THE ALAMO PLAZA – A man is shouting “Praise Jesus!” as he walks in circles. Nearby are a Haagen-Dazs shop, two Ripley’s Believe It or Not stores, a wax museum, a mirror maze and lots of traffic. This is what some 2-million visitors a year see. We are here because this is the period between the fall of the Alamo, March 6, and the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, Texas’ High Holy Days. It’s a good time to see what’s happening, for there are plans – repeat, plans – to change the look of the Alamo and its surroundings. Let’s hope so, since this neighborhood has been through some tough times, and not just bodies scattered all over the place. We can run through the first part: the Alamo was built in 1724. Later, Spanish troops occupied the mission and its surrounding buildings — the church was only part of the grounds – then Mexicans forces. By 1836, the place was abandoned, until Lt. Col William B. Travis was sent here by Gen. Sam Houston to destroy the Alamo and march east.
This brings us to March of 1836. When John Wayne (or Billy Bob Thornton, depending on which version of the movie you saw) and 181 other defenders were killed here, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, the Alcalde of San Antonio, was summoned by Gen. Santa Anna: “He directed me to call upon some of the neighbors to come with carts to carry the dead to the cemetery, and also to accompany him, as he was desirous to have Colonels Travis, Bowie and Crockett shown to him.” Ruiz reports: Travis was shot through the head, Bowie was killed in his bed, and so much for the version of Crockett surrendering to the generalissimo.
In 1846, after the U.S. annexed Texas, Edward Everett, a U.S. Army sergeant and company clerk, wrote: “The church seemed to have been the last stronghold, and amidst the debris of its stone roof, when subsequently cleared away, were found parts of skeletons, copper balls, and other articles, mementos of the siege; as were the numerous shot holes in the front…” He went on to condemn the “tasteless hands,” “the wanton destruction” by “other relic hunters or other vandals and iconoclasts.” The army used the church as a warehouse. Then the mission property was sold, much was torn down for commercial development, and by 1871 only 30 percent of the original structures was left. In the 1880s a visitor wrote how he felt “amazement and disgust upon my first visit to the old church…filled with sacks of salt, stinking potatoes, odorous kerosene, and dirty groceries.”
Daughters of the Republic of Texas (my mother was a member of the DRT, but she refused to say which side she fought on) bought the Alamo in 1905, and apparently ran it rather well until 2011 when the state took it over, although I was never sure why. For years visitors from around the world have been complaining about how Texas tacky this area is, right in the middle of downtown San Antonio. (This reminds me, have you ever noticed how many Civil War battles were fought in national parks?) There has long been talk of restoring or improving the Alamo Plaza, but it’s been all hat and no cattle.
But now San Antonio is linked with the state and feds to finally do something. A blue ribbon committee – what else? — was formed and the Plaza Project got underway. There are plans, drawings, committee meetings, and that’s about all. Money is a problem, and opponents don’t like closing off streets and tearing down buildings. (Please, no more “Second Battle of the Alamo.” It’s been used to death.) One major obstacle is that the six-story 1936 Post Office and Federal Building, which recently underwent a $56 million renovation, occupies a big chunk of the mission’s former land. It is hoped the feds will turn over the building to be converted into a museum, and it is noted the FBI has already left because the structure doesn’t pass new Homeland Security, uh, security. But the building is sitting right on a most important part of the battlefield: the north wall. I think they ought to level the building and restore the wall – and everything else.
Incidentally, there is an odd link between the Alamo and musicians. A drunken Ozzy Osbourne urinated on the Alamo Cenotaph, a 60-foot high statue erected in 1939 in the Alamo Plaza, in mid-day of Feb. 19, 1982. The story got changed to him peeing on the mission itself. Only, “It’s just not true,” a guide at the Alamo told the Boston Herald in 2003. “If he had, the police wouldn’t have arrested him. They would have beaten him to within an inch of his life.” Osbourne was banned from playing San Antonio again until 1992, when he made a public apology to the city and donated $10,000 to the DRT. British rock star Phil Collins has one of the world’s best private collections of Alamo memorabilia, which he has donated. He has so much good stuff that a separate pavilion is being considered to house it. Another British rock star changed his name from David Robert Jones to David Bowie because of the knife, not the man.
Meanwhile, don’t hold your breath until the Alamo Project is complete. As mentioned, the task of restoring the Alamo Plaza has been suggested and abandoned over the past 30 years. The city convened groups to study the plaza in 1988 and 1994. In 2011 it even hired a New York company to recommend ways to increase the plaza’s appeal to locals. Perhaps the Texas Legislature could help if we tell the lawmakers there will not be transgender bathrooms. As for the cost of the project, it started at $37 million, has hit $300 million and shows no sign of slowing down. Maybe, like Trump’s wall, we can get the Mexican government to pay for it.
Ashby remembers at email@example.com