SAN ANTONIO – Here we are, morning at an outdoor café along the town’s River Walk. The sky is blue, the temperature is 75, the flowers are in bloom and, right on key, here come both a barge full of tourists and a waiter with my Bloody Mary. Just like Buffalo Bayou. Well, not exactly, but how many times have you heard totally clueless residents or out-of-towners say, “Why can’t Buffalo Bayou be turned into something like San Antonio’s River Walk?” Well, why can’t the Astrodome be turned into the world’s largest sauna? Just open the doors in August. Why can’t the Texans stay healthy? The easy answer is simply: Harvey, but that 500-year flood only hits every three years, right?
Let’s start here in San Antonio, or Santone. The river got here before the town. San Antonio’s history began in May of 1718 with the founding of the San Antonio de Béxar Presidio and Mission San Antonio de Valero (now the Alamo) so the city is now celebrating its 300th birthday. For the next couple of centuries the river was considered a dumping ground. If you look at some of the older building along here you will see fire escapes, loading docks and the butt-end of structures. Indeed, in the 1920s the manager of the Plaza Hotel asked the city if it couldn’t do something about “that dirty little river.” In 1929, San Antonio architect Robert H.H. Hugman developed plans for the river area including stone walkways, bridges, staircases and the vision of retail development. Nothing happened. Then the Great Depression came along, the WPA found unemployed workers willing to lay stone for starvation wages, and Bingo! The 1968 HemisFair nudged more walkways, bridges and tourists.
Since then Santone has been adding on and extended the river because every hotel and restaurant wants to advertise “on the River Walk.”
A few items of interest, maybe. Santone is now the seventh-largest city in the country. (Texas is the only state having three biggest cities in the top 10, with Austin coming on strong.) The minor league San Antonio Missions are the only original member still in the Texas League. (That may change.) The headwaters of the San Antonio River are found at the Blue Hole, a natural artesian spring on the University of the Incarnate Word campus near the downtown. San Antonio is called Military City USA because for almost 300 years soldiers and, later, airmen were stationed here. If you were a career soldier or airman, somewhere along the line you were stationed here. Shake any tree and a retired general will fall out.
The list of former military residents includes Robert E. Lee, Black Jack Pershing and a young lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower, who met his future wife here. Ike also coached a college football team. Gen Douglas MacArthur went to high school in San Antonio at the West Texas Military Academy. Needless to say, MacArthur was the class valedictorian.
What kind of cash cow is this “dirty little river?” Houston, read with jealousy the following: A 2014 study found that the River Walk attracted about 9.3 million non-resident visitors whose main reason for coming to the area was to visit the River Walk. Locals made about 2.2 million trips to the River Walk resulting in a total of about 11.5 million visitors. These non-resident visitors spend about $2.4 billion each year, which supports more than 31,000 jobs. These workers earn incomes and benefits of over $1 billion. The economic impact is about $3.1 billion per year.
This economic activity results in about $173 million flowing to various state and local government agencies, and almost $201 million in revenues being generated for the federal government. That’s a lot of money for this sleepy river village. But how do they keep it from flooding?
Back in the 1920s, like Houston, Santone flooded awfully. Finally a series of dams and locks regulated the water level. However, the bottom depth varies, so if some Saturday night drunk falls into the river, she may be up to her waist, or 30 feet down.
This water level is obviously one of the major drawbacks for the aptly named Bayou City. After Houston’s 1920 and 1930 floods, like San Antonio, plans were made and two dams — Addicks and Barker — were built west of the city to prevent flooding. (Quit laughing.) Here’s a quick overview for real estate brokers who are using glass bottom boats. Buffalo Bayou rises west of Katy near the Waller County line in extreme northern Fort Bend County and flows 65 miles east, across southern Harris County, to its mouth on the San Jacinto River. It goes through some of the most expensive neighborhoods and winds through the downtown. You couldn’t ask for a better location for lazy boat rides, kayaking and waterside restaurants. But over the years the bayou became neglected, polluted (there used to be a boating event called the Reekin’ Regatta). In recent years some good citizens have tried to fix up the banks with jogging paths and trees, bushes, etc. But it still ain’t no River Walk.
OK, that’s the problem, what’s the solution? First, we need a major tourist attraction to bring visitors to our bayou. I suggest we buy, or at least rent, the Alamo. Hey, San Antonio has been talking a good fight for decades about how the city is going to upgrade the Alamo Plaza, get rid of the Bible thumpers and the sleaze shops. All hat and no cattle. So Houston moves in and takes charge. Then we copy San Antonio’s flood plans, with docks and locks. Houston sent men to the moon, so don’t tell me we can’t figure out how to put in a few flood-free bars and cafes. The main point is that we don’t consult with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, unless you want that riverside café in your den.
Ashby deposits at the Left Bank of the Bayou at ashby2 comcast.net.