In the World's Aquarium
Story and photos by BOB STERNER
For Skyward Magazine
Canal boats glide past pedestrians scurrying on daily
errands. Beyond them are shops and sidewalk cafes with
patrons relaxing over drinks and light meals. Welcome to
San Antonio, the Venice of America’s Southwest.
San Antonio sprawls to 663 square kilometers. Yet much
of city's attractions are within a very walk-able 1.6-square-
kilometer area in the central business district. Signs
showing directions and local locator maps are posted at
most intersections to assist tourists. Ever-present guides
in turquoise uniforms and Stetson hats are ready to help
anyone who has a question. Low-cost trolleys and city
buses as well as water taxis provide transit to outer
reaches of the city. It is very tourist-oriented with much
to see and do for the more than 26 million visitors each
The Riverwalk Canal, known locally as the Paseo del Rio,
is the catalyst that vaulted San Antonio's population to two
million, making it the second largest city in Texas and the
seventh largest in the nation. The San Antonio River was
an arroyo; a dry riverbed most of the time in this semi-arid
land. However, an occasional rain could turn it into a
raging flood that consumed downtown businesses, which
stifled commercial interest in the city.
After a disastrous flood killed 50 residents in 1921, Robert
Hugman, a local architect, developed plans for a dam and
lock system that would create a controlled canal with a
pedestrian mall along the river. With federal financial
assistance from the depression-era Work Project
Administration, the initial 4 kilometers were built in the
1930s and the city began to grow. Success in attracting
business and visitors to San Antonio led to similar canals
being developed in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida;
Columbus, Georgia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Milwaukee,
“It’s the crown jewel of San Antonio,” said Paula
Stallcup, Paseo del Rio’s director of downtown
operations, “Last year we extended it with the Museum
Reach Urban Segment to the Pearl Brewery building,
which houses the San Antonio Museum of Art. It provides
an additional 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of linear park.”
Sunken below street level, the canal provides cool relief
from the city's summertime heat. “It’s a stroll through a
beautiful subtropical paradise,” Nancy Hunt, Paseo del Rio’
s executive director, said. “Visitors enjoy 17,000 native
plants tended by a hardworking crew.” By night, bars and
restaurants along the Riverwalk fill with hot nightlife that
lasts into the wee hours. Besides accommodating taxi
service and boat tours the waterway provides a route for
parades and special events marking holidays throughout
A favorite stop on the canal is the Alamo. That the city’s
most famous landmark is located in the heart of the
downtown seemed appropriate to Carlos, a canal boat
guide. “It is both a shrine to San Antonio’s past and
emblematic of its cultural soul. We all grew up with it. It
represents how we are a mix of independent cultures that
work together for what is right." He mused that the lack
of cottonwood trees from which the Alamo gained its
Mexican name seemed metaphoric of how the city has
changed over the decades.
In the early 1800s Texas was a territory of Mexico with a
fair amount of autonomy guaranteed under the Mexican
constitution. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the
self-proclaimed “Napoleon of the West," suspended the
constitution in 1824 to establish a dictatorship. Settlers
pressed Mexico to restore the constitution and threatened
to align with the fledgling United States, which was then
expanding westward. Santa Anna aimed to quell this
dissention by leading an army of 1,800 troops into the
In February 1836, the army encountered about 200 men in
the Mission San Antonio de Valero, now known as the
Alamo. The men came from varied backgrounds –
Mexicans and European settlers and Native Americans.
They included folk legends James Bowie, inventor of the
hunting knife that bears his name, and David Crockett, a
Tennessean who had relocated to the frontier outpost to
help settle the American Southwest. All were ready to
fight for the restoration of the 1824 constitution.
Led by William Barrett Travis, the settlers held off
barrages for 12 days before the Alamo was overrun. The
few who survived the battle were summarily executed at
Santa Anna's order. The outcry over this last despotic act
of the battle echoed throughout the Texas territory, and
changed the drive to restore the constitution into a
revolution for independence from Mexico.
