wrote on the question back in college. To set the context, I’ve just spoken a bit about the Heideggerian notion that architecture provides a dwelling-place where we can rest safely, securely, and peacefully. Heidegger links the Old Saxon word wuon, meaning dwelling, to the later Gothic word wunian, meaning “to abide in peace.” He then notes that the German word of peace, Friede, means “the free.” It may have been Foucault, with his talk of the panopticon, who set the precedent for considering the fixed dwelling-place to be prison-like rather than freeing. Thinkers like Gilles Deleuze followed suit.

Deleuze speaks of a difference between what he terms “determined milieus” and “originary worlds”; these former emerge from the latter. Deleuze writes: “The originary world is thronged with grottoes and birds, but also with fortresses, helicopters, sculptures, statues; and we do not know if its canals are artificial or natural, lunar. Thus the originary world does not oppose Nature to the constructions of man: it is oblivious to this distinction, which is valid only in derived milieus.”

One might say that the very consideration of the distinction between nature and architecture is synonymous or synchronous with the derivation of milieus; the originary world is the “set which unites everything, not in an organization, but making all the parts converge,” linking everything like a law of logic. But the “geographical and historical” extension of the milieu, its specification, is its derivation; here it leaves the world of concepts, and becoming “immanent,” it “receives a temporality as destiny from the originary world.”

Insofar as I can tell, this extension is what makes place possible for Heidegger, who acknowledges the distinction between nature and building but does not consider them mutually exclusive. For Heidegger, building “gathers up the fourfold” ; that is, it tries to hold the natural elements together in a manmade place, and indeed, this unifying spirit is manifest in his examples of the Heidelberg bridge (in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”) and the temple in Paestum (in “The Origin of the Work of Art”), both of which exist peacefully alongside nature, glorying in it and glorifying it in turn. Our conventional appreciation of architecture from the age of antiquity corroborates the view that place results when architecture is imposed upon nature (whether violently or peacefully). Architecture is conceived of as a device of distinction, of differentiation; breaking up the “genuine deserts, virgin forests” of Nature that betoken the expanse of pure space.

But over time human beings have made known their presence on and mastery over the earth, so that undefiled natural landscapes are uncommon now. The postmodern landscape, a predominantly urban one, is the image of Baudrillard’s dystopia, in which architecture comes not to hew place out of space but to dissolve place back into space, space in the form of cyberdeserts and metal forests that all look exactly the same. The derived milieu continues to distinguish natural and built worlds but has by now correlated the desire to build with the desire to let loose the Heideggerian fourfold rather than to gather it, to homogenize all our places of habitation, to be free from what may be perceived as the constraints of dwelling.

Admittedly it requires quite a stretch of the imagination to accept that the creation of a skyscraper aesthetic, for instance, has been motivated by a desire for freedom from the constraints of place. There are countless other more cogent factors – economic, social, etc. – that have contributed to this development. But the fact that in the twentieth century there has been a trend toward associating space with freedom remains. This bursting at boundaries is a part of what Deleuze will term the crisis of modernity conventionally understood, though its association with freedom goes far to explain why his is not at all a reactionary or an alarmed vocabulary – why he casts the so-called “crisis” in the excited terms of possibility: “Any-space-whatever is not an abstract universal, in all times, in all places. It is a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations or the connection of its own parts, so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways. It is a space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible.”

One thinks, in a cynical mood, of the infinite linkages of fast-food restaurants up and down the Texas freeways. Any-hamburger-whatever: un Big Mac quelconque?

Rather than attempt a rebuttal of the postmodern attitude — or of my Canadian friend’s thesis — I’ll be content to describe those parts of San Antonio which have retained an old-world sense of place, in the hopes that their existential solaces will be self-evident. It must certainly be pointed out that while Texas is no Old Europe, Texas, there is another reality there besides the postmodern one.

For instance, Franciscan missionaries from Spain built San Antonio’s six mission churches, of which one is the Alamo and one of which was at some point destroyed. When we took the parish youth group on a field trip to one of the missions a few days ago, I told them that this was a building of which they could be proud; its historical and artistic merit came closest to rivaling that of some great churches of South America and Europe. Never mind that as you look out over the campus of San Jose Mission you can see a Pizza Hut sign rising up in the distance, beyond the Visitors’ Center — these buildings are refuges from the shallowest forms of Americana.

San Jose Mission

A steady wave of German immigrants arrived in this part of Texas a hundred years later, and their lasting legacy in San Antonio is the majestic King William’s district, home to fabulous nineteenth century bungalows and the city’s most distinct art galleries, which come alive on the First Friday of every month. Walking along these streets is most impressive at night, when the massive houses appear ghostly in the nocturnal gloom.

A typical nineteenth century home in the King William District

When you cross the Commerce Street Bridge heading west from downtown, you literally cross over onto the wrong side of the tracks: in your rear-view mirror is the San Antonio skyline, while underneath you are a set of railroad tracks, a homeless shelter, a prison, and a warren of bail bond stores. Ahead lies the West Side, a flat sea of roofs of housing projects. You are now two minutes away from our home and our church. When you descend into the barrio, the streetcorners come alive. Here are some photos I could have taken, except that I was too lazy…I found them online and am grateful to the photographers:

A typical West Side mural
A Mural to Peace

(This mural is a monument to peace. Off left, beyond the frame, each brick is painted a different color and inscribed with a different name. These are names of victims of violence, one for each year, and they represent everyone else killed in the barrio that year. Our priest, Father Marty Elsner, SJ, a West Side legend extensively involved in local activism and community organizing, gives the annual blessing of each newly inscribed brick. To laud the “sense of place” on the West Side is not to gloss over its many, and serious, problems. But of course, as many people are killed in the barren parking lots of highway fast-food joints as against the colorful walls of local taquerias.)

