Dear Mayor and City Council: Please don’t surrender Alamo Plaza

It’s hard to send a letter to you, because I don’t yet know who will be occupying those offices at City Hall. But, whoever you are, your first week in office, you will be pressured to approve a plan to wall off a major public plaza, the historical heart of so many of San Antonio’s cherished celebrations.

Please do not vote unconditionally to support the Reimagining the Alamo Master Plan in a rush to meet the budgetary cycle of the State Legislature.

There is much merit to parts of the proposal. The Alamo building itself is crumbling, and the plan targets its restoration and preservation. That is urgent.

The Phil Collins Collection is waiting for a home in San Antonio, and the State has acquired several historic structures on the westside of Alamo Plaza to display the valuable artifacts. (Adaptive reuse is wonderful, but please urge the State to reconsider gutting the entire interior of the landmark Crockett Block, designed by Alfred Giles.)

So the east and west parts of the plan on the state’s existing turf seem on somewhat sound ground. But then we get to the plaza.

As we approach San Antonio’s Tricentennial, we should be particularly attuned to the city’s early history. But, at least in the Executive Summary,* the Master Plan ignores the history of Mission San Antonio de Valero – a site not dubbed the Alamo until years later.

In the aftermath of the Battle, General Santa Anna ordered his troops to destroy as much of the site as possible. This was the beginning of the decline of the historic Alamo compound. Restoring the reverence and dignity of the Alamo is the obligation of our generation and the mission of our efforts.

The decline of the compound that originally was Mission San Antonio de Valero began earlier, before the mission was secularized. Where is that layer of history of the mission days? Not on page 1. Mission San Antonio de Valero is not even recognized by name in the summary until page 24. In the appendices.

Reimagining apparently calls for walling in the plaza and locking it up every night. The planners evidently believe members of the public incapable of envisioning the original walls of the compound. To do so, they must be restricted from entering the plaza aside from as a herd entering through a southern portal.

If returning the Alamo compound to its appearance at the time of the battle truly was a principal adhered to by the Master Plan, the “bold” plan would call for the removal of the iconic parapet added later by the United States Army.

Vehicular movement north and south through downtown currently is impaired. Removing another street from the existing clogged pattern is impractical. Yet, even so, it is difficult to argue that closure would not enhance the experience for pedestrians on the plaza.

But ceding the rights of pedestrians to cross through the plaza makes absolutely no sense. Public parks should be porous, easily accessible from all sides. Yet access to this civic space will be reserved to one entryway on its southern side.

Behind glass, this current pedestrian crossroad will become a dead-end. An Alamo cul-de-sac.

Thanks so much, John Branch,

The city of San Antonio has struggled for years to revive Houston Street, and it finally provides a healthier retail environment. Houston Street merchants will again disappear if they lose the pedestrian traffic they need. Pedestrians will all be funneled in and out by way of Rivercenter.

Trees will be removed from the center of the plaza between the Alamo and the Crockett Block to create an open space, a space too hot under the Texas sun for anyone to linger.

A sizzling comal for tourists. A playground for reenactors. A place locals will avoid.

Paraphrasing W.S. Merwin, there is no recipe for “unchopping a tree.” Walk the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project and envision how many years, or generations, of growth it will take for the new saplings to recreate the groves of trees Spanish missionaries originally found along the river’s banks.

In exchange for placing much of the city’s space in a fishbowl with restricted access, the plan offers San Antonio “a new civic space – Plaza de Valero,” a tiny sliver of the plaza in front of the Menger Hotel. This is billed as: “an opportunity for visitors to have a quiet moment, in the shade of mature trees, enjoying food and refreshments, as they experience the reimagined Alamo.” This “new” space already exists.

The very definition of civic is “relating of or to a city or town or the people who live there.” We have a great civic space, the entire plaza, now. A place for exuberant celebrations and the exercise of first-amendment rights, rights championed by those who died at the Alamo. A spot for gathering in the shade of trees.

There is no reason City Council cannot approve the Alamo restoration on the east and the Museum concept on the west side of the plaza as envisioned in the Master Plan on May 11.

Obviously, improvements can be made to enhance historical interpretation in the plaza, but eliminating Alamo Plaza as a pedestrian passageway or civic gathering place for your citizens need not be a requisite to forward a portion of the plan. Judgment on the disposition of the roadway and plaza should be withheld pending refinement and public release of the full plan.

The many volunteers and professionals tackling this project should be commended for their efforts. But that does not mean this initial plan merits a rubber stamp. The streets and plaza belong to the City of San Antonio.

Please request a reexamination and rethinking of this portion of the plan. Don’t consent to turning a beautiful urban park into a walled-off wasteland of a plaza. A place completely isolated from the fabric of San Antonio.

Thank you for your consideration of this request from a concerned citizen.

P.S.  If one haunts the place of one’s death, would it not seem a Sisyphean hell if the only thing you got to witness was men reenacting your painful death over and over? Would you want the site of your bloody end preserved in the desolate state it was in in the aftermath of your death?

Or would you want to witness people actively enjoying the freedom for which you fought on a daily basis?

One resembles a horror film, the other a fulfillment of your dreams.

*As of this time, the only portion of the plan available to the public online is the sketchy Executive Summary. The public comments you receive prior to voting are based solely upon that and what can be pried out of presenters during hearings. The publicly funded Master Plan appears a closely guarded secret.

Sorry, Grandpa Jacob, but you’re just going to have to live in the closet for a while….

Jacob Radcliffe, 1764-1844

Jacob Radcliff, 1764-1844

I was feeling guilty when I took you down.