One month after the Alamo battle, Santa Anna faced a
seething band of 900 Texans at the San Jacinto River,
near Houston, 335 kilometers east of San Antonio.
Shouting a battle cry, "Remember the Alamo," the Texans
soundly defeated Santa Anna’s troops, now numbering
1,400. In eighteen minutes, they slew nearly half the
Mexican force while suffering only nine fatalities. Santa
Anna was taken prisoner and forced to sign the Treaties
of San Jacinto that granted independence to the Texas
territory, which also included parts of what is now the
states of Arizona and New Mexico. The treaties set
precedents that led to this region being annexed to the
United States after its war with Mexico ended in 1848.
Nothing draws humanity in a hot dry region like good
water. Natives along the waters flowing from San Pedro
Springs called the San Antonio River "Yanaguana" or
"refreshing waters." Settlers from Portugal, Mexico,
Canary Islands, Spain, France and other European nations
began arriving in the 1500s. Peace in the mid-1800s
brought a large influx of Germans. From this diversity
sprang new approaches to foods, music and art.
“Neighborhoods and communities near San Antonio sound
like towns along the Rhine River,” Evelynn Bailey of the
tourism board said of the German influence of the region.
“The Germans brought us the soft-flour tortilla that is so
much a part of Tex-Mex cuisine. Germans preferred flour
to corn in making breads, and adapted the grain to
Mexican tortillas, which are made of corn meal.”
In a similar trade off, Germans brought their knack for
turning "refreshing waters" into beer, but they lacked a
ready source of barley, the grain used in German beer.
"Mexican corn was substituted for barley, creating the
taste characteristic of Mexican beers such as El Sol and
Corona," Bailey added.
San Antonio's settlement created another Mexican-German
hybrid in music, according to Jiminez, a trolley driver and
native San Antonian. “The triple-beat of oom-pa-pa
German polkas and waltzes was combined with the
brassy, guitar-driven Mexican styles to create mariachi
Even as Tex-Mex fare, Coronas and mariachi are staples
in bistros throughout the city, hybridization of cultures
can be seen in the architecture. Amid the adobe buildings
and stately European-style homes are buildings that appear
to have been transported from the French Quarter of New
Orleans. Others bear bright colors akin to those seen in
the Canary Islands or geometric designs that hold meaning
to Native Americans.
The mix is studded with cultural holdouts. Schilo's
Delicatessen serves hearty German fare in a busy
restaurant near the Alamo that looks like it had been
transported directly from "the old country." Wursts and
sauerkraut dishes plus a broad selection of German and
domestic beers crowd its menu. Asked what’s the most
popular, waitress Gunilde said, “It’s our root beer. We
make it by the barrel and serve it cold on tap.” The non-
alcoholic beverage has a rich sassafras root flavor and is
topped with a thick foamy head.
Mi Tierra Café & Bakery serves authentic Mexican corn
tortillas and Tex-Mex soft-flour ones in El Mercado, a
thriving market square at the western edge of the
downtown. “We’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, because my grandfather lost the key to the door
and couldn’t lock up decades ago,” Michael Cortez, one
of the owners, jokes with a wink.
Cultural diversity is seen in the menus throughout the city.
There are taquerias, hole-in-the-wall kitchens that dish up
tacos, burritos and other tasty Tex-Mex staples for diners
on a budget. At the other end of the spectrum is the
elegant revolving Chart House Restaurant atop the Tower
of the Americas, a 750-foot-high remnant of the 1968
HemisFair Worlds Fair. Establishments from the Zagat
Guide's top-listed Bohanan's Prime Steaks to humble fast-
food spots like Bill Miller Bar-B-Q uphold the city's
tradition as a cattle town. Flavors to match every appetite
abound: Asian, Cajun, French, Italian, Mediterranean and
vegetarian. Fusion of Texas and other styles can be found
in new eateries like the Insignia Bar & Grill at the
Fairmount Hotel. This landmark building also earned a
place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985
when the three-story structure was relocated and became
the largest building to be moved intact.
