May 15, 2010

THEODORA KALIKOW: San Antonio Riverwalk started with just an idea and a path

Last month, I went to San Antonio, Texas, for the NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament. But I don’t want to talk about basketball (my life hasn’t been the same since Cindy Blodgett graduated from University of Maine, Orono, anyway). Instead, I want to talk about the San Antonio Riverwalk — a great story of how a community can change itself!

Riverwalk, Paseo del Rio, is a pedestrian walkway that runs for several miles along the San Antonio River through downtown San Antonio. It is a major tourist attraction, with hotels and restaurants, performance spaces, shops of all kinds and tour boats.

Most of it is accessible to baby strollers and wheelchairs. There are elevators down to it and even public restrooms. It is well-landscaped with a variety of trees and flowers. The habitat attracts birds such as herons, cormorants and ducks to the green canopy, and, of course, to the river, in the middle of a large urban space. It’s apparently safe at all hours for runners and walkers.

But guess what? It was not always there. In the 1960s, a commission recommended that a river walk be established. It made some simple recommendations — for example, hotels and restaurants abutting the river walk should make river-level entrances to the walk. There should be park rangers. The river should be landscaped. The water flow should be regulated. There should be festivals.

From those simple beginnings, Riverwalk grew. The first hotel was built there. More and more restaurants came. The first fiesta was held. Another hotel came.

Somebody had the idea for river tours. The citizens approved bond issues for upgrading the walks and bridges. The Riverwalk was extended further through more of downtown.

People gave support for the project to honor their friends in the community. New festivals were invented. More hotels were built. Today, Riverwalk is the defining center of San Antonio, the most visited city in Texas.

But the thing is, they did not build it all at once. They did not even invent it all at once.

They didn’t even foresee the Riverwalk that exists today. You can bet that whoever recommended that a river walk should exist had no clue what it would turn into.

Nobody could, because different people, companies and groups have all added to it over time, according to what they wanted to do, just following the basic plan.

Here is one example. There’s a boat that travels along the river with mesh strainer baskets attached to large floating booms on each side, so that the leaves and debris can be strained out. But the booms can be moved so they don’t scoop up the ducklings. You can bet that they didn’t find that in a boat catalog — somebody saw a need and invented it.

Think of the jobs and careers that the Riverwalk brings — marketing, cleaning, patrolling, trash collection, food service, event planning, payroll, website design and maintenance, hotel and restaurant management, artisanal production, arts management, architecture and planning, facilities maintenance, hydro-engineering, fundraising.

Nobody knows what Riverwalk will be tomorrow. It probably will be extended. More museums, theaters and other new attractions will be built. Restaurants will come and go. Maybe there will be bird-watching tours. Maybe there will be an exercise course.

The point is, they had a good idea and they started, with just a few basic rules and a path. They traveled the path together, with everybody contributing over time.

I am sure there were lots of fights, and maybe there still are. There’s plenty that I don’t know about Riverwalk — after all, I was just there for a few days as a tourist.

But the moral of this story for me is that they got started, and in spite of any disagreements and disasters, in spite of unintended consequences, in San Antonio they started with an idea and changed their world.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at kalikow@maine.edu

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