La Villita: 300 Years of State Policy
Jason Azar//Urban History Lab//Fall 2016
The La Villita Historic District was established as part of a re-created eighteenth-century Spanish village complex in the heart of downtown San Antonio, a block away from the San Antonio Riverwalk. The site has been one of periodic renewal and commoditization, a trend that continues today as San Antonio rebrands the historic district as an upscale boutique destination and venue for an increasing number of music and arts festivals. An examination of the site’s uses through time allows insight into the prevailing strategies and attitudes maintained by the city of San Antonio and the federal government of the United States. Focusing especially on the period following the establishment of a historic arts district in 1939, this essay demonstrates how national policies have shaped La Villita.
The site was an ideal location for a Coahuiltecan settlement on the banks of the San Antonio River; high enough in elevation to avoid the river’s period flooding while remaining in close proximity to access the waters. With the arrival of the Spanish to the Texas territory in 1690 many existing native settlements, including the Coahuiltecan’s, were removed and their sites transformed into outposts for Spanish religious and military conquest (Figure 1). In its place there was constructed a barracks for soldiers stationed at the nearby San Antonio de Béxar Presidio from 1718 to 1793 (Handbook of Texas, “La Villita”). The last surviving building of that complex is known today as the Alamo (Texas A&M University, “The Mission San Antonio De Valero”).
After a round of major flooding in San Antonio in 1819 the destroyed soldier’s housing, most of which were mud and straw huts, the barracks were replaced by more substantial adobe and brick buildings in the likeness of a Spanish village. Between 1821 and 1845 Texas transitioned through three different governments, ultimately arriving at statehood. In the years following statehood and as downtown San Antonio grew the La Villita site became a working-class neighborhood for those employed in nearby industry (Figure 2). At the turn of the twentieth-century industry began to move out of downtown, taking the jobs of Villita residents with them. Coupled with major rounds of flooding in 1913 and 1921, La Villita deteriorated into disrepair (San Antonio Express News, “A Look Back At Catastrophic Floods That Swamped Texas”)(Figure 3). San Antonio architect O’Neil Ford, who would play a critical role in the 1939 transformation of the site, recounted his first impression of the area in a 1976 interview: “When I first saw it, it was 1926, and it was just the worst slum you ever saw. You wouldn’t believe there’d be a slum in the middle of town like that — there were 26 families living in there and they had as many wrecked cars as you ever saw in your life, just piles of them” (Get Creative San Antonio, “Explore San Antonio: La Villita).
Located in the heart of growing downtown San Antonio the site was seen as blight to municipal government who had worked to acquire the site but were unable to act due to lack of funding . The city was able to achieve change in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick secured funding with the WPA and announced in 1939 that the neighborhood would be transformed into a historical recreation of the 1820s Spanish village. 119 residents, and an “unknown number of immigrants” were relocated following the announcement . Mayor Maverick, a former United States Congressman with close ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was perhaps one of the only people in San Antonio familiar enough with the new program to take advantage of it; he knew what piece of legislation the money was in, what was required to acquire the federal grants, and what was possible to do with the appropriations (Allison, Brooke. Interview with Lasca Fortassain). The mayor saw potential at La Villita for an arts village that would be “a symbol and monument to those simple people who had made possible the great city which had grown up around it.” Partnering with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA), Maverick co-authored the historic district ordinance that was adopted by the City Council on October 12, 1939, dedicating the project to “the promotion of peace, friendship and justice between the United States of America and all other nations in the Western Hemisphere” (Get Creative San Antonio, “Explore San Antonio: La Villita)(Figure 4). Maverick was a consistent proponent of good neighborly relations with Mexico and Central America, and to this end the streets, houses, and plazas of La Villita were all named to commemorate Pan-American heroes like Mexican president Benito Juarez and Simón Bolivar, the Venezuelan political and military leader (Allison, Brooke. Interview with Lasca Fortassain).