Over meals and drinks, visitors can talk with “Texas Bob”
an actor who plays a cowboy role at the Buckhorn
Museum & Saloon. Established in 1881, the museum
houses a collection of artifacts of the Texas Rangers. The
volunteer force maintained law and order during the
region’s frontier era of the 1800s. Other historic
attractions steps from the Alamo are the Davy Crockett
Hotel, built in 1909 as a hotel and fraternal lodge, and the
“Teddy Roosevelt recruited for his Rough Riders right
here in this lobby,” said Dave, a Menger Hotel clerk,
pointing to the desk the future U.S. president used in his
recruitment drive. The volunteer cavalry tipped the
Spanish-American War in the United States' favor. Just
outside the hotel, barbed wire was demonstrated for the
first time. Barbed wire fencing of the open prairie by new
waves of settlers prevented cowboys from driving herds
over land from San Antonio north to cattle market cities,
thus bringing an end to the American cowboy tradition.
History buffs will want to stop in at the Institute of Texas
Cultures on the on the HemisFair Park grounds. Nearby is
the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which draws
nearly one million delegates to 450 events each year.
Spaniards, Mexicans and many Europeans brought a
strong Roman Catholic influence to the city. Many of the
missions and churches survive to this day and can be
toured on the eight-mile Mission Trail by trolleys or rental
bicycles. After visiting Mission San Antonio de Valero, the
original name for the Alamo, stop at the Cathedral of San
Fernando. It is the nation's first Catholic cathedral and
where Alamo heroes Travis, Bowie and Crockett are
entombed. The cathedral, with lofty vaulted ceilings and
rich stained glass windows, is in daily use and provides a
quiet place to rest and reflect during a day of experiencing
Art and Entertainment
The cultural mix and thriving arts community is what
drew Audrey, a clerk at the Fairmount Hotel, who moved
to San Antonio from the state’s largest city. “I grew up in
Houston. There was nothing to do there. The downtown
is busy during the day but becomes a ghost town at night.
Then I visited San Antonio and fell in love with it. I moved
here four years ago and wouldn’t think of moving back.
There’s so much to do.”
Music lovers have choices from San Antonio Opera and
Symphony Orchestra to authentic Country-Western. The
Orchestra and Opera perform at the 2,311-seat Majestic
Theater, a sumptuously restored 1929-vintage house. A
few blocks away a similarly refurbished Aztec Theater is
home of the San Antonio Rose Live show. “We’re
dedicated to preserving Country-Western music traditions
and keep them alive,” Bonnie at SARose Live said.
Nightclubs pulse with pop, rock, disco, rap, rhythm and
blues, Irish, mariachi, folk and other styles into the night.
“You need to visit here in June during the Texas Folklife
Festival,” said Larry “Doc” Beck, a bagpiper in the San
Antonio Pipes And Drum Corps that performs throughout
the region. “Musicians and bands are everywhere. They’re
playing in parades and on street corners. All the bars have
bands that you can listen to without paying a cover
Artists' and crafters' galleries and major museums provide
a Bohemian atmosphere throughout the central city year
round. La Villita is a city block of adobe buildings that
once was a Native and later Mexican enclave in the 1700s
and 1800s. It now houses craft galleries offering hand-
blown glassware, metal fabrications, ceramics, jewelry
and mixed-media creations in a range of sizes and prices.
A short walk south on Alamo Street is the King William
District. Art galleries and vintage stores flourish there
amid the mansions built by the German entrepreneurs who
developed much of the city's infrastructure over the last
century and a half. Each month the district hosts First
Friday when street vendors add to the palette of artistic
choices available for viewing and purchase.
First Fridays are followed with First Saturdays, when the
venue shifts slightly to south of Flores Street, an area
known locally as the SoFlo District. This monthly event
draws the street vendors to this gallery-rich neighborhood
once dominated by the Lone Star Brewing Co. That
brewery has moved but in its place the Blue Star Brewing
Co. creates craft beers and ales in small batches to appeal
to gourmet palates.
