“Young, Educated, and Happy in San Antonio”

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Article by Michael Cepekby Michael Cepek

Like most of my friends in San Antonio, I enjoyed reading and debating Callie Enlow’s piece in the Rivard Report. I’ve met Callie, and I know many of the people whose stories she shared. I moved here five years ago to begin a professorship at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I teach cultural anthropology. I’m a Chicago native, and I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Boston, and Quito, Ecuador. I’ve also spent significant time in other large cities. Although I’m quickly approaching the “big 4-0” and not exactly an entrepreneur, I still consider myself one of the young, educated types that San Antonio wants to attract and keep. I go out. I like independent music. I’m a vegetarian. I’m into progressive politics. And, more to the point, I like San Antonio.

The Pearl Brewery, "a 10-minute walk down the street" from Tobin Hill.

I live in Tobin Hill, just north of downtown. I prefer it to Southtown, as it feels a bit edgier. (Plus, it’s cheaper!) I bought a beautiful 1927 arts and crafts bungalow for the price of a Chicago woodshed. Some of my favorite restaurants and watering holes are just blocks away, and Pearl Brewery is a 10-minute walk down the street. The area is definitely “in transition.” There are two derelict properties for every rehab, and the stray dogs probably outnumber the kept ones.

But, I don’t mind the gritty, dilapidated feel, which is characteristic of much of San Antonio. I enjoy talking to the day laborers who live across the street as much as I love chatting with my uber-educated neighbors. On my block alone, there are degrees from Stanford, Cornell, New York University, Rice, and the University of Chicago. They belong to doctors, activists, academics, and regular working folk. (For different visions of the general area, watch Girl in a Coma’s “El Monte” and Mexicans with Guns’ “Damelo”, both filmed partly in Tobin Hill.)

My experience of San Antonio has differed from the situation Callie described in one important way: I’ve found it very easy to make friends here. My first night on the town, I met a dozen people. Now, I walk into bars and concerts and know half the faces I see. San Antonio is by far the friendliest city in which I’ve lived. It feels much more like a community than Austin, where I spend a lot of time. (My better half lives there.) Because there isn’t as much turnover, people are happy to meet newcomers. Often, it means exchanged phone numbers and Facebook friend requests rather than just smiles and handshakes. Maybe it’s just that I’m an easygoing guy—I’m certainly catholic when it comes to the company I keep. Many of my San Antonio friends don’t have college degrees, and one or two haven’t finished high school. When I walk over to Joey’s on N. Saint Mary’s for a beer and a pizza, I usually end up talking about my beloved Spurs. But, I’ve also had conversations there about phenomenological philosophy, tropical ecology, and libertarian politics. I like it all.

I wouldn’t describe San Antonio’s dating scene as a “desert.” But, it takes some shifting and some flexibility. (I never had much luck finding vegetarian academics who love punk rock, but they’re a rare breed anywhere.) Given my interests in indie music and the arts, it hasn’t been hard to meet people. The harder part has been the “small town” feel of San Antonio. There’s not much anonymity here. If you’ve developed a history with someone, it’s hard to avoid seeing them out and about, and that can be rough. Although the community feels comfortable and familiar, it can also seem stifling and claustrophobic, especially where relationships are concerned. Fabian Villa has been documenting Tobin Hill’s social scene for a few years. To see some of the usual suspects—including an embarrassing shot or two of yours truly—check out his recent albums at Essentials.

One of the biggest misconceptions held by young outsiders is that San Antonio is deeply conservative. Certainly, this is an old, old city. But, it’s rare that I come across belligerent Republicans. We’re majority-minority, and we vote Democratic. There are plenty of military people around, but I’ve had many in my classes, and most are surprisingly liberal. There are a lot of gay people here, too, and many have families. In an important sign of things to come, some of our young Democratic politicians are rising stars. (Diego Bernal and Castro brothers: get me a cabinet position!) If you’re an old school humanist of the Studs Terkel variety, you can be very happy here. If you’re looking for New Yorker cocktail parties and limousine liberalism, however, you’ll probably be disappointed. So much of San Antonio seems blue collar. I like that, because it makes me feel like I’m living in the world rather than some shiny happy enclave where everyone looks, talks, and thinks just like me. Maybe it’s because I’m an anthropologist, but I get off on friendly difference, and San Antonio has plenty of it.