For the WPA, the La Villita site and the nearby San Antonio river were an opportunity to accomplish its objectives of producing a skilled working class that would stimulate a commercial and residential market and give American cities the infrastructural and aesthetic means to become engines of economic growth. For Mayor Maverick, the intentions behind the physical improvements were twofold: first, to support a growing professional conference industry, which was consistently bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into downtown, with an attractive and nearby outdoor venue. The city had in the early 1900s invested heavily in massive conference centers, which even before the La Villita renewal had spurred a fevered hotel-building boom. Secondly, the city, piggybacking on the success of downtown hotels and business as a result of the conferences, recognized the potential for a tourist economy. Ingeniously combining a much needed flood control system with beautifully landscaped riverside infrastructure, San Antonio set in motion plans for a bustling tourist economy (Magruder, “La Villita”).
The National Youth Administration and the city of San Antonio spent $110,000 (adjusting for inflation, nearly two million dollars today) for a labor force of 110 unemployed youths, who worked for $15 a week to transform the village (Get Creative San Antonio, “Explore San Antonio: La Villita)(Figure 5, Figure 6). In addition to funding the project, the WPA provided funds for municipal agencies to maintain and staff the facilities. At La Villita, alongside the construction workers and engineers were artists, playwrights, and musicians on public payroll to entertain visitors (Allison, Brooke. Interview with Lasca Fortassain). Maverick’s relationship with President Roosevelt, which developed during his time as a Congressman, was instrumental in securing the WPA funds to complete the project. As part of the rebuilding and rebranding of the site as a historic arts district Mayor Maverick, in partnership with the NYA, established an art school aimed at the technical training of young Indigenous and Mexican citizens in the designing and making of ceramics, woodwork, furniture, textiles, leatherwork, metalwork, and jewelry (City of San Antonio, La Villita Ordinance). Dallas born architect O’Neil Ford was hired in 1939 to run the La Villita arts and crafts school. In 1941 the school was closed with the United States’ entrance into the Second World War; it is likely that many of the young men and professors were drafted into service. Ford began an architecture career in San Antonio and eventually started the architecture firm Ford, Powell, & Carson, Architects and Planners Inc.
Published in the form of a small booklet in 1939 by the City of San Antonio, the WPA, and the NYA, the La Villita ordinance is a marked departure from modern-day sanitized government literature and provides insight into how national policy, relating to both physical space and an American labor force, was made manifest through urban renewal and construction programs (City of San Antonio, La Villita Ordinance). The La Villita school charter declared to the people of San Antonio that technical training and use of modern fabrication tools and techniques to create Mexican and indigenous craft products would provide disenfranchised non-white youth with the means to achieve financial independence so that they might “enter into the merciless machine age.” Students at the school, under the instruction of their craftsmen teachers, would design art objects and architectural furnishings of wood, cloth, and metal that could be mass produced with modern fabrication tools (City of San Antonio, La Villita Ordinance)(Figure 6, Figure 7).
The end goal of the La Villita restoration was dualistic: removing and replacing a dilapidated neighborhood condemned by the city with a tourist attracting arts district, and initiating disenfranchised youth into a productive working class, where they might stimulate a commercial and residential local economy. It is unknown how the students fared after the closing of the school in 1941 with the onset of the Second World War. Poor record keeping, the prevalence of common names, and shifting populations makes tracking the lives of the students impossible. However, the ordinance establishing the art school and the student work left behind provide valuable insight into a publicly-funded experiment. The district was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, preserving its physical character for the indefinite future. Today it is managed by the City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture & Creative Development, and its shops and boutiques continue the arts and crafts center envisioned by Maury Maverick in the 1930s (Figure 9). There has, however, been a marked shift in the tenants and users of the space in recent years.
