Continuing with our string of Texas surprises: San Antonio. All I had ever heard about in San Antonio was the Alamo and the Riverwalk, a downtown redevelopment along an old waterway, which had spawned a district of restaurants bars, etc. I expected a 1980s, James Rouse style, River “Place” development, with a Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Fridays, etc., that lured timid suburbanites and tourists into the one part of downtown that wasn’t a disaster. So when we arrived in San Antonio, I wasn’t in any hurry to see it; I figured if everyone else in America liked it, I probably wouldn’t.
At our urban campground (fabulously located right on a small river park with a bike path through the city), we discovered that the San Antonio Rodeo (the largest indoor rodeo in the country) was taking place a mile away. In fact, almost everyone else in the campground was working at the rodeo, and the campground was full of big rigs and horse trailers. Fresh from our Mardi Gras experience, we realized cultural immersion was the way to go on this trip, so we went to our first rodeo. Walking around the grounds before the main event of bronco-busting etc., we discovered that it was a combination rodeo/state fair, with lots of animals and competitions in every way. It was really fun, and Greta will blog about it if she ever gets it together.
The next day we started with the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The Alamo in downtown San Antonio is the northernmost of the five missions strung along the San Antonio River, and all the others still exist in various states of preservation or reconstruction. The drive south of the city along the river is a pleasure, and each of the missions is quite different from the others.
Mission Concepcion has the best-preserved church, with intact architecture and original interior paintings.
The church at Mission San Jose was extensively reconstructed from ruins in the early 20th century, but it is the best example of a whole mission compound, with the extensive walls in place, and many perimeter dwellings built into the walls, giving the best illustration of a complete mission complex.
The ruins of the monastery have been left unrestored, a remarkable two-story masonry structure.
The refectory is vaulted, with flying buttresses on the exterior.
All of these missions were supported by agriculture, which was dependent upon irrigation from the river. Dams, and even aqueducts were constructed to channel the water.
Mission San Juan is in a less-restored state, and shows later additions completed in the 19th century.
Mission Espada is the furthest out of town (although still within the San Antonio ring road), with a small church and an unreconstructed compound.
With typical National Park Service expertise, the scattered-site park holds together as an experience and a narrative The River ties it all together, and at the end you have a remarkably nuanced understanding of how the missions operated as an integrated system in the 18th century.
We headed for the center if town, and were immediately shocked. Everywhere we looked, there were beautiful older buildings.
Somehow San Antonio didn’t destroy its past. Of course, there are banal newer buildings, as in every other large American city,
but they don’t dominate. In the core of the downtown, the new and the old are intermixed in a wonderful way. Dallas has old buildings, but they are all in one district, while the modernist skyscrapers have taken over most of the city center. In San Antonio, the mix is much finer-grained. The civic center, with the city hall, courts and cathedral, is intact, with a full-block plaza at the center.
Streets are lively, the streetscape has been carefully tuned, and the urban fabric is a blend of old and new, large and small. Retail is everywhere.
The Alamo is the major tourist attraction. It is quite small, and actually a lovely building. You can’t take photos inside, and you realize that you are in the secular mother church of Texas, surrounded by reverent Texas tourists taking selfies and intently examining all the artifacts related to their fundamental combination creation / hero myth.
The Alamo is at the core of this, but then it is also surrounded by other monuments to the Alamo. It is like a religious pilgrimage site, where there is a multiplication of chapels and statues, as each generation feels the need to add their particular expression of piety to the complex. The weirdest is this gigantic, Art Deco statue / bas-relief / monument. A central naked figure representing something,
and then a Pan-Texan Procession on the bar, depicting all the famous people who died at the Alamo.
We did not notice any similar monuments to the heroes of the Civil War who died to end slavery, such as we saw in Boston. We realized that we would could never truly appreciate this primary expression and apotheosis of Texas identity, so we moved on.
