April 20


Joan's holy ground

In 1952, Christine Jorgensen returned to the U.S. from Denmark after a highly publicized gender-reassignment surgery, and became the first – famous – male-to-female transsexual to grace the cover of American tabloids. Standing proudly before a pack of hungry paparazzi she announced her memorable manifesto:  "Nature made a mistake which I have corrected."

I’m reminded of the legend when I pay a visit to Joan Riviera, a local comedienne who this year outed herself on a podcast as a transgendered woman.

Riviera is perched high on a backless stool on a stage in the center of a dance floor at the Bonham Exchange. The scent of old liquor and fresh cleaning products collide in the air. The afternoon sun, an element foreign to the club’s faithful denizens, illuminates an eerie, introspective silence. Riviera returned to the club this year after a long hiatus. Her awe-inspiring cleavage is an obvious selling point on the posters promoting her weekly comedy open mic.


Will SAISD fail the Bonham challenge?

The Giles house: obstacle and potential for the SAISD bond projectBonham Academy on St. Mary’s Street in Southtown is by all accounts an exemplary school, a K-8 gem within the SAISD system marked by strong test scores, a progressive and creative curriculum, and a high level of parent engagement. The school is preparing for $13.8 million in upgrades, including new building construction, thanks to 2010 voter-approved bond funding.

That is where the happy story ends. Or so it seems.

The Bonham community is reportedly divided over those bond plans. News reports characterize – and even caricature – one side as hard-core preservationists, out-of-touch with reality and hell-bent on saving a dilapidated house. On the other side: an organized group of vocal, smart parents upset about the lack of open play space on the small, land-locked campus, enviously eyeing the land underneath the boarded-up house.

A recent story in the San Antonio Express News quoted the architects representing SAISD and partly responsible for overseeing the bond projects as saying:  “... the two entities are in conflict with each other. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.”

This description of conflict within the Bonham community is just downright wrong. According to spokespeople for both factions, their opinions certainly vary, but they share fundamental concerns for the campus and its students, and they envision solutions that could accomplish both sides’ goals.


Our uncivil society

How can you not feel for little Abbey who, in a YouTube video that has gone viral, is tired of “Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney” and has had about as much of this presidential election as the rest of us have. I believe Abbey has expressed to the nation what all of us are feeling right now – enough of the back and forth. Let’s just get this thing over.

The 2012 election has turned into one of the most polarizing elections in our history. I watched the talking heads the Sunday before the election, and almost every single pundit said they’ve never seen the presidential race this close or this polarized before. Romney leads among independent voters, but that number has eroded dramatically, meaning the impact of that advantage has been lessened. Come election night we could see one candidate win the Electoral College and another win the popular vote.

On Saturday’s edition of This American Life, I listened to a segment titled “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” that chronicled relationships that were strained over political differences this election season. In the past, these anecdotes would seem out of the ordinary, but as I heard the stories played out, I recalled friends of mine who have had similar experiences.


Building out of SA's comfort zone

Design concept for The Garden in the Machine, by Studio Gang Architects for MOMA's Foreclosed: Rehousing the American DreamIs architecture a consumable, like the goods we buy, or is it simply in the realm of services provided between two parties, like a visit to the dentist? How do we even see architecture, much less our role in the creation of it? As the end users, should we be involved in the design process? Can we influence, much less control, it? Is the result something that has positive or negative value and, if so, how is that measured?

Or is architecture simply an effete culture ultimately meant only for the same people who routinely patronize art museums?

Ever since my college days in architecture school I have been somewhat obsessed with the idea of public engagement with architecture – both process and end product. But engagement begins with awareness. Much of the public does not understand what architecture is, and isn’t. Architects don’t help much, either. They are often engaged in “archispeak” with one another. They rarely take on the role of citizen architect in the community-at-large, explaining and helping us understand what they do, and why.

It is in this context that I was very excited to learn that the City of San Antonio Planning and Community Development Department has launched a new Urban Design Center, whose mission will be to better educate citizens about the value of good urban design and their role in helping create it.


Public art as a private matter

A design element at the new Can Plant apartments at the PearlMany years ago whilst backpacking Europe on one of those finding-the-meaning-of-life trips, I stopped early one morning to watch a woman scrub her storefront stoop in Vicenza, Italy.  Picture perfect: a dense, urban small town with bumpy sidewalks and curbs that you wish could talk and tell the city’s story.  Her small fabric shop would not open until 9 a.m., but there she was as the sun rose, scrub brush and bucket of soapy water in hand, swooshing away at sidewalks that most of us would never think of cleaning. In suburban-American amazement, I stared as she reached on her tiptoes to polish a street sign affixed to the side of the building that otherwise had nothing to do with her business. Not her property and not her job; it was simple civic pride. Amidst the monuments and museums I saw on that 12-country tour, this moment has stuck with me. As my travels continued I found this repeated again and again: owners going the extra mile to take care of public space.

Years later, on a backpacking trip in the Yucatan, thanks to a bowl of soup I should not have eaten I was struck by that Americano illness known as “Montezuma’s Revenge.” I was consigned to bed for a few days in the wonderful Spanish colonial city of Merida – a lovely place to be sick. One day during the sleepy midday hours of siesta I ventured out and found signs of life at a local coffee shop. I was lured in by a young man earnestly sanding and painting a newly re-crafted gate at the front door made from reclaimed pieces of scrap wrought iron. The design was worthy of any gallery or craft museum I’ve visited. He explained that he worked as a barista at the shop and he wanted to make where he worked “more special,” so he offered to build a decorative door. His boss gladly accepted his kind gift so long as he used his siesta hours for the installation.


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