I think it takes a certain kind of young, ambitious person to appreciate San Antonio. You have to be easygoing. You have to be open-minded. You have to enjoy exploring. And you have to side with the quirky, the out of the way, and the underdog. Pretentiousness of any kind doesn’t work here, as self-deprecation is a favorite pastime. (That’s what all of the people who complain about “Keep San Antonio Lame” don’t understand. It’s a clever, fun, nudge-and-wink phrase that expresses how lovingly aware we are of this city’s foibles and failings.) San Antonio is also a place for builders. There’s so much possibility in this city. Places like Austin feel saturated to me. I like San Antonio’s empty spaces. Never have I been more tempted to start a band, help a friend open a bar or cafe, get involved with a neighborhood political organization, or buy and rehab an old house.

A piece from Cruz Ortiz, set designer for Échale at the Pearl Brewery

A lot of San Antonio is great the way it is: the fiestas, the breakfast tacos, the conjunto, the old parks, and the language, architecture, history, and sociality that make this city one of the few American places with a real, organic culture. But, there are also exciting things happening. The best of them build on San Antonio’s Tejano/Hispanic/Mexican heritage to build something new. A few weeks ago, I went to one of the Échale events at Pearl Brewery. The set design by local hero Cruz Ortiz was cool and beautiful. The digital cumbia of Monterrey’s Toy Selectah got everyone dancing. The crowd was a great mix: well-dressed Mexican nationals, Latino indie rockers, and families from the east, west, south, and north sides. I let my dog play with some new pals as I introduced my Austin girlfriend to old students and old friends. (By the way, she’s a hip, hyper-educated, successful lady, and she, too, loves San Antonio.) It was a warm night, people were sipping margaritas, and the river beautifully reflected the lights. Surveying the scene, it felt sort of . . . magical. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything like it anywhere else. (Learning that the new craft cocktail bar at the Pearl had yet to open was my only complaint.)

San Antonio needs more institutions like Échale, and we need more places like the Pearl. Even though a lot of things in the city center are heading in the right direction, plenty still irks me. I’d put unhealthy lifestyles and troubling higher education figures at the top of the list. (I’m biased, of course, but I hope the state continues to invest in the growth of UTSA. A broad community of undergrad and graduate students will do more to change the aspirations of San Antonio’s youth than anything else.)

The fact that Callie’s piece drew such a strong response shows that there is a lot of truth in it. In fact, probably my least favorite thing about this city is the incessant whining of many of its residents. Certainly, there are things to complain about. But for many of us, those are the same things we like to laugh about. Even more, they are the things we can improve. I don’t think that San Antonio will ever be a “where it’s at” city. We should leave that to Austin, Portland, and Brooklyn, which will always beat us at that game. But, we have a lot going for us. For the right kind of young, ambitious, creative person, this is already a great place to live. And with all of the ongoing changes—the growth of Rackspace and the emergence of other new companies not the least among them—San Antonio’s net will become wider and wider. I might be an optimist, but I also think I’m right.




There are 19 comments

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  1. Manuel

    Glad to hear from people who love San Antonio, especially from somebody who had live in EC! Let’s have a beer!

  2. kate

    I echo your sentiments 100%. I also am from Chicago and feel great fondness for the “grittier” elements of san antonio. I am always happy to come back to san antonio after spending time in Austin. I also chose to move back to san antonio after spending 6 years in Portland. Portland is an amazing city but I missed the community and ease of san antonio. thanks for the nice piece.