The Riverwalk was amazing. It is not a phony, recent, focus-group tested, marketing ploy. It was a loop in the canal / water control system in the downtown that was redeveloped beginning in the 1930s. It was largely the vision of a local architect, Robert H.H. Hugman, who in the 1920s began pushing the idea of re-using the canal that ran along the backside of downtown buildings. He built his own office there at the canal level, which bridges the upper world of the street and the lower world of the canal. Outside it stands a statue and memorial to him.
He emphasized that the redevelopment of the downtown should preserved much of the past, rather than clearing the city for the big new ideas. There are several other plaques scattered around in his memory; I have only seen one other city (Amsterdam) where the role of the visionary architect is even acknowledged, much less celebrated the way it is here.
The canal is lined with restaurants, cafes, hotels and stores. There is a range of prices, and there are plenty of public amenities – it doesn’t feel like a corporate “plaza” where the public is grudgingly admitted if it is dressed right. There are tourists, locals, kids, yuppies, etc.
It is a big curve through the downtown, and this exaggerates one of the strangest aspects of San Antonio: outside of Boston, it is the most confusing downtown of an American city I have ever seen. Most of the west is gridded, and sometimes there are colliding grids. Eventually you figure out the system and can find your way around. But the center of San Antonio seems to be unplanned in the way that the old part of Boston and New York are, and then various grids collide into it on all sides, most of which are deformed themselves. The dislocation is so severe that there are map signs everywhere downtown to help people orient themselves. And then added to this general confusion is the Riverwalk, which is a loop off the main canal. (in the map above, it circles the light blue area in the middle.), which is probably the path that most visitors are going to follow. Since the Riverwalk is a separate system (similar to the way the street and canal systems in Venice are separate), and since it is behind the major buildings, it is almost invisible from street level, except that a view and access point appears every once in a while. And when you are on the Riverwalk, you barely notice the streets passing over you now and then. If you do ascend to street level, you have no idea where you are, and you have to start looking for one of those maps. San Antonio takes the concept of Chutes and Ladders to the urban scale.
In practice, this is all wonderful. The problem with the big, gridded cities of the West is that they are often boring – every point on the grid is the equivalent of every other. (Even the pedestrian Mecca of Portland suffers from this.) The downtown of San Antonio is a labyrinth, and you wander happily through it. When you need to actually get somewhere, there is a map to help you. But rather than navigating by an abstract geometric system, San Antonio can be navigated by landmarks. Some wonderful buildings have been designed which bridge the two worlds, and are imageable places. Hugman’s office is one, the Casino Club Building is another. At street level, it marks the corner of a major intersection at the end of a bridge.
At the canal level, it is a landmark purely through its design.
One leg of the Riverwalk is lined with newer buildings. These are larger, and the edge of the canal does not have the density of visitor-friendly venues that the older part does. It feels more modern, institutional and empty – the scale is off.
But even this is quite beautiful. Perhaps they were right to not try to mimic the character of the older section that comes from the scale of the older buildings. Perhaps the infrastructure is there, and the intensity of use can develop as needed.
So once again, Texas surprised us. San Antonio doesn’t just have the best downtown in Texas, it is one of the best I’ve seen in this country. And it’s not just a downtown for architects or tourists – from what I could see, it illustrates that if a city has a good downtown, it will be cherished and used by its citizens.
And now when you say “you know, this isn’t my first rodeo…” there will be some truth to the statement.
And my first horse race in Florida. I didn’t know that horses were going to become a recurring theme on this trip.
A contributing part of the Riverwalk that is striking to me is the maturity of the plantings in a compressed urban landscape. The trees transition the scale, distinct from the streetscape above, and are refreshing in their own right.
You’re right, the trees really do help make it a different world.
When we lived in Austin we really loved San Antonio and went there a few times and I completely agree with you about the wonderful qualities of the central city, a sweet place in all ways. Our one really memorable recollection was a driving hail storm in our camper bus I pulled under a freeway overpass to get out of the hail and realized soon enough that the low spot was about to become a river and our poor little bus would have floated away, we quickly moved to higher ground which was smart.