This is a column of opinion.
The late actor and writer Spalding Gray once wrote about a memory: you're not recalling the actual memory itself, but the version you last remember.
I'll admit, I don't know who I'm writing to — or, for — these days. Even now, as I begin this piece, I'm off-kilter as to who the Heron's audience is.
In 2008, it was easy.
Then, I started writing about downtown for the San Antonio Express-News, and things weren't as nuanced as they are today. I lived at the Maverick, then at the Brady next to the Majestic Theatre, on a newspaperman's salary.
When the changes started to come, I'd tee off on each one like the born-and-raised San Antonian — Nix baby, Jefferson grad, life-long downtowner thanks to trips to "town" my grandmother took me on throughout childhood — that I am. Those years, 10 years ago, are a blur (I've drank since then) but I remember vaguely that First Friday became less art-focused, for example. All of Southtown became less starving artist and more $3-Lone Star, Topo Chico-y hipster. Somewhere in there, Bar America began its transformation. The legendary Esquire Tavern shut down, changed ownership, and reopened as a craft cocktail-driven, upscale version of itself.
Up north, the Museum Reach had been completed. The concrete shells of 1221 Broadway, which had stood ruinous for years because of legal gridlock, were finally turned into apartments. Like, immediately after, the Pearl began to take off.
By 2012, Taco Land, and the murder of its proprietor, Ram Ayala, and doorman Douglas "Gypsy Doug" Morgan, was still fresh on people's minds.
That year, I wrote this for mySA:
"I always wondered how the profanity-spewing, aviator shades-wearing nonconformist that was the late Ramiro “Ram” Ayala would have adapted — or not adapted — to the River Walk expansion. His storied Taco Land, one of the long-standing live music venues in the Alamo City, always rested next to the San Antonio River. But of course that was before the Museum Reach took shape. Then, the river was more like a feeble creek, a dumping ground. And on the street at night, Taco Land could be its misfit self, alone among the silent warehouses. I just wonder how Ayala’s raw and rambunctious establishment would have fit in with the trendiness that’s starting to overtake the area."
There were other changes, such as the River Walk Christmas lights changing from incandescents to LEDs, which I contend still suck to this very day.
In 2018, things are different. When looking at San Antonio's disparities, it's no longer necessary to simply compare Stone Oak to the West Side. Downtown is where it's at. The city's incentives program for downtown housing — which has brought on Austin-like rents well above $2 a square foot — has spurred that change.
And thus, the people are different. I get the impression that the OGs I was writing to back in the day, the same folks who, like me, were incensed when Taco Land was reopened as a hipster abomination, are on the outskirts of downtown looking in. Of course, it's always a danger to make these types of armchair generalizations, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. I get the impression that downtown's inhabitants, the folks living in the Pearl, and Southtown, etc., are a vast majority transplants from other cities. I know this from actually hanging out with some of these fine folks.
But then earlier this week, I was reminded again when I wrote about restaurants Tommy's and Bees and Sisy's closing, and I made a comment toward the end about actually liking Revolucion's "Austin-y" tacos.
"Using Austin as a pejorative, really? Considering how many of us in the downtown area are Austin transplants, is this really how you want to write?" wrote a reader named Leon.
I fumed. Then I calmed down. Then I went back to fuming. Now, I'm for the most part calm every time I think about Leon's comment, and about my real intention of what I wrote.
It honestly wasn't meant as a pejorative. I was being descriptive. San Antonio taquerias don't put lentil walnut or turkey chorizo or cashew crema in their tacos. And that's exactly the point. I didn't think I had to explain that because in my mind, I wasn't writing to Austin-ites when I wrote "Austin-y." But should I have considering all of the transplants that now live in the center city?
(And by the way, Leon, if I want to get indignant about Austin tacos, that's my right, as a San Antonian. And what gives you the right to get indignant about me trying to workout my feelings about how my hometown is changing? If this were 2008, I'd drop a few expletives here, but I'm really trying to make the Heron a family news outlet.)
This was all caused by the city's housing incentives program, which I wrote about at length last week. It was designed to build density and vibrancy, to attract talented millennials from Austin and elsewhere, as well as to lure back our own talented brood. In that regard, it continues to work wonders. The program was never about building an equitable downtown. Mayor Ron Nirenberg's revisions to the program are supposed to address that, and we'll see what happens.
As a journalist covering this urban metamorphosis, I see both sides. I really do.
Let's go back to Taco Land for example. It's now Viva Tacoland. It opened under its new name and persona in 2014. That was four years ago. How about the transplants who moved here then, and who have been calling Viva Tacoland home for four years now? Ten years from now, are they going to experience a "Midnight in Paris"-type thing where Viva Tacoland's current regulars are going to reminisce when it turns into the next hipster thing?
I've hung out with plenty of transplants, I've dated a few from far-off states, but the ones I hang out with dive right into and embrace the culture. At what point does San Antonio become their city?
when does your downtown start becoming yours, and when does it not?
Is it four years? Is it 10?
It's a question I ask out of all seriousness, to which I'm ambivalent about, and to which I don't have an answer.