"I would describe San Antonio as a laid-back version of Austin, with more jobs," says Gus Cantu, 26, who moved from Austin to San Antonio after getting a job here as a software developer.
I'm having fajitas with Cantu, his girlfriend, Aimee Devine, and a few others on the River Walk, the famously revitalized waterfront park dotted with restaurants. They both live a few blocks away in Tobin Hill, a lively, decidedly younger residential neighborhood with a handful of divey bars. Devine, 30, is from El Paso, about to graduate with a social work degree, and thanks to an internship program that paid off, has a job waiting for her as a clinical practictioner here in San Antonio. Cantu has already finished repaying his student loans. Both hail from working-class families, and say it hasn't been hard to keep themselves afloat.
San Antonio doesn’t literally have more jobs than Austin, but the market is less competitive for a college-educated young person. Cantu says the tech scene "seems less volatile." Devine thinks "the social work field isn’t as crowded" and "the cost of living was really attractive" when she was deciding where to live. As they tell me their plans to buy their first house and have a family within three years, I realize they're describing the kind of breezy, inevitable upward mobility you rarely hear about much anymore in the U.S.
Let’s get this out of the way: San Antonio is not cool. It's not cute or charming, and it's not cutting-edge or industrial. But the city, which is one of the fastest-growing in the United States, has three very important things: a diverse population, jobs, and a low cost of living. Almost every one of the dozen Millennials I spoke to here said they'd contemplated moving to Houston, famous for its formidable jobs machine, or Austin, the tech center and hipster mecca of Texas. But ultimately they decided they were turned off by the former's corporate vibe and Austin's scene-y one, landing on San Antonio as a compromise between the two. They recognized their city's abundance of tech and medical jobs, and its modest but fun art scene. They seemed to relish its underdog status—a friendly, pressure-free, genuinely cheap city with just the right amount of things to do. San Antonio, they say, is a place where you’re not constantly chasing the next job or band, but living, pleasantly.
Our host, 25-year-old Gabe Gonzalez, makes about $30,000 a year. "I guess I’m broke, but I don’t feel broke," he says. He has an entry-level, 9-to-5 job in administration at the University of Texas-San Antonio. He also hosts a periodic art gallery show in his modest 1-bedroom apartment. Once a month, Gonzalez stuffs his furniture and wall hangings in his bedroom, replacing them with paintings and a few dozen young patrons.
Pat Valdez, 30, is one of the regular attendees.
"The local art community here struggles together and supports one another,” says Valdez, who’s getting her journalism degree at an online university and makes $15 an hour in the human resources department at Wells Fargo. "There’s not an amazing amount of artists in the first place, so it’s like, 'I'm here to support you, not beat you.'"
Gonzalez jokes that this dynamic works because young people here aren't super ambitious—"I personally like the security of a steady paycheck," he says. Another word for this would be practical: Millennials in San Antonio value community and comfort, not glory.
After fajitas, we go bar-hopping on St. Mary’s Street, and I realize the difference between, say, perfectly reasonable Houston and dirt-cheap San Antonio. The first bar sold $1 Tecates. Another bar, called Limelight, had live music and 50-cent draft beers. Next door was the cheapest taco truck I’d been to in Texas (and I’d been to a lot in the past week); it was also the most delicious. "There are fancier places," Gonzalez says, referring to downtown cocktail bars or the polished establishments on the River Walk. "But they aren’t the only places, or even the coolest places."
Like in many U.S. cities, there’s a huge divide between college-educated young people and Millennials without degrees in San Antonio. Valdez and a few others at the fajita dinner were quick to point out that many of their high school classmates had children right away and didn’t consider college. Thirty-one-year-old Sara Gonzalez (no relation to Gabe) says traditional Latino expectations still loom large in San Antonio, which is 63 percent Hispanic.
"As soon as I turned 18, I went to Planned Parenthood and got birth control," she says. "But I had no idea [Planned Parenthood] even existed until I had college orientation [at UT-San Antonio]. My parents didn’t talk about it. At the time, it seemed like the difference between making it and not making it." Both of her sisters have young kids and struggle at low-wage jobs. She makes $18.75 an hour as a claims adjuster for an insurance company, and is saving up to buy a house. "I still don’t know what I want to do," Gonzalez admits, "but once I buy a house I can really be involved in my community, and this job is helping me do that."
Top image: Volunteers install wheatpaste images downtown as part of "1005 faces of San Antonio" by artist Sarah Brooke Lyons. (Photo: Flickr user Nan Palmero)
This series was produced in part with assistance from the Roosevelt Institute.