The biggest candle in the United States is on Guadalupe Street, two blocks down from the church. Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere on the West Side!
Plaza Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is visible at the end of the arcade. Pope John Paul II visited this plaza in 1987, and Obama spoke here during the election season.

The United States claims to be a melting pot, and so it is. America may be browning, but the contagion of consumerism threatens to melt everything into a bleak monoculture. A natural fear of things “alien,” and a hostility towards immigrants which is written into the law (“alien” is precisely a legal term), put pressure on immigrant communities to adapt, to let go of anything that will identify them as “foreign.” We might call this the Alamo Syndrome. Meanwhile, the arts suffer. Religious holidays are secularized, commercialized. Our paradigm for great literature has become Harry Potter. Even on First Friday, tourist kitsch is far more visible than authentic artistic production.

Art in the barrio, like life there, is not without its concessions to the postmodern. For one thing, it is largely political, but more pertinently, I am struck by images such as the “family dinner” scene in the Chicana series of murals. The flour tortillas set out before the children are probably handmade, but the bread and fish on the table are store-bought, and the father solemnly pours a Big Red soda into his cup. Still, the West Side remains a place where corner taquerias compete with fast food chains, where Spanish is spoken almost as frequently as English (though it takes the hybrid form of Tex-Mex), where religious rituals like las posadas and el Dia de los Muertos are alive and well and fascinating. (More fascinating, I should say, than the parades on the Fourth of July in which every float seems to have its advertisements and economic interests.)

I am not a sociologist, so I won’t attempt to take this primitive and belabored analysis any further. These are merely personal observations, and I’ll end with just one more. Last week, the parish threw a huge party in honor of, and thanksgiving for, the four Jesuits who staff the parish. (The Vatican declared the June 2009-June 2010 period a “Year for Priests.” Of course the festivities were diminished by global scandal, but this made it all the more important, I think, for our parish to give thanks for their excellent and attentive clerical staff.) The party was pure ecstasy. The food was amazing — mole and pico de gallo and cilantro sauce — a veritable who’s who of parishioners was represented in the chock-full parish hall, a live mariachi band gave everyone something to dance to (even the priests!), and las viejitas were crooning everything from Cucurrucucu Paloma to La Paloma. It was romantic, exhilarating, and wonderful.

I had two prevailing impressions. The first, and most immediate, was that it’s only a party like this that can help me to make sense of traditional Biblical representations of the Kingdom of Heaven as a banquet. The image usually seems custom-made for gluttons, but perhaps only a glutton would think of nothing but food in listening to Jesus’ parables. The fiesta last week was a celebration of community, and indeed presaged a heart-poundingly beautiful dream of Heaven: where everywhere you turn, you see people you know, laughter is on everyone’s lips, and there is no melancholy in moving to a new table because there is the sense that the party will never end, that there are only “see you soons” and never any “goodbyes.” Swept along for hours by a tide of friendly people, I felt wrapped in the arms of love, and my heart was brimming with love for everyone.

Yet ours is an ephemeral world. Parties do end, and so do eras: my second impression was that this gathering couldn’t have been as ecstatic, and — this is important — as capable of uniting the young and the old, if it weren’t deeply, profoundly nostalgic, if the participants weren’t subliminally aware that they were performing the magic, possible only on rare occasions, of resurrecting an epoch that had passed, lost songs and fading customs…if this celebration were not somehow a travail of the memory. This is another major characteristic of modernism; its name notwithstanding, it is haunted by the past, and place finds its analog and its ally in the moment, over and against spatial expansion and orientation towards a future possible.

Speaking personally, as I prepare to leave this place in August (and I have begun saying my long goodbyes already), I am beginning to feel really nostalgic. My nostalgia is for the West Side, but that kind of nostalgia is not as great as was my sentimentality towards the broad avenues and Haussmanian balconies of Paris, which I departed last year. My nostalgia is first and foremost towards the people — friends I’ve gotten to know well and neighbors I never had the chance to.

2 thoughts on “Place and Space in San Antonio

  1. Nicholas,

    I am not sure that your post has made me feel like going to visit San Antonio (!!!), but I enjoyed reading your lines, and particularly your last analysis and your handsome conclusion…no matter where we are or where we go next, it is not the place that really matters, it is first and foremost what one makes of it, and the memories gathered thanks to the people we meet.
    …those who have crossed your path are fortunate, you know.

  2. Pursuant to all this, here is a shameless plug!

    You may have heard that Pepsi, through its “Refresh Everything” Project, is giving away a few million dollars in grants over the next few months to fund independent projects with the potential to change their communities. One of the competitors in the 50K “Arts and Culture” category is a magnificent organization called “San Anto Cultural Arts,” whose headquarters is right down the street from my office. San Anto is most famous for funding the creation of the massive murals that give the West Side of San Antonio its flavor, but its unsung heroism is in offering classes and after-school activities for the underserved youth of our parish. Some of my students have benefited recently from its print journalism and photo classes, and in big ways — one of them, an 11-year old named Christopher, took a great picture which the San Antonio bus company has asked to purchase for use on the sides of its buses. You should hear Christopher tell you the story. He looks ready to explode from pride.

    San Anto would make a great recipient of the 50K grant. To win, it needs to be in the Top 10 on this website:

    If you would, please take a minute to vote. You get ten votes every day, which means that you can vote for San Anto every day, as well as nine others which you deem worthy. Thank you!!

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