  3. Miriam

    This is a great perspective and I like hearing from the Tobin Hill crew. Definitely agree with your assessment of abundant SA’s “open spaces” — unparalleled opportunities for growth, rehab, and innovation are here before us, and I take the fact that we’re talking about it now as a sign that we WILL make thoughtful, creative, and forward-thinking decisions about how SA continues to develop and evolve.

  4. Patrick

    Thanks, Michael. There is something about San Antonio that doesn’t wear its coolness on its sleeve. For an outsider, that may be perceived as either difficult to figure out or not being there at all, but you’ve found a much simpler solution: just walk outside.

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but your reference to Ecuador made me think about San Antonio in a new light: approaching San Antonio as you might approach an international city like Quito. You don’t just show up and ask where the hippest nightclub is – you explore its crevices, its people, its highlights and its dirty alleys.

    Austin is easy. It’s a great place to show up on a Friday and without knowing anyone or anything you can hit the bars and have a good time. But, long term, that’s not particularly satisfying either.

    Congrats on becoming part of a community here in SA.

  5. Jim Dalglish

    Nice. Reminds me of my typical response when someone asks me if I like living in San Antonio: “No. I’m an idiot!” Haha. Of course I love it here or I wouldn’t stay. But, yes, it has problems and let’s talk about them. Let’s not put people down and try to suppress their expression by calling them whiners. Let’s listen and seek improvement. Of course, you can’t make everyone happy. But we need to continue to be open-minded and progressive.

    Here’s a short list of what I love about San Antonio: The missions, the San Antonio River, the people, our Hispanic heritage, our governance which is truly representative and accessible, our unique culture and arts, the climate (except, yeh, it gets hot and humid too often), our colleges, our family values and values-based ethic, not standing in line for EVERYTHING (Austin), traffic is better than in other major cities, lower prices on everything from food to gas … and housing, low utility bills, good water, easy access to the Hill Country and the Coast (I used to be able to say “and Mexico …”), great outdoor activities, supurb development of biking trails (Drivers are even beginning to learn to share the road), a reasonable work ethic, libraries, parks, a good airport, fun clubs and bars, great restaurants … I said “short” list, so I’ll stop. And I won’t give you the short list of things I don’t like.

    San Antonio is a great city; but like everything, it can be improved. It is that continuous journey that keeps us vibrant and, maybe, will make even more people happy.

  6. Robert Rivard

    Great piece, Michael. But, then, I’m a UTSA grad, biased just a tad. One aspect of San Antonio that nevers gets coverage is the impressive improvement in the UTSA faculty over the last decade. I think it’s one of Dr. Romo’s real legacies, even if more attention is paid to the price of new buildings. Some really good, really smart, really humanist people have come to teach and live here. You, obviously, are one of them.

  7. Don Mau

    I definitely like the conversation that you’ve started, Michael! “New” to Tobin hills but an SA resident for nearly 10 years now, I definitely know how easy it is to mouth off about the city. Once you experience it on more personal level though, what LIVING in TH has helped do for me, there does seem to be a promise the city makes with you about a better tomorrow. If only more of us “like-minded folk” were a bit more active in the development of these untapped areas then we could create something that would make the city a magnet.

  8. joey phd

    I like this post. It is a very positive piece that I think is long over due. I lived in Austin for 10 years and I loved it, I still love Austin. But alas I live here in San Antonio and everything you said is true. Austin is saturated, in a way, we are living in the south south of Austin, an untapped neighborhood that is just a hop and a skip away. I think both cities have great things going on and talking about one being better then the other is missing the point all together. They are so close lets just enjoy them for what they are!

    On that note, I invite everyone who is serious about being Awesome and changing things to please pleas join myself and a slew of other creatives at Central Texas BarCamp (ctxcamp.org) on July 7th down at Geekdom here in San Antonio. It is an event that is speaking directly to everyone who wants to celebrate and discuss all the cool creative things taking place in our region and you the attendee are also the speakers and it is all free!