To understand the transformations underway in San Antonio that act on La Villita, it is necessary to examine the city in context with both nearby Austin, Texas, and at a broader scale, federal policy. Austin boasts the nation’s highest population growth rate of 2.9% annually (with San Antonio trailing close behind at 2.6%), and by 2030 it is projected that Austin will grow by 27%. The Austin-San Antonio corridor is also the most rapidly developing metro-region in the nation, and will grow an estimated 35% by 2030 to a combined populations of 6 million (Theis, Michael. “Is Austin-San Antonio The Next Dallas-Fort Worth?). Austin’s explosive growth can be attributed to a combination of municipal incentives to attract major corporations, a powerful and enormously wealthy university, and a world famous music scene that draws millions of visitors to the city every year. Austin’s corporate incentivization program is a result of federal neoliberal policy reaching back to the 1980s, where cities receive less and less federal funding to fulfill social and infrastructural needs. Under neoliberal policy, city managers are compelled to keep expenses low and revenue high and the modern day tightening of municipal budgets is an effort undertaken to receive good bond ratings, the primary indication of an investment’s potential for return (Hackworth, Local Autonomy, Bond-Rating Agencies and Neoliberal Urbanism in the United States). Bond rating agencies actively encourage municipal entrepreneurial practice by regulating the local connection to national and international capital markets, and cities like Austin and San Antonio are now heavily dependent on the free market for necessary improvement and investment. These investments are contingent on the ratings given to cities by a handful of rating agencies, who hold a place of supreme power in the modern municipal economy as they nearly single-handedly determine the potential of future investments (Hackworth, Local Autonomy, Bond-Rating Agencies and Neoliberal Urbanism in the United States).
Austin, in its effort to keep tax and investment revenue high and municipal expenditures low, encountered an internal schism that has severe implications for its future. The city’s infrastructure is fitting for the 1990s population of around 500,000. There was in the early 2000s a proposition to expand the highway and public transportation systems to accommodate growth, but the city adopted an anti-growth attitude as it related to infrastructure and decided to forego the expansion. Simultaneously, the city began offering massive incentives to corporations to relocate or open branches in Austin. As a result of corporate relocations and openings, the housing market in Austin has maintained steady growth over the past 10 years, even through the 2008 recession. But Austin has reached a spilling point; it has become oversaturated. Its infrastructure and housing availability can’t handle the thousands of people moving there every week. Today, over 1 million people live in the greater Austin area, making a major overhaul of the highway system essentially impossible given the number of travelers on the road per day. Moreover, the music venues and converted-house bars and restaurants that originally attracted a young creative are being priced out, replaced by upscale shopping centers and hotel construction fueled by massive music festivals and professional conferences. People and businesses are beginning to see no economic benefit of moving Austin.
The spillover of Austin is now looking to San Antonio, where a massive and well maintained infrastructure system and low property values are an attractive and geographically close alternative to Austin. Under an entrepreneurial-leaning federal neoliberal policy, the city of San Antonio is welcoming the new growth with open arms, instituting similar incentive programs to attract business. Coupled with the fact that the city already hosts the nation’s largest automobile manufacturing center (Toyota) and provides employment for thousands working in the hotel and accompanying service and entertainment industries, San Antonio is well placed to maintain and build upon a diverse socioeconomic population. The city is taking its new role as an alternative to Austin seriously, and in addition to incentivizing new business is investing thousands in studying and promoting a growing music and arts scene (Locklear, “City To Spend $25,000 To Study San Antonio Music Scene”).
La Villita is at the point of another major transformation. The historic district has been the host of a major music festival three years running, and is being increasingly utilized as a site for music and art events (Figure 9). Responding to the increased growth in an act of déjà vu, San Antonio completed this year a $325 million dollar convention center that will utilize to a greater extent than ever before La Villita’s outdoor facilities and close proximity to downtown hotels. The district has maintained its historical use as an arts district, though in response to recent transformations has begun a process of rebranding. The shops selling pseudo-Mexican artworks are being replaced by high-end fashion boutiques, and local communities are using the site more than ever as an event space. A manifestation of neoliberal strategies, La Villita’s current state reflects the entrepreneurial approaches taken by the city to attract investors. Federal policy has transformed the way in which San Antonio views and utilizes La Villita. The site has been continually inhabited under the control of numerous authorities, starting with the Coahuiltecan tribe in the 16th and 17th century and existing today under the control of the city of San Antonio. Examining the historic district’s use through time, as a barracks and later a spanish style village under Spanish rule, a working class neighborhood of the Industrial era, a slum in the Great Depression, an arts district under WPA reconstruction, and most recently as a venue for music and art festivals and event space under neoliberal municipal governance, demonstrates how national policy informs and transforms land use at a local level.
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