San Antonio Has Long Sought to Advertise Its Way to Prosperity — and Failed

Courtesy of Heywood Sanders
Editor’s Note: The following is CityScrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.

Local lore has it that our “world’s fair,” HemisFair ’68, was key to making San Antonio a visitor destination — a kind of international coming-out party. The reality is rather different.  San Antonio has long sought to promote itself to prosperity, selling the rest of the country and the world a carefully crafted image of the pleasures of the city and the opportunities here.

A news item on the front page of the San Antonio Light in October 1907 announced that local newspaperman John Carrington would take charge of a new “publicity bureau” organized by the real estate committee of the Businessmen’s Club, the precursor to the Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the new organization was ensuring that “the advantages and opportunities of this city as a business and residential center are to be made known to the world.” Carrington’s job was not simply to advertise the city. It was, as he “made its name and fame known throughout the land,” to sell San Antonio land and property to outside investors.

Newspaper readers in Chicago were encouraged to “Come to sunny San Antonio, Texas and spend your winters out-of-doors, riding, driving, automobiling, playing golf, polo, or tennis, or hunting deer, wild turkey and quail.” The readers of the Buffalo Courier in February 1911 were told “It’s Summer in San Antonio,” where they could “Exchange winter bleakness for summer warmth,” and “Breathe our pure, dry ozone-bearing air” and “Italian skies.”

Des Moines area residents were told of “Tropical Luxury,” and informed that “San Antonio is admitted to be the very ideal of winter resorts — with its wealth of things to see and do, its almost perfect climate and its splendid fire proof hotels.” Yet another ad boasted “San Antonio the Beautiful,” and asked the Iowans: “Have you ever driven over the smoothest of roads, in beautiful tropical scenery, with the air just warm enough to be comfortable, just crisp enough to exhilarate?”

And if “Tropical Luxury,” “the smoothest of roads,” and “pure air” were not enough, Carrington and the publicity bureau could also boast to readers snowbound in Minneapolis of “the picturesque quaintness” of San Antonio’s “‘Spanish town’ with its odd, winding streets, its senoritas with their mantillas and their Mexican gallants, its old time water carriers — its peculiar people and their more peculiar ways … just one of scores of uncommon attractions San Antonio is waiting to show you.”

That the “odd, winding streets” were unpaved, the “old time water carriers” were still a vital necessity because the city’s water company was unwilling to extend service to poor neighborhoods and the quaint “Spanish town” was subject to devastating floods and the highest tuberculosis death rates in the nation were of little concern to the boosters of the publicity group. Their intent was to craft an image of a city that represented a solid investment opportunity — where “You may make judicious investments in the most rapidly growing city of the Southwest. …”

For the business leaders of early 20th-century San Antonio, the route to development and salvation lay outside the city limits, in somehow luring investors and their dollars from elsewhere. And, by boosting and promoting the city, they appear to have been convinced that growth itself would make the city great. In 1910, Carrington authored an article in a national journal for the advertising business on the city’s efforts, headlined “One Texas City Advertises Itself Into Prosperity.”

Today, generations later, we still look outside for prosperity, seeking to lure new residents, investment and jobs. Little matter that growing to become the seventh largest city has not necessarily developed our economy, or that a host of the firms lured here in previous years, from Datapoint and Golden Aluminum to Levi Strauss, Sony Microelectronics and AT&T, have long since left and taken their jobs with them.  Perhaps it’s time to actually build the kind of community that Carrington’s rhetoric promised over a century ago.

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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