AmWest Post #11: San Antonio as Western City

Throughout our Western history class, I’ve been pondering the question of Texas as a Western versus Southern state. Overall I agree with the assessment of historian Randolph Campbell that the state is more Southern because the bulk of the population lives in the portions that would generally be classified as Southern geographically, climatologically and politically. Its political history has tended to align with that of the South. As Michael Bottoms noted when I posted the above-linked interview with Campbell on Facebook, Texas was never a territory, and slavery and Reconstruction formed the state’s “defining relationship with the national government.”

So I’ll buy that we should classify Texas as a Southern state. But as Campbell notes, a large part of Texas’s landmass (just not where its population lives) is Western in character. So where does my hometown of San Antonio fit into that divide? That question popped into my mind as I read John M. Findlay’s “Far Western Cityscapes and American Culture Since 1940” (The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1 [Feb., 1991], pp. 19-43). So in this post, I’m going to muse on the idea that although Texas may be more of a Southern state, San Antonio, its second-largest city and third-largest metropolitan area, is Western in character. (I say “muse on” rather than argue, though, because I’m formulating some thoughts here rather than a cohesive argument.)

San Antonio makes its way into Findlay’s article with a mention of its 1968 World’s Fair, dubbed Hemisfair, as one of a series of three World’s Fairs in Western cities (the other two being Seattle in 1962 and Spokane in 1974) that, according to Findlay, redefined the genre from large fairs like that of New York in 1964. But many of the patterns he mentions, even though pioneered in other places, helped define the character of San Antonio.

Most of San Antonio’s population growth came after World War II; the city’s population grew from 253,854 in 1940 to 1,327,407 in 2010. Much of that growth came, as Findlay discusses being characteristic of conscious choices of Western cities, through suburban sprawl (although there have been efforts to revitalize downtown and promote a dense urban core recently). The Stanford industrial park example that Findlay cites is similar to what has happened in San Antonio, where a large number of sprawling industrial campuses have proliferated, particularly near the University of Texas at San Antonio. UTSA is itself located far from downtown, so much so that when it was first started, some called it “UT Boerne” (Boerne being the seat of the next county over).

This pattern of population growth, however, has not been distinctive to the West. Indeed, Findlay even says that the precedents and patterns he identifies as Western spread by 1970; even Arlington, Virginia (where I now live) adopted Phoenix’s decentered urban village model. Other cities, such as Atlanta, grew much the same way as San Antonio did after World War II–and it’d be hard to find anyone who would call Atlanta Western.

This points to a question at which Findlay hinted but on which he didn’t elaborate: Western versus Sunbelt. Do the patterns he identify as distinguishing Western cities also apply to “Sunbelt” cities? Or did Western cities pioneer what became arguably the Sunbelt pattern of development? I think Findlay would argue so, but I would love to see different arguments.

So Findlay’s definition of Western cities is not why I’d suggest that San Antonio is more Western than Southern. Rather, San Antonio is, in my opinion, more Western than Southern by other definitions that we’ve discussed in our semester:

  • It lies just west of the 98th meridian (98 degrees, 30 minutes west, to be exact).
  • Although its average annual rainfall is above the 25 inches per year that others have noted makes agriculture near impossible,  San Antonio has had difficulty with water supply because of frequent droughts. This makes it like most areas defined as Western, rather than Southern.
  • From the time of its annexation into the United States, San Antonio has been defined by more ethnic diversity than a black-white divide. Its history of ethnic relations has been more based on a broad range of ethnicities–not as broad as the range Bottoms discusses in An Aristocracy of Color, though, and still in a once-segregated Southern state. In fact, white Texans segregated both African American Texans and Hispanic Texans. (Two great books on ethnic relations in South Texas, by the way, are David Montejano‘s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas and Laura Hernández Ehrisman‘s Inventing the Fiesta City. Much of my understanding of the city’s ethnic relations comes from these books.)
  • Along those lines, the famous U.S. Census map of the distribution of the enslaved population in 1860 shows a sharp cutoff just east of San Antonio. Although 9.6 percent of Bexar County’s population was enslaved, this is a much smaller percentage than in most places that could be defined as Southern; indeed, east of Texas, few counties outside of Applachia (the parts of East Tennessee and what became West Virginia that remained loyal to the Union) had percentages as low.

Again, these are meant to be musings and not full-blown arguments. Perhaps one could argue that San Antonio might be more Western than Southern, but that it is, due to being in Texas, still Southern in many ways. Perhaps it’s both Western- and Southern-lite? Perhaps it’s neither, but its own beast, as Will Rogers supposedly quipped. For me, I’d like to settle on the idea of San Antonio fitting into a pattern of being a Western city with Southern characteristics due to being in a Southern state. What do others think?

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