Since I titled this post thusly, I sort of want to write the whole thing in ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS.
But I won’t.
I’m Sarah Fisch, a fresh out of the box Glasstire blogger. I’m obsessed with contemporary art, sharks, and Julie Andrews, I hate mayonnaise, I’m a born and bred San Antonian who spent six years in Austin at UT, then eight years in New York studying at the New School and writing kids books. I came back to my beloved, fucked-up mothertown of San Antonio three years ago, where I became the arts and culture writer for the San Antonio Current, and have written for Plaza de Armas (PDA), a new startup San Antonio-based news site.
An iteration of the essay below appeared on PDA’s Facebook page a while back before we had our actual site launched, and is now behind a paywall at PDA.
Here it is, though, free! And improved, actually. It’s directed towards my San Antonio homies, but describes a civic arts phenomenon to which y’all can all relate, I think.
San Antonio City Limits
During a 9 a.m. Wednesday editorial meeting at the San Antonio Current a few years ago, our then-newest investigative reporter, who also wrote about music, complained that he wanted to cover “jam bands in Austin.”
His declaration jolted me from coffee-slurping doldrums into eye-popping ultra-consciousness. After the meeting, I darted into editor Elaine Wolff’s office and shut the door behind me. She startled.
“Austin?” I hissed. “JAM BANDS!?”
The Current, then as now, maintains a tight focus on San Antonio, for reasons of legitimate local concern and pride. San Antonio boasts enough arts and culture of our own to cover (and that, barely adequately), plus Austin doesn’t need our help — the folks (including me) who make the drive up there regularly (damn you, dearth of light rail) in order to see shows, eat food, and visit friends, don’t rely on San Antonio media to get our 411. When San Antonio media does cover Austin, it’s largely the legislature we’re talking about — and even then, it’s sometimes AP coverage. This state of affairs reflects pretty much all media in San Antonio for the bulk of my lifetime wherein I’ve been paying attention.
And there’s a reason for it: San Antonio envies, is intimidated by, and resents the hell out of Austin. San Antonians bemoan Austin’s trendiness, expensiveness, whiteness, etc. It’s a different world up past Schertz. I’ve been involved in conversations with San Antonians who wish openly that they could launch a nuclear missile at Austin during SXSW. Our sour-grapes attitude resembles what I’ve seen of the UT-A&M football dynamic, wherein a whole lot of A&M’s year-round sports mythos and social culture revolves around “giggin'” UT, whereas UT — except leading up to game time— largely ignores A&M completely.
Now, in this football analogy, San Antonio is A&M. Only, we never get gametime. Austin pretty well ignores us altogether, year-round. Or it seems that way to us, anyway. Just look at last year’s Texas Monthly “Best Mexican Food in Texas” list. Note the relative lack of SA joints. And one of them is Rosario’s. I don’t hate Rosario’s, but c’mon. (Author’s tip for non-San Antonians: tacos at Taquería Datapoint, El Mirador for soup, Siete Mares for seafood).
I’ve often heard non-Texans describe Austin as the ONLY acceptable city in Texas — to visit, to live in, or to think about. To hear many of New Yorker friends tell it, Dallas is all big hair, Baptists, Republicans and bombastic TV, Houston is swampy sprawl and refineries (and, OK, the Geto Boys), San Antonio has the Alamo and may or may not be a dangerous border town in a desert, but Austin is a shining beacon of acceptably educated, enlightened hipsterism. Austin is the only Texas city that’d qualify for stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.
“Austin,” non-Texans will say, “isn’t even really like Texas!”
When I lived in New York, I felt insulted by this Austin dispensation (I heard it about Marfa too, sometimes). I’d priss all up and say, “There are some really smart people in San Antonio. There are incredible people fighting the good fight back home. And there’s terrific art, there’s an amazing 300-year history, the food is yummy, people are friendly to each other and not scenesterish, and you don’t have to be rich to become involved in the art scene, it’s incredibly DIY…”
They usually didn’t believe me.
But just this Fall, two inveterate New Yorker friends flew down to visit me and see the city. They ate enthusiastically, were wowed by art openings at Blue Star, Stella Haus and the Guadalupe Gallery. They tagged along with me to Magik Theatre for a photo shoot with a drag queen, some community organizers and activists and kids from the Eastside. They drank at Wolff’s tavern, oohed and ahhed over Southtown and the missions and the Museum Reach, made some friends here and shot a BB gun at local artist Beto Gonzales’s drum kit, and now they can’t wait to come back.
We are a semi-secretly fascinating city. The New York Times is kind of on to us, and sends travel and art writers down to scout SATX fairly regularly, but usually profile only the most obvious venues. We’re a tourist destination to the outside world… whereas Austin’s a serious culture and technology destination, an intellectual center, somewhere a person of either coast could imagine themselves living. Hell, it’s somewhere I lived for six years. And while I was there, I felt its superiority to San Antonio in my teenaged, punk-rock-aspirant, bookish, Ethiopian-food-loving bones. I assumed, both while in Austin and in New York, that I’d never come back to San Antonio.
But I did. And maybe you did too.
A friend of mine told me recently that a native San Antonian friend of hers, now living in Austin, referred to San Antonio as Austin’s fat poor dumb alcoholic older sister. I felt like I’d been slapped. If that’s what people from here think of us, then…? But some of my recoil arose from recognizing that I, partially and subconsciously, felt the same thing about us. Our high teenage pregnancy status, high poverty numbers, 25% illiteracy rate, they can get a writer down. As can our MEGA-EXTREME INSULARITY.
