SAN ANTONIO — Welcome to California.
The Los Angeles area, in particular.
That is the first impression I had coming back and spending the better part of a week recently in the Alamo City, a place I called home for nearly 10 years. A place where I graduated from high school and spent two years in college.
I was back in “SA,” as everybody there calls it, for a surprise party for my girlfriend’s mother’s 80th birthday. (That went great).
Despite only having the NBA Spurs, San Antonio is a major-league city. Developers, investors and chambers of commerce seem to salivate over it.
With more than 1.5 million people, the city itself is larger than Dallas, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco.
Many people in SA pride themselves on that, just like they do the Spurs. But just like with some Spurs fans, there are some here who somehow feel “disrespected” because SA seems to never be recognized by the national media as a Top 10. (Shout out to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.)
With having hosted Final Fours, the NBA Finals and other major events, SA has arrived.
That is good and bad.
I’ll start with the good:
1. H.E.B. grocery stores. Some of these stores are literally more than a block long and have more items — fresh items alone — than most people in Oklahoma can imagine. Fresh bread. Fresh salmon. Fresh cheese. They are literally making fresh tortilla chips and fresh, home-made flour tortillas all day.
Not to mention all-day wine tastings and people cooking and giving out samples (pasta and roasted vegetables, amid their Cooking Connection, sections one day we were there).
It is beyond comprehension, unless one actually walks into one of these stores to see it, smell it and walk around for about 45 minutes to see it all.
These “stores” are like mini-malls and mini-food courts (complete with coffee cafes) under one roof, with other mini-shops inside.
For someone who has never been to a large H.E.B., it is something that cannot be described — just experienced.
2. The Container Store, In-and-Out Burger and other places you can’t find anywhere in Tulsa nor Oklahoma.
Tucked away amid the sprawl are some absolute local gems for food, as well.
Speaking of sprawl, here is the bad:
1. Traffic. Anyone who complains about traffic in Tulsa should try to drive in northern SA. It reminds me of driving in Los Angeles, except there are only three to five lanes of traffic going both ways in SA, as opposed to eight in LA.
I have a cousin who lives in Long Beach, California. He once told me, “Dude, it takes 40 minutes to an hour to go anywhere here.”
That is how it is in SA these days, depending on where you want to go and what time of day.
Granted, the entire time I was there, it was on the north side of SA, but that is where all of the growth is. And it is — in a word — insane, at least by Tulsa and Oklahoma standards.
2. Growth. According to the San Antonio Express News, which ran a story on population growth in the area when I was there, the city’s home county, Bexar, has grown nearly 16% since 2010, topping nearly 2 million people in 2018.
Counties immediately north have grown more than 36% during the same time period.
Here is how I’ve been describing it to my co-workers:
Imagine the Tulsa Hills Shopping Center, extending to Okmulgee, with apartment complexes in between, and the landscape ripped up on both sides of the highway — with concrete molds that look like gigantic LEGO blocks with holes in them for underground drainage — for future expansion of U.S. 75.
Most parts of northern SA look no different than places like Plano, Texas; Overland Park, Kansas; and other suburbs, including our own.
The same chain restaurants.
Indistinguishably named apartment complexes and neighborhoods under construction.
Nobody could tell a difference in all of these places if you dropped them out of a plane. They all look the same.
That is a shame because SA, just like most great cities, has its special areas and attractions.
Obviously for SA, it is the Riverwalk, the Alamo and downtown, and the missions.
For Tulsa, it is our great and improving downtown, Gathering Place and Cherry Street.
I love California. Even the L.A. area, with its traffic and sprawl.
It is what it is, and it can’t go back. At least not the sprawl part, for now.
The north side of San Antonio can’t, either, which makes me a little sad.
But it’s nice if I happen to want octopus, or tortilla chips made that day, or about 100 different kinds of salsa and ranchero sauce, or the best Tex-Mex food on the planet. It’s available, nearly on demand.
Though it may take 20 to 60 minutes to get there, even if you are literally 5 miles away.
Just like southern California.