News » News Features

News Party lines



How we got here from there

An 18th century Spanish urban planner drew a map of a colony in the New Philippines, aka, San Fernando de Bexar. Instead of a napkin, the planner might have used parchment to draw the San Fernando Cathedral with its village that would encompass six square miles. The church was ground zero for all survey lines that emanated from its front door.

The new village was a face-to-face design, meant for the neighbors to know, love, and hate one another, and the principal modes of transportation were feet. San Fernando was the pivot of the new community, although the settlement didn't really follow the original master plan.

The main attraction was the water. Canary Islanders who settled in this semi-arid desert were forced to make water their top priority, and they chose to live between the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek; they even dug an acequía to bring the water closer to them. The water was plentiful, to the point that every five to seven years the watershed flooded the village, and yet nobody thought to climb out of harm's way when they rebuilt their homes.

In 1819 another flood slammed into the adobe city, and still the surviving residents rebuilt on the same spot, even though the river and creek had more water back then, and the flood plain had a larger footprint. "The settlers were in harm's way of the floods," says Char Miller, director of Urban Studies and professor of history at Trinity University. He spoke recently to a roomful of Bexar Audubon Society members who had gathered to hear "Best Laid Plans: How San Antonio Grew," last week in a Trinity classroom. "We're still facing that problem today."

Church bells rang, and the faithful gathered to worship in the Plaza de Las Islas. Merchants also gathered in front of the church to peddle their wares to the congregation.

"It was like living life in the food court of a modern-day mall," said Miller, who used that analogy to describe how Spanish planners designed the settlement's layout.

Then the new wave of settlers came, and by the 1850s the Alamo was a second hub for San Antonio. The U.S. Army established a supply depot there, and local residents (many who built fancy homes in King William) got rich selling goods to the Army, which shipped them to El Paso and other western outposts.

By the 1870s, the City's population was 12,000, and "the urban plan was still inside the watershed," Miller explained. The locals used the river for drinking water, bath water, and as a sewage repository. The result was Yellow Fever and other plagues. "The people had yet to comprehend that if they drove a pipe into the ground, water would flow."

It was a city still driven by the mule (or, burro), and things didn't change until the Galveston Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway opened in 1877, establishing the Sunset Route from east to west.

Then someone did think about pumping water from underground, and the City began its northward expansion that continues today. "People could follow the water, and the trolley lines," said Miller. "In the 1880s you could flee people that were not like you, and you could get out of the flood plain."

People moved to the heights, as in Alamo, Balcones, Denver. The City was segregated: People with money settled on the hilltops, and built their majestic homes near the trolley lines. Look at the houses farther away from San Pedro Avenue where the first trolley ran and see the smaller, less expensive homes built by poorer people.

For decades the citizens of San Antonio had to rebuild after floods knocked out the central business district. "They were cheapskates, how things have changed." In 1921, the great flood tore the city to pieces. Twelve feet of water flowed down River Road (Broadway, where in 1998 it had five feet of water). Along came Olmos Dam, which saved downtown, but left West Side residents to drown in subsequent deluges. The dam also lent itself to motoring traffic between Park Hill Estates and Alamo Heights, where deed restrictions prohibited Mexicans and African-Americans from living there.

Olmos Dam also paved the way for high-rise development downtown, such as the Smith-Young Tower, the Emily Morgan Hotel and the Scottish Rite Temple. An architect conceived the Shops of Aragon and Romula, or today's River Walk, which began as not an aesthetic landscape, but an openly commercial environment. Eventually, tourists got the benefit of the Spanish-style "face-to-face" community that was the original plan.

North Star Mall in the 1950s was a landmark for the automobile culture that developed San Antonio, says Miller. Try walking around that mall without getting run over. "There is no other way (than via automobile) to navigate the land, and it was laid out 50 years ago. Today it's the same process, we add to the dilemma; as one mall succeeds another mall, the only way to get there is by automobile."

In fact, the best way to monitor the City's growth is to mark the former and new auto dealerships that leapfrogged through the northward expansion that threatens the water supply. "One thing hasn't changed," said Miller. "The recharge and drainage system of the aquifer. The community has to decide how it will live in this water supply."

Just as the railroad once brought expansion to San Antonio in the late 1800s, it could be rail that drives populations back to the inner city, Miller contended. "Put rails down and see the change." Meaning that if the City builds light rail or commuter rail instead of focusing on toll road tunnel vision, people will get off the train and do business in the centralized plazas that will grow around the train stations.

Miller held the audience spellbound for more than an hour as he discussed San Antonio's past, present and future. One man tried to heckle him, but like a good professor, Miller cut him off and continued his lecture. Obviously, the heckler will never get out of his automobile.

By Michael Cary

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.