San Antonio is located at the edge of the South Texas Plains. It is the second most populated city in Texas and its majority Latino population is the largest of any US city. The major industries are tourism and the military, two things which often collide in the performance of massive military parades which can last for hours. Downtown San Antonio is famed for The River Walk, a system of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River which run one storey below street level and cover approximately five square miles. Many of the best hotels in San Antonio are located on the River Walk and have both a street and river entrance. The main River Walk is a loop which encloses much of the city centre (Fig. 3.8).
Research Diary: Every type of cuisine lines the River Walk in San Antonio. From Moroccan to Mexican, steak to sushi, tapas to the traditional Texas burger the River Walk caters for all palates. White fairy lights
Fig. 3.8 San Antonio River Walk (Source: Eric Coulston, Flickr (https://www. flickr.com/photos/elmas156/3812916911) (licensed CC BY))
twinkle in the trees, gondolier-style boats full of wide-eyed tourists, and restaurants spilling onto the riverside pavements; it comes alive when the sun sets. Yet while it is no doubt beautiful there is a somewhat artificial feel to the experience. That is not to say it is unpleasant, on the contrary, in many ways it is quite magical. But magical in the sense of visiting Disneyland or seeing an elephant in a zoo; it is a kind of false beauty. Its charm seems contrived; created by man for man. This area is not for the poor, the homeless or the drunks; it is for the desirables. This makes it pure, clean, almost sterile; a sanitised refuge from the real world. The River Walk is both romantic and enchanting, no mistaking that, but I was left feeling like it was a photoshopped version of the Texan reality.
One of the busiest parts of the River Walk’s underground walkways is the steps which lead above ground to the Alamo Shrine. The site is—like the San Jacinto Monument—one of the former battlegrounds of the Texas Revolution (1835-6); the war in which Texas won independence from Mexico. However, unlike the San Jacinto monument, which was built retrospectively in commemoration, the Alamo is the original stone building in which the Texans came under siege from the Mexican army. Located in what is now downtown San Antonio, the Alamo attracts more than two and a half million visitors each year making it the most popular tourist site in the Lone Star State. When I visited the Alamo, it had already been officially designated A Shrine to Texas Liberty’, yet the site has more recently been awarded another status. In July 2015 the United Nations named the Alamo as a World Heritage Site, meaning that the building and surrounding area was deemed to have outstanding universal value.
The Alamo itself is a building at the corner of East Crockett Street and South Alamo Street, with a lawn at the front which is well kept but inaccessible due to large burgundy ropes attached to brass stands. There are three parts to the Alamo experience; a guided walking tour, an IMAX film and the Alamo Shrine which has a handheld audio tour—I decided to begin with the Shrine tour (Fig. 3.9). Having seen many pictures of the Alamo—on a whole host of gift shop items—it was easy enough to spot the church-like exterior through the crowds of people. However, whilst the compound to the Alamo is large and covers approximately (what is now) one city block, the Alamo Shrine is actually quite small.
Fig. 3.9 Alamo Shrine
Research Diary: Seeing the Alamo Shrine for the first time was somewhat underwhelming. After hearing so many stories and seeing so many images I had expected the Alamo to be bigger, somehow more imposing on its landscape. Yet whilst the Alamo is small in size it is clear from being here that the Alamo is big in significance. In the middle of the day the long queues are well-managed and wind their way around lawns which are precisely manicured. The pavements around the building are immaculately clean as are the staff, easily identifiable in their pressed black trousers and red blazers. Security guards and State Troopers can also be seen patrolling the entire area adding a sense of importance and historical worth. It feels as if they are all there to protect the Alamo as a place, but also to guard the sanctity of a memory. Once inside the Shrine I feel a sense of sadness; the space is quiet and respectful. I feel as if I am here to pay my respects.
The number of people allowed inside the Shrine at any one time is limited; I would estimate around 30 people. The space is dark and cold despite the heat outside. The only light is provided by two chandeliers with electric candles in them which hang from the high brick ceiling. Towards the back of the Shrine are large wooden doors which don’t open. Above these is an alcove in which six flags hang. The flag poles come out at a 90 degree angle from the back wall and represent the national flags that have flown over Texas.
Exiting the church, to the left is the Alamo courtyard. Here is the Wall of History, an outdoor exhibit of free-standing panels which together depict the 300-year history of the Alamo as a building, and the Long Barrack Museum which houses a theatre playing a 20-minute film about the Texas Revolution on a continuous loop. Alternatively, exiting the church to the right a small footbridge can be found leading to the Alamo Gardens, added to the complex in the 1920s and 1930s. Directly opposite is the Alamo Museum Gift Shop which sells everything one might expect—tea towels, clothing, key chains, magnets and much more, all branded with the iconic image of the Alamo facade. There are also higher priced items such as a state flag which has been flown over the Alamo for 48 hours ($54.99), reproduction firearms and Bowie knives (around $100) and genuine racoon-skin caps for adults ($79.95).