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3   from san fernando de béxar to the alamo city the political unconscious of plaza space In 1854 Frederick Law Olmsted arrived in what is now the city of San Antonio and described what he saw: From these [the German houses in the center of town] we enter the square of the Alamo. This is all Mexican. Windowless cabins of stakes, plastered with mud and roofed with river-grass, or “tula,” or low, windowless, but better thatched, houses of adobes (gray, unburnt bricks), with groups of brown idlers lounging at their doors. The principal part of the town lies within a sweep of the river upon the other side. (1857:149) By the 1890s Olmsted’s portrayal was no longer accurate. The “square of the Alamo” was becoming a major city of the American West. Bernice Rhoades Strong (1987:84), writing of this later period, claims that “[the Alamo] plaza went from a dusty, often muddy area oriented to the military and transportation facilities to a parklike setting surrounded by beautiful buildings that attracted people from banking, entertainment, and mercantile professions.” Before 1850 San Antonio experienced little spatial differentiation in its built environment, with its Mexican plazas serving as the center of town. But after 1875, with the introduction of the railroad and the economic incentives and changes associated with modernity, the spatial organization of San Antonio changed dramatically, with the Alamo and its plaza becoming 35 03-T2008 2/25/02 11:43 AM Page 35 the new heart of the city. The development of Alamo Plaza, as a plaza, reproduced familiar features of such sites but in this period reflects a different set of organizational principles. Henri Lefebvre (1991), David Harvey (1973, 1985), and others have demonstrated that a critical feature of social transformation is the reorganization of space as it is increasingly occupied and shaped by a new set of social actors and cultural practices.1 It is here that San Antonio’s particular history of change merits scrutiny, for as Strong testifies, the effects of modernity on San Antonio were precipitated by the emergence of the mercantile and entertainment industries and their attendant reorganization of social and spatial relations. Equally important is the articulation of a spatially embedded ideology that advances a growing social disjuncture between Anglos and Mexicans. Abundant evidence documents the emergence of San Antonio as a modern city, but what remains hidden between the storefronts, alleyways, and public projects that result from this process is an ideology of dominance imprinted in the changing spatial relations between Mexican San Fernando de Béxar and its American descendant. What I am suggesting is that a nondiscursive ideology is embedded in the changing contours of San Antonio’s urban topography that features the Alamo as its focal point. Even before formal efforts at purchasing the Alamo property and structures were initiated, the material presence of these ruins and their underlying significance were effecting change in San Antonio. As such, the dissolution of a Mexican spatial rubric and its reorganization through the practices associated with capitalist modernity mark a growing class division between Anglos and Mexicans in Texas. european and indigenous plazas When Hernán Cortés landed on the coast of what is now Mexico, at a site near present-day Veracruz, he heard stories of what was long rumored: marvelous cities filled with gold and other treasures. A few weeks later, as he marched into Tenochtitlán, he saw an impressive and expansive city surrounded by bodies of water connected by aqueducts. Tenochtitlán, like other cities in Mesoamerica, was built with a templo mayor, or main temple, as its centerpiece, surrounded by large plazas where religious events took place and the elites resided, and which also served as a locus for the conduct of trade. The sheer magnitude, utility, and importance of indigenous plaza architecture represented the strictly organized social and religious structure of Aztec society. These plazas did not go unappreciThe Alamo as Place 36 03-T2008 2/25/02 11:43 AM Page 36 ated by the Spanish. As Setha M. Low (1995:749) comments, “The ceremonialandcommercialusesoftheseplazas ,aswellastheirsacredandcivil meanings and regular form, also inform the subsequent colonial plazas built after the conquest.” The impression these built environments left with the Spanish, Low suggests, led to their codification in the Laws of the Indies in 1573. There were European antecedents to New World plaza forms that were influenced by the architectural advancements of the Italian Renaissance (Low1993...


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