San Pedro Creek Culture Park: Hideous drainage ditch now inviting urban space

In this place of herons where the grasses sway in starlight I have flowed since the dawn of evermore.

John Phillip Santos, historical text carved in limestone

The stretch of San Pedro Creek between the tunnel inlet at I-35 and Houston Street beside a new office tower climbing toward the sky might only be a little more than four blocks long, but the transformation from drainage ditch to park seems miraculous to me.

Yes, I watched the earlier magic worked on the Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, but there was absolutely nothing natural-creek-like remaining following decades of flood-control projects in this neighborhood.

All that remained was a ditch. And then there was a dream. San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

Some dismiss projects like these as “legacy projects” fluffing up politicians’ egos with taxpayers’ dollars. Politically charged, the design process for a project this complex is rarely perfect. There are budget cuts, and still the enormous projects tend to run over-budget.

But, as with the original Paseo del Rio project, they can prove visionary. Development along the Museum Reach demonstrates how quickly highly blemished urban corridors become desirable.

While flood-control is an underlying purpose of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, the incorporation of site-specific art reflective of the city’s history and culture gives the new pedestrian passageway a distinctive San Antonio feel.

Bexar County is the primary funder of San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and the San Antonio River Authority is project manager.

looking south from Houston Street

Work is underway on the next phase heading southward from Houston Street. As you can see from the photo, this narrow stretch probably is even more challenging.

In my mind, the photos above illustrate that the complications and difficulties encountered along the way are so worth it. Those involved are leaving a legacy that will enrich the quality of urban life for generations to come. Looking forward to walking the next phase and those to come.

Biannual list of top posts always diverse

You need hold your breath no longer. That much anticipated list revealing most-read blog posts over the past year is here.

While the brutally murdered Helen Madarasz was a real person, at one time I believed I invented her ghost refusing to leave the site of her former home in Brackenridge Park. So many keep reading the post six years later, even I am starting to think she might really be haunting the park.

My readers seem to be as Alamobsessive as I am, fretting over proposed plans for Alamo Plaza. Every time I think the plaza will remain fence-free and historic gems on the west side of the plaza will be spared, renewed threats arise. That barely watercolored-in white rail in the background of the image above is a fence. Just to be safe, please consider signing the San Antonio Conservation’s Society petition at change. org.

venison at Fricska Gastropub in Budapest

Thanks for taking trips with me; you seem particularly drawn to food. We fell hard for Fricska Gastropub in Budapest, and our taste buds feel vindicated with its recent receipt of Bib Gourmand recognition from Michelin. (And, yes, sister Susan, I promise to get to food posts from Italy soon. She has been whining about being sent into so many churches first. But it takes a long time for postcards to arrive from Italy, and the Alamo keeps interrupting.)

Margarita Cabrera

Like many of you, cannot wait to see Margarita Cabrera’s ‘Tree of Life’ take root on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River near Mission Espada.

So here’s your top 12, with the numbers in parentheses representing the rankings six months ago:

  1. The Madarasz Murder Mystery: Might Helen Haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (2)
  2. Forging consensus for the Alamo Comprehensive Plan: Don’t fence us out, 2018
  3. Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Currently suffering from case of miss-you-Fricska blues, 2017 (3)
  4. ‘Tree of Life’ bears bountiful crop of tales from the past, 2018
  5. Please put this song on Tony’s pony and make it ride away, 2010 (4)
  6. ‘Just the Facts:’ A fence by any other name still smells the same, 2018
  7. Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away, 2016 (8)
  8. Morning walk turns into thematic parade through San Antonio’s heritage, 2018

    San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo’s Western Heritage Parade

  9. How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?, 2011 (10)
  10. The Curse of Madarasz Park: Another Ghost Wandering in Brackenridge Park, 2014
  11. Postcard from Mexico City: Pausing for a playful food break at Mercado Roma, 2017

    fried charl taquito amuse bouche at Seneri in Mercado Roma in Mexico City

  12. Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Where fiestas erupt all the time, 2017

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to chat back. We’ll wind up this round-up with a fiesta in Oaxaca.

