The Literal Landscape
The Paradoxical River
In legend, Spanish missionaries traveling through the province of Tejas y Coahuila happened upon a tribe of Payaya Indians living among towering cypress and lush wild grapes. The Payaya called the area Yanaguana, place of refreshing waters. The missionaries renamed it Rio Santa Antonio de Padua, the San Antonio River. Eventually the land was deeded to Mexico and then claimed by the United States. The Alamo, of course, plays prominently in that acquisition. San Antonio grew in that time from mission to settlement to city and was the seat of the Texas government, still under Spanish rule, until 1821.
The history of the Paseo del Rio itself begins roughly in 1929, when architect Robert H. H. Hugman laid forth a plan to create both landscaped and natural parklands along the river’s banks. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that the city began to truly create, or rather recreate, the multiple-use area that now includes esplanades, five-star hotels, lush landscaping, award-winning dining, and much more.
David Anthony Richelieu, a journalist with the San Antonio Express-News, observes, “Europeans often say San Antonio is the most European of America’s big cities. Mexicans say it feels most like home to them, and many Americans say they feel they are visiting a foreign country.” What Richelieu is talking about is the River Walk and the Rivercenter district that surrounds it. Travel two or more miles beyond the River Walk, and San Antonio is, sadly, like most other American cities—sprawling. But along the horseshoe-shaped bend that is the River Walk, San Antonio is indeed like a foreign country. That is, no doubt, one reason why my Great Uncle George and his French wife Liliane bought an apartment right over the River Walk. It is the best of both worlds.
The River Walk is the most visited attraction in the state of Texas; the Alamo is second. Walking along the curving concrete and brick pathway that borders both sides of this part of the river, it’s easy to feel—with the endless cafés and their bright umbrellas, the light song drifting along the wrought-iron balconies, and the curved stone bridges one might expect to find in Venice—that this place is indeed more European than American. And like any popular European city district, the River Walk is full of tourists from across the United States and beyond. They fill the t-shirt stores and Marriotts, relax in the cantinas and Hard Rock Café, listen attentively to the guides as they float along in River Walk cruiseboats, and wonder just what it would be like to live in such a mesmerizing place.
So I ask Liliane that question. She absolutely loves it. It reminds her of her favorite Parisian plazas along the Seine. She can take three flights of stairs down to her favorite Cajun restaurant. She can open the double Colonial windows overlooking the river so the flower-laced river breeze and soft jazz of a club one block down freshen her home. And she can sit back hand-in-hand with her husband on their balcony and watch the sun set slowly over small-leafed trees and large-blocked buildings.
But Liliane is French. Better to ask the question of George, a Texas-born American, who has lived in all kinds of cities across the globe.
“Well,” he says slowly as he settles back into his favorite chair, “it’s just beautiful, isn’t it?” Yes, it is, I reply, but what really makes this place your home?
“It’s also the halfway point between Lillian’s mother’s house in Sherman [just south of the Oklahoma border] and our other house in San Luis Potosi [Mexico].” Logistics aside, why San Antonio and not, say, Austin, Corpus Christi, or the more metropolitan Dallas?
He thinks about that one for a moment because, I figure, he’s never been asked that one before. “You know,” he begins slowly, “when I practiced law in Washington, D.C., the only way I could really relax was by visiting a little jazz bar not far from DuPont Circle. Me and my buddies had a small gig on Saturday nights, and boy, we’d play all hours into the night. I played the cornet, you know.”
He looks beyond me through the light-framed window, his fingers remembering the notes; he’s past eighty now, and they can’t move as fast as they once did. He eases back into conversation. “Well, there’s a little club not far from here along the river where, every now and then, they let me sit in on a session. That’s one thing.”
Great Uncle George then sets his eyes on mine. “And I really enjoy the Mexican market. Great margaritas and beautiful women!” He winks at my smile. “But mostly, it’s the river and the River Walk, the trees and flowers, some damn good restaurants, this fine apartment, and the climate. Even in the summer, here along the river it’s pleasant as can be.”
In mid-March I take the wide stone stairway down from the steel bridge to the River Walk some twenty feet below. The domed arc of the sky is azure, without a trace of clouds, and it’s as pleasant as can be. The trees filter the noon sunlight as pink, orange, and white flowers uncurl at their tips. I run my hand along the rough whitewashed concrete of a historic building as I move down, and it’s almost as if I am moving through history. I am descending the stairs of time.
Yet, here is an illusion. While I feel like I’m moving back through time as I move toward the River Walk, I am in fact transitioning from old to new. The building on my left dates from the early 1900s. The winding cement path at the base of the stairs is perhaps only forty years old. The design fits, as it should, but it also fools visitors into believing it’s really older than it is. Perhaps we really are walking along a café-lined canal in Venice, we think.
For the tourists in their brightly colored shirts, or the men and women in their business casual dress with the nametags of various conferences, this place is quite foreign. Certainly, many want it to be, traveling from near and far to escape other less magical locales. To many, the River Walk is akin to Disneyland.
Disneyland has value far beyond what many admit, residing in the lore of the American spirit perhaps more so than even the Alamo. But for any place that is not an intentional theme park, to be compared to Disneyland implies the place is not quite real. It may well be like the Magic Kingdom, magical, but still unreal.
Yet, here is a place that is real. Or is it?
Right away I notice that there are few rails or other barriers between walkway and river. Is that only because the river, a man-made canal that actually loops off the true San Antonio River, is only two-and-a-half feet deep? Strolling along the many small shops and restaurants, I note that food is available only from restaurants and pathway vendors. I do not spot a grocery store, even a convenience store, anywhere near. Why is that? And while the birds are singing and the squirrels are bantering and the bumblebees carry heavy pollen loads from flower to flower, there is one animal conspicuously missing—Fido. A sign at the top of the stairs indicates just why: No dogs allowed.
The reasons for these absences gets to the heart of the matter in the rivery heart of this city. There are no railings because there are few children. There are no grocery stores because there are no supermarket shoppers. There are no pets allowed because there are no pet owners. The River Walk of San Antonio may appear so unreal not because of its construction or inviting design, but rather because there are no families. That is, with the exception of high-income and largely part-time resident apartments above the River Walk, there are no full-time working- or middle-class families living here.
The River Walk is Texas’s number one tourist destination because it is just that, a place for tourists. It is not, as one San Antonio resident now living in Denver recently told me, the real San Antonio. It is the unreal San Antonio.
I am riding shotgun in Uncle George’s 1929 Model T as he cranks us out of the parking garage and onto the nearly empty evening avenue, grunting with all his strength to turn the well-preserved machine. I had spent the afternoon exploring the River Walk and was in just the mood for this brief horseless carriage jaunt around the Rivercenter. We topped off the last day of my vacation with a chalice-sized frozen margarita. “Ah,” I sighed to myself, “this is the life!”
Unfortunately, it’s not the life for most of us. While the River Walk could be the heart and soul of San Antonio, most of its everyday citizens don’t make it part of their everyday lives. Unless they happen to work at a hotel, shop, or restaurant along the walled riverbanks, they rarely come down.
And that truly is a shame, for the River Walk is one of the most beautiful, if not potentially authentic, urban settings in America. And that leads us to one final paradox, in the form of a question: Why can’t we design a place to live that is as exciting and rewarding as the places we visit?
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