GOOD GOD, SAN ANTONIO. We are wayyyy too wrapped up in ourselves, as though we’ll just keep on defending the Alamo against interlopers forever. We’re suspicious of those recently arrived from California or the Midwest, dyed-in-the-plaid-wool ’09ers have never been to the neighborhood their cleaning lady lives in, Southtown artfolk decline to go farther North than Hildebrand. There are folks on the Westside who’ve never left Bexar County in their whole lives, while native San Antonians who can afford it venture forth for university or some other sophistication training, grab a mate and drag them bodily back to the 210, and then complain about the tourists clogging the Riverwalk.
As little attention as the outside world pays to us, seems like we could do a little more to make ourselves heard. We are the seventh largest city in the United States of America. We are one of the very largest majority-minority cities in a country whose demographics are changing rapidly. Three hundred years old, but we’re avant-garde, many decades before the American curve in terms of immigration, bilingualism, understanding the deeply American roots of Mexican-American culture, and the socioeconomic issues and effects of Mexican and Latin-American immigration. San Antonio’s fortunes have been forever tied closer to Mexico City than to Washington, D.C.
San Antonio finds ourselves in an odd position in 2010: We may be parochial, but we’re also international. This city has experienced and has insight into human, historical processes that largely terrify the rest of the DREAM Act-negating nation. So, San Antonio, we need to quit being those Darwinian finches who’ve been on their own little island so long that we’ve got weird beaks (perfect for opening ice-cold beers!), and join the national dialogue with a loud voice. Mayor Castro’s boosting San Antonio’s public image while helping his own political career, which is all to the good. Ambitious younger people need to see San Antonio as a place to launch themselves; our brain drain is very bad.
So, the image problem. I Googled San Antonio last summer to find out some public art-spending statistic, and the first ten results Google returned were news stories about a mentally ill woman who killed and consumed part of her newborn baby. And several of the datelines for these sensationalized, schadenfreude-infused stories weren’t even in San Antonio! It was Austin and Houston, even Dallas. The story reached as far as Australia and Hong Kong. We make national news for murders, flooding, drought, the Spurs, and as a quaint tourist town.
We’ve got 1.4 million people, people.
Some of our insularity problem is our physical remoteness — San Antonio is not even in “the flyover,” unless instead of going from NYC to LA, you were wingin’ it from New York to Chiapas.
Which is why we’ve got to get the chip off our collective shoulder about Austin, and about the outside world in general.
Austin may snub us somewhat, and plays a role in our massive collective inferiority complex and defensive insulation, but she’s also our closest metropolitan neighbor. We even used to have the same area code, remember? And she has national media connections, and money. But SATX media covers Austin like national media covers San Antonio. This seems to be changing, slowly; witness the SXSW musical spillover activity in San Anto in March, the inclusion of an all-Austin exhibition at the ONE9ZERO6 gallery.
The nut graf of this manifesto: San Antonio should, and could, work more collaboratively with Austin, Houston, Dallas, Del Rio, Laredo, Tyler. I’ve got friends all over the state — writers, artists, and musicians, mostly, but also biotech folk and such, who are really interested in San Antonio, but who have trouble navigating it. We tend to keep our hip spots and arts events too insular, and they don’t know how to get to us, to our galleries and eateries and the places we (and by “we” I mean San Antonio’s creative class, which is both rich and poor, is diverse and bilingual and really valuable) actually hang out. We have a tendency to go to Austin to see bands, but then we make our scenes obscure and, I’ll use the word again, defensive.
But we make great stuff! Sometimes even almost accidentally!
When the Current would cover Austin events, in particular, a portion of our San Antonio readership would freak out. And there’s something awesome in that: I love artist Aaron Forland’s semi-ironic “Keep San Antonio Lame” concept, in which he’s subtly praising and lambasting us for staying so true to our traditional, familial, sleepy, heavy metal loving, taco-eating unhip roots.
But the problem, say, with having a gallery show where only San Antonio artists show, is that it results in San Antonio being the only place San Antonio artists show. We should reach out to where there may be a buying market for the challenging, original art that San Antonio artists make…and then, both awesomely and unfortunately, trade with each other in payment for housework. San Antonio should reach out to other majority-minority cities, too, ones who may understand both the social problems we face, and the surprising and increasingly important culture that comes out of cities like us.
So let Austin be whiter, thinner, richer. And let’s invite them over to see how awesome it is to be fatter, browner, older, and funkier. We’ve got street cred and young talent and old soul. They’ve got brainy institutions and entrepreneurs and artists and art-lovers and media focus. They’re a pretty great city that could offer us valuable ideas. And we’re an amazing city with problems but tremendous potential, and that needs some boosting into the national radar. It’s pretty much all outlet malls and Applebees between us and the rest of the state physically anyway.
Glasstire is in the tough position of actually working towards this end; it alerts all Texans (and non-!) about the trends of subterranean art thought that run through this place, tries like hell to keep its eyes on the visual art endeavors of everywhere from Port Aransas to Amarillo, and it’s a great big goddamn job for a country-sized, amazingly diverse, and wildly creative state.
I’m right proud to be writing about my beloved and valuable hometown and our bookish sister to the North. I’m glad to be writing for a gutsy, award-winning publication. And I’m glad to know you. Get in touch.