Artpace is a venue that has been actively promoting
artistic creation since 1995 with its Artist in Residence
program. Three times a year
The Alamo is San Antonio's most memorable
shrine. Its defeat became the war cry that
led to large territories of Mexico to be
annexed to the United States.
Story and images are © 2010 Bob Sterner
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about their destinations
Alamo heroes David Crockett, James Bowie
and William Barrett Travis are entombed in
the Cathedral of San Fernando, the United
States first Roman Catholic cathedral.
Texas Bob (left) will gab with you over a
beer at Buckhorn Museum & Saloon.
Michael Cortez's grandfather lost the key to
Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery decades ago, so
the restaurant has been open 24 hours a
day ever since.
Paseo del Rio is a cool retreat that wends
through the central business district. Its
creation was the catalyst to San Antonio's
growth and an inspiration to other cities.
Tower of Americas anchors the Convention
Center that had been the scene of the
1968 World's Fair. A craftsman paints in
one of many studios in the historic La Villita.
Torch of Friendship
was a gift to the city
from Mexico to
North American Free
An artist describes his work in Art Space.
The King William District, a quick walk
from downtown, has quaint galleries and
Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough
Riders in Menger Hotel's lobby.
Schilo's (left) is one of many holdouts of
German influence, which is extended by
Blue Star Brewery, housed in the former
Lone Star Brewery site.
Meals need not cost a lot. Taco trucks
offer tasty fare on a budget.
It's hard to get lost with maps on many
street corners, but just in case, there are
guides to help visitors.
Museo Alameda features works by
regional artists. More than regional
western music is available, from classical
opera to bagpipers like Larry Beck.
Architecture ranges from historic, such as
western novelist's O. Henry's home, to
modern, as this office tower along the
Paseo del Rio.
Paseo del Rio stairs are an amphitheater for
concerts throughout the year. The Fairmount
hotel is the world's largest building to be
Skyline view from the Chart House
restaurant atop the Tower of Americas.
a curator selects three artists – a Texan, a non-
Texas United States resident and an international
artist – to reside at the facility while creating
artworks for its galleries. In addition to these nine
artists, the facility hosts an additional four
exhibitions each year. “We’re bringing in artists
from various backgrounds to exchange ideas and
bring their own creativity to San Antonio,”
Artpace public affairs manager Matt Johns said.
Regional Texas and Latino art interests are
showcased in several venues, including the Blue
Star Contemporary Art Center, Guadalupe
Cultural Arts Center and Mueso Alameda. Blue
Star, an outgrowth of an artists' cooperative of
the 1920s, hosts 20 exhibits a year and also
provides studio and living space for artists.
Guadalupe is a non-profit organization that
promotes the dance, literature, media arts, visual
arts, theater and music of Chicano, Latino and
Native residents. Museo Alameda in El Mercado
is an affiliate museum of the Smithsonian
Institution and State Latino Museum of Texas
that promotes Latino arts and culture.
San Antonio's most prominent artwork is the
Torch of Friendship or La Antorcha dela
Amistad. The 50-ton sculpture towering 65 feet
over the city's main intersection was created by
Sebastian. The Mexican sculptor, who was born
Enrique Carbajal, is known for his mammoth
works that are also installed at Manzanillo, Spain,
and Osaka, Japan. It was commissioned by the
Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs of San
Antonio to commemorate the relationship
between the United States and Mexico resulting
from the creation of the North American Free
Large modernistic outdoor sculptures can also be
seen along the newly opened extension of the
Riverwalk, which delivers art lovers to two major
museums. The San Antonio Museum of Art is
the city's largest with 20,000 European and
American works on display. Nearby is the Witte
Museum, which focuses on ethnography, the
study of social and cultural change. Its collection
is largely decorative arts, textiles and scientific
developments with a special emphasis on Texas
and Southwestern culture. Noting that attendance
is rising at these museums, San Antonio officials
are hopeful that the Riverwalk extension will add
even more vibrancy this the Venice of America's