THE ARMY'S BERLIN WALL 

 
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Local shopkeepers along New Braunfels Avenue at Grayson Street plea for help for their ailing businesses resulting from the closure of Fort Sam Houston's east gate after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Fort Sam Houston gate closing threatens businesses

East Germany closed its border and built the Berlin Wall from concrete and barbed wire on August 13, 1961. The U.S. Army closed its border and two access gates along New Braunfels Avenue with razor wire and concrete barriers on Sept. 12, 2001.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in which he said "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Two years later, East Germany opened its borders and the Berlin Wall was dismantled.

Only the future knows if the U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston will respond to a similar plea from local businesses on Government Hill to open the gate and tear down the barricades.

About 80 protesters gathered in front of the main gate to Fort Sam Houston at New Braunfels Avenue and Grayson Street on Saturday, July 12, to send a message to the Army's top guns - and ultimately to the commander-in-chief, George W. Bush: "We are not the enemy. Open the Fort Sam Houston gate."

Meanwhile, a white van with darkened windows sat ominously inside the fence on the base. If indeed Homeland Security agents were filming the gathering of "citizen terrorists," they saw children chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho the Fort Sam gate has to go," and read signs that said "God bless America, open the gate," or "We want to be all that we can be, open the gate."

Residents and business owners are understandably impatient with the U.S. Army, which has been mute about its decision - made by a local top brass - to cut off access to the north-south thoroughfare. This action came after the city spent millions of dollars purchasing old buildings near the corner of New Braunfels and Grayson, refurbishing them and reselling them for private use. The city also upgraded the roadways and installed pedestrian-friendly curbs and sidewalks. Gone were the drug dealers and prostitutes.

The gate's closing is threatening the economic vitality of local businesses to the tune of an estimated $40 million in lost revenue. About 50 jobs in the immediate area of the gate disappeared after September 11 paranoia set in at Fort Sam and military officials closed the gates.

Richard Leal opened Atlas Body Shop on Government Hill in 1971. He said that before New Braunfels Avenue was choked off by the Army's impasse, the city's traffic count was as high as 16,000 automobiles (including VIA buses) per day. That count has trickled to about 100 cars per day.

 
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Photo by Mark Greenberg
Kent Niemann, principal architect of Pfluger & Associates, has used his Government Hill-area firm's resources to design plans that would allow New Braunfels Avenue to be reopened, and at the same time provide a way for Army generals and their families to travel from the eastern part of the base to the west end, where their opulent homes are located. The Army rejected his first proposal, but Niemann came up with a second option, and is working on a third in case the Army remains obstinate about the closed gates. "If I could come up with a plan and show how it would work, why not?" Niemann said recently. "It's a fight for these (business) folks. And it needs to be. This is like cutting a major artery in your arm."

Phil Reidinger, public affairs officer at Fort Sam Houston said "the Army made the commitment that we would review any recommendations or suggestions by the community, and we are proceeding to analyze the recommendation and provide a response." Reidinger added that the Army would tell the neighborhood of its decision by early August.

Tito Curel, owner of Two Peppers Restaurant at 1917 N. New Braunfels, shook the chain link fence that serves as Fort Sam Houston's security fence, and said the community supports the U.S. Army, but expects a reciprocal relationship. "We don't have problems with them, but at night this street is a dead end, with no traffic or business from Fort Sam." He said his business has dropped off more than 50 percent since the base was barricaded.

The U.S. Army wants to permanently close its gates and has asked city officials to deed the right of way to the military.

Diane Smilgen, a leading proponent of opening the two gates, said she is researching documentation that would show the Army has wrongfully closed the gates. One is a county deed restriction from when the time the base was created that required the streets to remain open. She also believes that when the Brackenridge family donated property to the government for the base to be built, it was stipulated that the base would remain open to the public.

 
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Five-year-old Crystal Ray giggles as her mother Yvonne brushes her hair before taking her first customer of the day. Ray - owner of Anointed Hands Hair & Nail - opened her business three years ago near the east gate of Fort Sam Houston on New Braunfels Avenue. Since the post 9-11 closure of the gate, Ray has seen her business slump considerably. What once was a business with eight employees is now down to two. Photo by Mark Greenberg
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Flowers v. the United States recognized the public persona of Fort Sam Houston, calling it "an open post; the street, New Braunfels Avenue, was a completely open street," and that "the street is an important artery." The case dealt with a local man who was arrested by military police after quietly distributing leaflets within Fort Sam Houston boundaries - then open to the public.

Smilgen and other concerned residents contend that Mayor Ed Garza should stand up to the U.S. Army and take back what rightfully belongs to the city.

In other words, if Mayor Garza had enough cojones to take on the nation's war machine, he could drive a large bulldozer through the gates and smash the Fort Sam Wall, and nobody could stop him.

It's not such a far-fetched idea. Remember Ben Milam, who said "who will follow Old Ben Milam" before he led a charge of local malcontents against a Mexican garrison posted at the Alamo in the early 1800s. Who will follow Mayor Ed Garza into Fort Sam Houston? •

More by Michael Cary

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