Part 2: Never the Same River Twice
The SAMA River Landing
BY SARAH FISCH
Note: you can find my first river development story, “Water Under the Bridge(s)”, here.
O mighty San Antonio River, majestic headwaters of our city’s glorious birth. …Where the hell are you?
On the very cold morning of the 10th of December, during a media preview/tour of the under-construction SAMA River Landing, the riverwater itself was missing. It’s gone from a lot of the river-redeveloping area, I notice…being held in mechanical abeyance, I guess. (In storage?) The dug-out channel place-holding for it in SAMA’s back yard/construction site was little more than a damp ditch. Still and yet, the lack of water seemed to heighten the atmosphere of giddy expectation on the part of SAMA peeps, media, and developers, as though to say: wait ‘til the river sees what we’ve built for it.
The landing project is very cool, as it happens. This Spring, visitors will be able to glide up to the SAMA landing in barges like art-seeking Cleopatras, disembark along a pleasant stretch of xeriscaped, terraced public space twards a whole new compound of colonnaded walkways and a redone façade, and even navigate a footbridge whose finials echo the unique, Victorian parapet-like structures adorning the uppermost reaches of the old brewery.
Before the construction tour began, Marion Oettinger, Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, described a historical print of the old Lone Star Brewery in his offices which portrayed the river as a coursing vein of rolling rapids.
No shit? I thought. …Rapids? Was it ever really like that? The only San Antonio River I’ve ever known is the sleepy, dawdling green canal that my mother’s Midwestern relatives, who dwelt on or near the banks of the Mississippi, would laugh at when they visited.
“That’s no river,” they’d say.
This always hurt my feelings, as a kid.
(A digression: I experienced a similar hangdog feeling during televised NASA space walks of my 70s/8s childhood, during which astronauts were always addressing Houston. “Houston, we have a problem. Houston, there’s a beautiful earth out tonight. Houston, we seem to be on fucking fire.” Of course, I eventually found out that NASA’s headquartered in Houston. But as a little kid, I thought: Jesus, couldn’t they shout-out to San Antonio just once? We were never mentioned on Dallas, either.)
Linda Hardberger, in her brief and charming address to the tour-ees, humorously echoed my childhood riverway inferiority issues when she suggested that the San Antonio isn’t a goddamn river at all! Actually, that’s not what she said. As a sort of aside, our city’s First Lady remarked: “According to some people, it’s not even a river.” She quickly added, “BUT WE CAN CALL IT A RIVER.” (Caps mine.)
Damn straight, Linda! What it lacks in liquid volume it more than makes up for in mythic history, as it winds its way through our embattled cultural identi(ies).
Nutshell historical timeline: as y’all probably already know: the river was first described by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1535, (the same year Henry VIII axed Thomas More, incidentally.) Actually, it must’ve been described for thousands of years before that, or alluded to at least, by the pre-Euro locals. On June 13, 1691 (same year the Spanish Inquisition “forcibly baptized” 219 Conversos in Palma Majorca, incidentally), it was named the San Antonio after St. Anthony de Padua on his feast day. Then…fast-forwarding a bit…the city of San Antonio was founded in 1718, Canary islanders, yadda yadda, missions ensued, Comanches-Alamo-WPA-Hap Veltman-current “Hooters Era”- and now the River Expansion/hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams. Y’all can look this all up.
The SAMA river landing’s a worthy addition to the Hopes And Dreams era of our very real river. It’s public space, it’s attractive, it honors history and is forward-thinking. Walking back to the museum’s main building from the muddy construction site with Mike Addkison, affable, dreadlocked Art & Architecture Project Manager for the River Foundation, confirmed that this whole shebang is both extraordinarily exciting, and nervewracking as hell. Spring ‘09 as the opening date for the Museum Reach seems pretty on-target, he said. The next phase, though, the Mission Reach, is EIGHT MILES LONG, in comparison to the current 1.2-mile Museum reach. In a later email, Mike promised: “it’s going to get even more hellishly fascinating!”
I forgot to remind you about the beer, though! As Marion Oettinger reminded us at the media preview, after the river attracted Native Americans, Spaniards, missions, and eventually tourists, it attracted breweries. The Lone Star and Pearl breweries, situated as they are on its banks, are testament to this. Apparently, brewers made beer from the San Antonio River water back in the day, the idea of which is both charming and vaguely nausea-inducing (it must be fresher H20 closer to the Blue Hole, I guess).
Thus we come full circle, involving all the elements so crucial to this city: water, history, creative renewal, overcoming out inferiority complex, and beer.
I will keep you posted.