Artist Anne Wallace brushes mineral oil on a concrete stamp held by her helpful friend Antwan Nicholson.
Just before the turn of the last century, artist Anne Wallace won a commission to embark on a years-long public art project exploring the rich history of Lavaca — San Antonio’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood.
However, that commission came with an unusual stipulation: her artwork needed to be integrated into the sidewalks.
Taking cues from Ed Gaida’s 1999 book Sidewalks of San Antonio
— a pictorial history that documents insignias left behind by concrete crews — Wallace set out to cement an enduring portrait of the neighborhood.
In search of stories that would illustrate Lavaca’s fascinating past lives, she conducted research at the Institute of Texan Cultures and the San Antonio Public Library’s Texana collection, combed through old city directories and Sanborn maps, attended neighborhood association meetings and spread the word organically. Her primary goal was to locate and interview residents with clear memories of how things once were — especially before urban renewal projects like the Victoria Courts and Hemisfair forced out ethnically diverse families and forever altered the flow between Lavaca and downtown San Antonio.
“I really wanted to find stories of people that remembered that far back,” Wallace said. “Little by little … I started finding people who’d been in the neighborhood a long time. … It was really amazing. The emotion of older people of the neighborhood getting cut off from downtown by Victoria Courts and by Hemisfair was pretty powerful. I got this real sense of this constant motion back and forth, where everyone in this part of town socialized downtown, shopped downtown, walked to events downtown, and that all just kind of got cut off by these urban renewal projects. Of course, the courts and Hemisfair razed big chunks of the neighborhood and forced all those people out.”
From the oral histories she collected, Wallace created The Unofficial Story
— a poignant collection of anecdotes she stamped into sidewalks that border the neighborhood’s quaint pocket parks.
Although visually unassuming, these curious slices of life can conjure vivid scenes: a family going to view Geronimo as he was being held as a prisoner of war at Fort Sam Houston; a San Antonio native whose grandfathers fought on opposing sides of the Mexican Revolution; oompah music filling the air; segregated dances being held at the Municipal Auditorium; a “block party” atmosphere shared by German, Hispanic, Czech and Jewish neighbors. Mentions of food also abound: beans, tamales, tortillas, oxtail, rabbit, squirrel, beef brains and scrambled eggs.
As complements to the anecdotes, Wallace created symbolic stamps to reference languages spoken in the neighborhood — Coahuiltecan, English, Spanish, German, Polish, Chinese — and the area’s use as croplands for the Alamo.
She also etched historic photographs into the concrete, including an exterior image of the Garden Fruit Store in the 1920s, a Mexican American family gathered around the dinner table in the 1930s and a man serving coffee at the Pig Stand in the 1950s.
Now two decades after The Unofficial Story
began taking shape, Wallace recently got her portable typesetting system back out to recreate a portion of the project that was destroyed when sidewalks were torn out as part of a condo development on Florida Street.
In addition to photographing the restoration process, we took the opportunity to speak to Wallace about the project’s enduring highlights and its unique ability to convey place and time.