Taking it to the streets

Trinity professor and author Char Miller stands in front of the skyline that continues to inspire his investigations into culture, economy, and environment in South Texas. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Char Miller's blend of academics and activism finds the perfect vehicle

Char Miller is a dangerous man. Probably the most dangerous professor in town, which is no small claim to make in a city that once sported the St. Mary's University axis of lefty academics: Charlie Cotrell, known to have driven cross-country in a Volkswagen, Che Guevara fan Henry Flores, and Nef Garcia, who left his perch in the ivory tower to actually work in politics.

Miller has become so ubiquitous (he recently referred to himself with characteristic self-deprecation as a "media whore") and so universally respected, that it's easy to forget he's a bona fide progressive. Or perhaps it's just that we think of him as our progressive. But Miller is in favor of spending more money on education ("I think San Antonians, rich and poor, have been undereducated"), he's suspicious of developers (the business community likes a weak council, he says, "because they can influence policy making through staff and they don't have to deal with council"), and he's ambivalent about cars (" ... in postmillennial San Antonio, which is utterly dependent on the automobile ... we daily flee the very human set of interactions that once made this community so livable"). Now he has his own printing press in the Trinity University Press, which this fall is coming out with a collection of his essays, Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas. As students of history can tell you -Miller is a professor of economic, social, and environmental history at Trinity where he recently chaired the History and Urban Studies programs - Gutenberg's invention set in motion a cultural revolution that is still underway, taking knowledge and information out of the exclusive control of the elites and putting it in the hands of the common people.

Miller is interested in doing much the same thing with his writing, moving it out of the academic journals and into the hands of citizens. "What I wanted to do was write a book that spoke to my very deep needs and interests about this community, but which I hoped could talk to neighborhood associations, could talk to the City Council, could speak to power brokers of one kind or another, and not necessarily convince them, but raise issues." It's no coincidence, it seems, that Miller chaired the search committee that hired Trinity University Press Director Barbara Ras. "Part of the press' mission is to find really high quality books that speak directly to the experiences of people in this region," Miller says, "and in that process generate and sustain a kind of intellectual life that hasn't been happening." Or has been happening in small pockets. The press' first run of titles also includes Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, a collection of articles from the state's journal of progressive and radical politics, edited by Miller.

"The unstated purpose of the book is to make this a better city. And I think the best way to do that is not so much tough love, although there is some of that, but criticism helps us get better."

— Char Miller
Miller has written for the Observer, as well as the San Antonio Express-News and the Current, since the '80s, when he says, working on a biography of National Forest Service chief (and Republican governor of Pennsylvania) Gifford Pinchot changed his thinking about activism. "Growing up in the late '60s, early 1970s, the notion that political reform was glacial was not only second nature, it was the thing to be despised," Miller recalls. "You hung out on the deepest of margins, the farthest away you could because that was the only moral position to take."

As a young man he participated in protests in New York City, at one point ending up in the gutter with a police officer on top of him. Miller, whose wide and varied ruminations are always anchored in some fashion in the environment, was more of a John Muir environmentalist back then. But as he studied and wrote about Pinchot, he became less enamored of Muir because "`Muir` never in effect put himself in a position where he would find himself a loser." Pinchot, on the other hand, preached that politics is as much about losing as winning. "As a Democrat in the early 21st century, that's a language that I thoroughly understand." Miller laughs at the irony. "Victory is temporary, if you even get it. But you fight anyway."

Miller is a merry soldier. His blue eyes light up at the mention of almost any subject and his posture is one of continual engagement. His voice moves up from his diaphragm and when he's particularly animated it seems to get stuck in his long neck, making it come out at a slightly higher decibel, like an excited kid. And he is an excited kid when it comes to San Antonio with whose "quaint charm and exotic feel" he is endlessly enamored even as he notes in the introduction to Deep in the Heart that, "These comforting sentiments allow us to ignore pressing cultural concerns, environmental problems, and social tensions."

Deep in the Heart of San Antonio:
Land and Life in South Texas

By Char Miller
Trinity University Press
$18.95, 192 pages
ISBN: 1595340076
Miller was an East Coast transplant in the early '80s, and his growing interest in environmental and urban studies was stimulated by his fascination with San Antonio's many puzzles: Why is it one of the poorest of the nation's major cities? Why was it built in a flood plain that exposed it to disastrous flooding? Why does it have a weak mayor and city council? Under the tutelage of Pinchot's spirit and UTSA professor Heywood Sanders, Miller again began taking it to the streets ("one of the way academics do this, for better or worse," he says, "is through op-ed pieces and the like"). As it turned out, he's a natural; an amiable, entertaining, and informative provocateur. "The unstated purpose of the book is to make this a better city," he admits, a goal that applies to his writing in general. "And I think the best way to do that is not so much tough love, although there is some of that, but criticism helps us get better. I'm convinced of that."

Miller happily works within the system now, but he enjoys being a "lightning rod." As the Forest Service's Centennial Lecturer, he will spend this year on sabbatical speaking in some of the nation's environmental hot spots, where the logging industry and activists regularly face off steel-toe-boot to Birkenstock. Visiting locations in Montana and California raises the spectre of Judi Bari, the legendary Earth First! activist who could "slide through these different social strata and articulate the commonalities that lie between them." Like Pinchot, Miller says, "that's what makes them dangerous." If Miller doesn't feel he's capable of that level of communication yet, he aspires to it.

"Every attack is an opportunity," he says, quoting Bill Clinton. "You have to go back with a hammer and you smack them as hard, if not harder, than they've hit you." Or maybe you use a printing press. •

By Elaine Wolff


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.