    The paragraph above might sound like some kind of plug, it is not, it is truly being put on just for a simple fact: we have reached a creative point in our region that young and old creatives alike should come together and discuss the cool stuff they are up to and create friendships and bonds that make Central Texas a cool place to be :)

    joey phd
    mygeekylife.com
    media.uiw.edu

  9. Sandra Garcia

    Thank you Michael! Great piece! I can’t tell you how much time Ive spent trying to convert SA loathers to lovers.
    While I enjoy roadtrips to Austin and dig the scene there, San Antonio has much to brag about. I once read someone write that
    “San Antonio is to Austin, what Newark is to Manhattan.” Honestly, what’s not to love?

  10. Brian

    Ultimately, no one gets everything they want. No politician, planning process, government, or social media outlet can fix that. It’s bad enough that many of those same entities steal from us in various ways every day.

    Keep San Antonio lame is about finding truth and beauty and art on your own, on your way up, on the journey through an imperfect city and an imperfect world.

    Nothing the “creative class” says will ever provide that, and it will never be posted on Facebook or twitter either. Only people who have to be told what is good– or rely on what others tell them is good– have to rush around frantically trying to find it and glom on to it.

  11. WDP

    I’m a San Antonio native who recently flew the coop for perceived greener pastures. I think every city offers a mixed experience. I think the thing that most works against San Antonio, and any other Texas city (including Austin) is this: it is in Texas. Not that Texas is a bad state from a natural and geographical perspective. There are a lot of wonderful and interesting natural places and things to do in Texas. But the state as a whole is quite conservative. Change the hearts and minds of Texans (and the south) as a whole to a more progressive direction, and San Antonio will move in the direction you’d like to see it go.

  12. Susan Price

    Thanks for continuing this fascinating dialog. I’m another ex-Austinite who has slowly (very slowly, with whining) come to appreciate San Antonio’s slower pace, disproportionately small town feel and rich culture.

    One of the things I like best is how San Antonio mingles and blends cultures without completely subsuming any. That’s something I think we do better than almost anywhere else.

    This discussion gets right to the heart of our mission organizing TEDxSanAntonio – the independently organized TED.com conference. We hope to shine a light on what’s uniquely wonderful about San Antonio, while having evocative discussions – like this one – about what needs to change, where our city and culture need to grow.

    I invite you to submit a proposal to share these ideas and passions: http://tedxsanantonio.com/speakers – now accepting speaking applications through June 1, for the Saturday, October 13 event. A panel of two to represent these differing viewpoints would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?

  13. Nick

    From what you have written Cincinnati, OH is extremely similar to San Antonio. Very cool article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  14. please suggest neighborhood for grad student - Page 2 - City-Data Forum

    [...] Originally Posted by eterry2
    My daughter will be needing a rental while in grad school at UTSA. She lives in Montrose in Houston and would love to find a similar neighborhood in S.A. She would like a liberal neighborhood that is near places like Whole Foods, Central Market, independent coffee houses, etc. Not sure if we are looking for an apartment or a duplex. Any suggestions would be appreciated. She will be going for a masters in applied cultural anthropology. Thanks for your help.

    Terry:
    Actually, I remember reading the article pasted below a few months ago. It's about my neck of the woods and, incidentally, it's written by an anthropologist over at UTSA … it gives a pretty fair description of the city and the neighborhood, at least from my perspective. (That whole Web site has a whole bunch of useful articles on San Antonio and what it's like to live in its different neighborhoods.) Check it out: “Young, Educated, and Happy in San Antonio” | The Rivard Report [...]

  15. Paul

    As a native San Antonian I dislike the blind pretentiousness of young and educated transplants like yourself.. Saying that you’re able to talk with day-laborers, the uneducated, and uber-educated alike is like someone saying they have black or gay friends.

    You stated that “I’m living in the world rather than some shiny happy enclave where everyone looks, talks, and thinks just like me”, but when progressives try to redevelop San Antonio to fulfill their needs they’re creating that bland enclave stripped of regional character. Why must natives defer to your societal idea? Austin feels saturated to you because most everyone there is just like you, as a cultural anthropologist you must know that increased cultural diversity also has negative implications.


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