Cityscrapes: Remembering SA’s scandalous past

San Antonio has a curious relationship with history. Of course we venerate the Alamo, the shrine of Texas liberty, and at least talk about enhancing its environs. We tout the missions, seeking to have them designated a UNESCO “World Heritage Site,” joining a list that includes Chartres Cathedral, the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. Our community is justly proud of the Paseo del Rio, and the farsighted business and civic leaders who made it a reality.

The “standard” narrative of San Antonio’s history portrays the heroism of the defenders of the Alamo, the commitment of those who built the Ursuline Academy (now more familiar as the site of the Southwest School of Art) and our religious and educational institutions, and the foresight of the leaders who brought a medical school to San Antonio and made Hemisfair ’68 a reality. That history is a tale of continued growth and development, of bold leadership and grand economic success.

But there is a very different historical reality to this city—a history that is at once far more colorful, diverse and complex than the standard tale of San Antonio’s success. Start with the colorful. Today, as we try to make Main Plaza downtown a lively, populated urban space, there is little recognition that the plaza was once a “rowdy meeting place,” surrounded by such distinguished establishments as the White Elephant Saloon and Gambling Hall, with the sumptuous Silver King saloon and gambling palace nearby on Military Plaza. That colorful history is rarely the subject of historical markers.

Where we recognize former mayors and political leaders with street names (Callaghan, McAllister), venues (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the Lila Cockrell Theater), or the occasional sports facility (Nelson Wolff Stadium), we don’t offer much recognition to those city leaders who, in 1889, passed a city ordinance officially defining a red light district on the west side of downtown, requiring that local madams pay a regular license fee of $500. With an economy oriented to serving the ranches and ranchers of South Texas as well as the soldiers at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio could boast of having its own 1911 Blue Book… For the Visitors, Tourists and those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio. The Blue Book neatly documented the offerings of the Big Four Saloon on Monterey Street, the Crystal Turf Exchange on Main Plaza (“If you want to make a bet on the races, they will accommodate you”), and a complete “Directory of Houses and Women,” neatly organized by class from “A” to “C.”

Nor is there any public commemoration of what the 1939 survey by the U.S. Public Health Service described as “Large slum districts of the city [that] are unsewered and are served by pit and many surface privies.” With the absence of modern sanitation and water, the result was tuberculosis death rates double those of Dallas and Houston, and about the highest in the nation. The city’s public health problem was not some unusual occurrence during the Great Depression. It was instead the result of the “economic position which the Latin Americans occupy,” magnified by what public health physicians termed the city’s “laissez faire” attitude and the poor quality of the city’s hospital and healthcare facilities. Indeed, as late as March 1951, a Look magazine article described San Antonio as having the “highest T. B. rate in the nation” and an infant diarrhea mortality rate “the highest in the country” as well.

The situation that Look portrayed was the conscious product of a local leadership far more interested in providing for a livestock show and rodeo—and keeping city and county taxes low—than in seeing that all parts of the city received water and sewer service. It was the product of local governments largely indifferent to the conditions and suffering of a large segment of their populace. That is a history we are unlikely to celebrate. But it’s a history that should not be forgotten or erased. That’s why it is essential to support and maintain institutions like the San Antonio Public Library’s Texana department, which recently escaped serious funding and staff cuts, to assure that future generations can understand the full story of San Antonio.

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