Monday, November 29, 2010

A river runs through it

Remember the Alamo?
Well, no actually. If you go to San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo, you’ll come away remembering the River Walk.
The meandering San Antonio river, a creek really if all is told about it, is a mere four metres wide and only a metre or so deep. While it’s called a river, its volume speaks creek, so somewhere along the line there was a choice to be made.
Should the creek be diverted into a culvert, pave over it and let downtown grow? Or should the creek be managed and expanded so that it could flow all through downtown, and offer an oasis a level below the hustle and bustle of mid-city streets?
It is a haven that runs beneath downtown San Antonio so that office workers can retreat to a shaded, pleasant area on their breaks from a busy day. Tourists can wander for hours through restaurants and a variety of shops, plus gawk at historical architecture or take in a show seated on stone benches in the outdoor amphitheatre, across the river from the stone stage. Of course, you also can be housed in historic hotels that line the waterway.
Our tour guide told us to think of Venice, only clean. The river is drained once a year to facilitate a cleanup that nets whatever has been tossed over its banks — from shopping carts to clothing is carted away, the riverbed is cleaned and the water is permitted to flow again.
Imagine yourself as Robert Hugman in June of 1929, at the height of good times for America - for another four months. You put yourself before the movers and shakers of your city to show them a plan. It’s a chance to make a river out of a creek, a chance to build charm into your city and for practical purposes, a way to control flooding — and they take it.
It wasn’t until 1938 that money was found, through the Works Progress Administration, to begin building the young architect’s vision for his hometown. It’s thanks to Hugman there are unique wrought-iron staircases lining the walkway.
And just to make sure the business community bought into the project, Hugman moved his offices on the walks completion in 1941 down to the river even though some said he would be “drowned like a rat” within the year.
He wasn’t.
Casa Rio, the restaurant that opened next to his office in 1946, is still a going concern. The walkways lining the river curve beneath trees laden at this time of year with Christmas lights, and tourists meander along, buying this and that or eating here and there. The lights first come on every year with the holiday river parade, complete with decorated parade floats that really do float, a way to kick off the Yuletide season in splendor.
To get a feel of the river, there are both tour boats and water taxis plying its waters, giving Americans in a dry part of the country a feel for Venice, Italy.
Adjacent to the walk is La Villita, a thriving arts community whose very existence is tied to the River Walk. San Antonio’s first neighbourhood originally was primitive huts to house Spanish soldiers stationed at the Mission San Antonio Valera (the Alamo). After a flood in 1819, it was rebuilt with brick, adobe and stone houses.
Late in the 19th century, immigrants from Germany and France moved into the area and the existing architectural style reflects the cultural mixture of the area’s settlers. But the first part of the 20th century was not kind, and La Villita became the city’s slum.
In 1939, as the River Walk development began taking shape, Mayor Maury Maverick fought to preserve this part of San Antonio’s history. Maverick was one of those colourful Texans, first a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives and now known as the originator of the term “gobbledygook” for obscure and euphemistic bureaucratic language.
After four years of gobbledygook, he went back to the town of his birth to become its mayor.
La Villita houses 26 shops, art galleries and restaurants in those old buildings that run the gamut from palisado to Victorian houses. Visitors can feel their eye drawn from the displayed wares to the walls surrounding them.

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