After all, you are the Mister’s third great-grandfather and the source of his middle name.

And you’ve been around a long time, a very long time.

radcliffegashYour frame certainly shows it. It appears to have endured a war or two; although I’m not sure wars were what caused its wounds. You are merely an engraving of sorts, but your frame was impressively regal at one time. We’re not sure what time, but I’ve never encountered another frame with such a heavy, brown ceramic interior. When did they make such frames?

Before I removed you from our hall, a temporary relocation of sorts, I thought I should write a few words about you. But all I knew was you were a mayor of New York City, which always impressed me.

In Bayard Tuckerman’s name-dropping family history, A Sketch of the Cotton Smith Family of Sharon, Connecticut, Jacob and his wife sound so perfectly civilized:

They lived first at Albany, where he was Judge of the Supreme Court, and afterwards in New York of which he was three times elected Mayor between 1810 and 1818. The Radcliffs had a country home near Poughkeepsie called Chestnut Hill, and there Juliana continued to have “literary evenings,” which are mentioned in letters of Chancellor Kent, Edward Livingston, Chancellor Livingston and Miss Janet Montgomery as “delightful gatherings where youth and age, fashion and wit, met for pleasure and improvement.”

Your resume looks pretty good. Graduated from Princeton. Sat on the Supreme Court of New York State. You joined with your friend Alexander Hamilton in a partnership founding Jersey City. Was that a good thing? Hamilton never got to see if that was a good idea or not, as he made the fatal mistake of insulting Aaron Burr. I do thank you for having the good sense not to follow suit.

The Bowery Boys website is rudely dismissive of you:

Politics is a messy, incomprehensible thing sometimes. Keep Blagojevich, Senate appointments, and all other recent government scandals in mind as you traipse through the thickets of political absurdity below.

The year 1815 marks the real beginning of New York City’s Tammany Hall era.

And that’s where Jacob Radcliff and John Ferguson come in. They are by no means exceptional leaders; they were Tammany men at the right time, in an era before absolute corruption pervaded the society’s every activity….

On top of the usual partisan stew of a swiftly growing city, the war of 1812 left party affiliations malleable, with Federalists opposing action (even suggesting secession from the United States!) and staunch Democratic-Republicans generally favoring the conflict. Thus, as you can imagine, it would be difficult to remain balanced in such unstable political waters, even for somebody as savvy and popular a career politician as (DeWitt) Clinton.

In this wily tug-of-war between the Federalists and Tammany candidates, Clinton was again unceremoniously ousted in 1810 and replaced with Jacob Radcliff….

The winds shifted again the next year, and Clinton was placed back in the mayor’s seat in 1811. (Following this so far?)

As war broke out with England in 1812, all political parties and affiliations seemed to disintegrate entirely. As James Renwick says in his biography of Clinton, “On this occasion the old party lines were completely obliterated; no trace of affection for Great Britain remained in any mind, and the very name of federalist only exists to be used as a mode of discrediting a political adversary in the minds of the ignorant.”

As a result, many Federalists jumped ship to join the surging Tammany Democrats. Among their number was former mayor Jacob Radcliff, warmly greeted by Tammany head ‘grand sachem’ John Ferguson.

A perfect storm brewed in 1815 when Tammany for the first time controlled the state senate and enjoyed great gains in local elections. For the first time, Tammany could really do what it wanted. And what it wanted was to get rid of that old stalwart Clinton. Once and for all.

And who better to replace him than the head of Tammany himself, John Ferguson? However, whether by intent or sudden whim, Ferguson stepped down after only three months in office to take on the far-more lucrative job of officer of the Port of New York custom house, according to one source a major center “of federal revenue, political patronage and potential graft.”

And so he was replaced with….Jacob Radcliff again, now a mayoral appointee representing an entirely different political party from the first time he had the job!…

Meanwhile, Radcliff was caught up in a scandal when, halfway into his term, he was caught distributing a list of potential Tammany replacements for all still-remaining Federalist council members, a politically insensitive move which galvanized the Council and ensured that 1816 would be Radcliff’s last year ever as mayor.

jradcliffeMaybe if you didn’t look quite so pompous. Maybe if it wasn’t quite so obvious that you have been looking down your sharp nose at me all these years. Maybe then I wouldn’t have dug deeper into your resume.

The Bowery Boys website even calls you “politically wishy-washy.” The original flip-flopper.

But, as Juliana’s first cousin, three times removed, once said:

           History is the story of events, with praise or blame.

And, whoa. Speaking of looking down one’s nose.

If that cousin had ever been offered for us to hang in the hall beside you, I certainly would have known better. His reputation preceded him.

This is what he would say about the Fiesta-colored garb I sport on a daily basis:

For an old woman to flant [flaunt] it in a youthful dress, is altogether as prodigious a Disorder as for the Flowers of May to appear among the Snows of December.

He never would have made it out of our closet. I could never have borne his disapproving glare on a daily basis.

Besides, Cotton Mather would have burned me at a stake.

Juliana’s puritanical father, John Cotton Smith (1765-1845), a Yale-educated governor of Connecticut, might not have drowned me but certainly would not have approved either.

But that’s partially his son-in-law’s fault. So eager for votes, Jacob Ratcliff was willing to stoop to courtship of the immigrant population swarming into New York City.

You let those damn Irish Catholics get a foot in the door, and, the next thing you know, only a couple of generations later, one of them marries into your family.

So hard to keep that puritanical bloodline pure.

Note Added June 6, 2013: In 1968, one of the Mister’s first cousins, once removed, purchased and restored John Cotton Smith’s former home in Sharon – Weatherstone.