Though they are only 80 miles apart and share the same climate, soil, and natural resources, San Antonio and Austin have grown into two very different cities. San Antonio is much older and has been more static. Austin is young and always in flux. In short, while the former is all about structure, the latter is all about flow.
The city of San Antonio is a collection of tightly knit, structured communities. Some residents can trace their lineage all the way back to the original Canary Islanders who settled here in 1731. Others have family going back to the days of the empresarios of the early 19th century, the Anglos who contracted with the Mexican government to bring settlers to Texas from the United States.
San Antonio has always had a special relationship with the army. The city is home to a lot of career military, both active and retired, and they add another layer of networking to the social fabric of the city. The military has its own channels of communication: listserves, newsletters, and bulletins. And retired military personnel socialize frequently and, in the way of any subculture, share information about their surroundings, including San Antonio. And then there are the neighborhoods, which provide a strong sense of identity to their members. This is especially the case on the south side but is true of neighborhoods on the north and east sides, too.
With these microcosms in place, San Antonio has a placid air about it, which masks the city's economic dynamism. It doesn't feel at all like the boomtown that it is, and this could be because much of the change of the last 20 years has been growth at the city's periphery. At its core, San Antonio still feels like a small town. Moving through neighborhoods in Central San Antonio, one gets the impression that nothing of much importance has happened since 1960.
Austin makes the opposite impression on the visitor -- that nothing of real importance occurred before 1960. Austin residents move around a lot -- the typical Austin resident has lived in at least three or four different parts of the city -- and as a result, few people identify themselves by their neighborhood. In the last 50 years, Austin has gone from a sleepy state capital and university town to a national center for high-tech manufacturing and software development.
Mobility is a key factor in Austin's identity. The city's three biggest elements are the state government, which sees politicians, lobbyists, and functionaries come and go as their careers take them to larger or smaller political stages; the university, with its large and mobile student body; and the tech industry, which is always in flux. All of this gives the city a more wide-open feel than San Antonio.
San Antonio, home of the Alamo and the River Walk, has more character than any other big city in Texas. Indeed, it is often lumped together with New Orleans, Boston, and San Francisco as one of America's most distinctive cities. And, if you're looking for a destination for the whole family, you can't go wrong with San Antonio. It has a downtown area that is attractive and comfortable and safe, a couple of large theme parks -- SeaWorld and Fiesta Texas -- and resorts that cater specifically to families.
There is a richness in San Antonio that goes beyond the images often seen in posters and brochures. Visitors today will encounter a city with a strong sense of community, a city whose downtown shows its age and its respect for the past.
The eighth-largest city in the United States (pop. approx. 1.2 million), and one of the oldest, is undergoing a metamorphosis. For a good part of the past century, San Antonio was a military town that happened to have a nice river promenade running through its decaying downtown area. Now, with the growth in tourism, San Antonio's second biggest industry -- it has an annual economic impact of approximately $7.2 billion -- the city is now seen by outsiders as a fun city and unique destination.
Although the city's outlying theme parks and attractions are benefiting from increased visitation, downtown is by far the most affected section. The city's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center doubled in size at the end of the 1990s followed by strong growth in downtown hotels. But the biggest trend in the last decade or so has been recovering the past: Historic became hot. It started a bit earlier, with the renovation of the Majestic Theatre, which was reopened in the late 1980s after many years of neglect. This proved a great success and a point of civic pride, and resulted in the birth of several projects. The Empire Theatre came back in the late 1990s, and several hotels were restored to their former grandeur. And now, every time you turn around, some reclamation project is in the works.
Residential development in the suburbs was, until the bursting of the bubble, moving at a fast pace, and the city's growth has kept the excess of housing stock to a manageable level. The local economy relies on much more than just tourism and the convention business. In fact, the city's top industries, healthcare and bioscience, have a total economic impact of at least $12.9 billion, including medical conferences and the many people who travel to San Antonio for medical treatment. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are among the aviation companies that have been attracted to the former Kelly Air Force Base, now KellyUSA. And an $800-million Toyota truck manufacturing plant brought more than 2,000 jobs into the area when it began producing full-size pickups. Though the effects of the economic downturn have been felt here, the city has been cushioned by its diversity.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994, has been a boon for San Antonio, which hosts the North American Development Bank -- the financial arm of NAFTA -- in its downtown International Center. Representatives from the various states of Mexico are housed in the same building as part of the "Casas" program. With its large Hispanic population, regular flights to Mexico City, cultural attractions such as the Latin American wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Centro Alameda project, and a history of strong business relations with Mexico, San Antonio is ideally positioned to take advantage of the economic reciprocity between the two nations. And the fact that Meximerica Media, which is starting a chain of Spanish-language newspapers, established its headquarters in San Antonio strengthens the city's status as a major center for marketing and media aimed at the U.S. Hispanic population.
Even with its rosy outlook, the city is facing some major problems. San Antonio and Austin are 80 miles and political light-years apart, but the two cities are growing ever closer. Although they haven't yet melded to form the single metropolis that futurists predict, the increasing suburban sprawl and the growth of New Braunfels and San Marcos, two small cities that lie between San Antonio and Austin, are causing a great deal of congestion on I-35, which connects all four cities.
An even more serious concern is the city's water supply. Currently, the Edwards Aquifer is the city's main source of water, and ominously, no one knows exactly how many years' worth of water it contains. San Antonio is the largest city in the country that is so dependent on groundwater. The city is looking for ways to draw surface water from neighboring utility districts, but the effort is slow going.
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