‘Tree of Life’ bears bountiful crop of tales from the past

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

Rudyard Kipling

Assigned by the San Antonio River Foundation with the creation of a major work of public art to celebrate the community surrounding Mission San Francisco de la Espada and its strong connections to San Antonio’s ranching heritage, Margarita Cabrera envisioned a tree of life. A tree of life overflowing with fruit. “Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra.”

The origin of colorful trees of life is rooted in Colonial Mexico. Missionaries worked with craftsmen in the Puebla region of Mexico to create clay sculptures to relay biblical stories, often branching upward and outward from Adam and Eve at the base.

Building on that tradition of rendering stories in clay, Cabrera has collaborated with more than 600 members of the community since May to capture their narrative memories. Workshops were held to help even novices record these chapters of San Antonio’s shared history in slab and coil based clay sculptures. The finishing touches on the final fruits of this labor of love involving so many are being completed in a studio at Mercury Project.

While many of the 700 pieces already have been fired, these photos are of works in progress. After firing, Cabrera says, each piece will be filled with epoxy so that, even if a piece is damaged, the sculpture will remain intact. The average weight of each of the suspended “fruits” will be in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. Serving as a portal linking the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River to Mission Espada, this tree will be immense.

An ostrich-plumed hat perched atop the head of “la patrona” made Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli (1752-1803) easy to spot on early Texas cattle drives, according to Merri Gutierrez, one of her descendants. Gutierrez chose to depict the signature hat to represent the story of the daughter of two Spanish aristocrats who was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Known as the first cattle queen of Texas, Hinojosa de Balli amassed more than one-million acres of land stretching across five Texas counties. She built chapels at all of her ranches for the ranchhands and served as godmother to more than 300 of their children.

Thelma Ortiz Muraida is crafting a truck to signify the lifestyle of her father, a migrant worker born in Floresville. An artist who has illustrated numerous children’s books, Muraida is enjoying working with the clay. Her father loved to create folk art from found objects, and her great-aunt worked with her husband alongside Dionicio Rodriguez, known for his landmark faux bois cement sculptures. The truck pays tribute to those who work with their hands and their appreciation of and respect for the land. She is filling her truck with family members and the things they would pack up to create a sense of home as they roamed to harvest crops in other parts of the country –  birds, chickens, the pet dog and the guitar her grandmother played.

The meaningful ornaments for Cabrera’s tree are taking shape within the walls of Mercury Project, a network of artists’ studios founded in 2012 by artists and designers Antonia Richardson and Warren Borror in a renovated factory on Roosevelt Avenue. When Borror’s mother first saw the structure, she said, “I know this building.” From 1945 to 1955, the building was the San Antonio home of Clicquot Club Beverages, distinguished by its Eskimo Boy logo. The owner was popular for giving neighborhood kids free ginger ales and root beers, and church socials often were held upstairs. Borror chose that part of Mercury Project’s past to highlight for his contribution to the tree, a Clicquot bottle cap.

But the scallops of the edge of the bottle cap reminded the fifth-generation San Antonian of another part of both the city’s and his family’s past. The flip side of the cap will represent the cranks for a bicycle chain. His family has a photo of his great-grandfather in San Antonio’s first bicycle parade in 1893, and one of his great grandfather’s sons operated Ullrich’s bicycle shop where La Frite is today. While relating some of the city’s early bicycle history, Borror also is celebrating San Antonio’s increasing transition into a bike-friendly city.

So, staring up at 700 individual clay sculptures, how will anyone glean the stories behind them? There will be an app for that, says Cabrera. After firing, each piece will be photographed on all sides and will be accompanied by narrative from the community storytellers.

While shading people below, this tree will be an incredible place to play “I Spy.” The bountiful tree of life will stimulate viewers’ memories, encouraging multi-generational sharing, reviving San Antonio’s rich oral tradition often drowned out by contemporary media.

Harvesting the tales hanging above will take multiple visits to the story-telling tree. I sure hope this magical tree comes with a couple of rocking chairs below for grandparents to hold their grandchildren in their laps while telling them about life when they were young.