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.

Something old, something new along the Mission Reach

In the early 1700s, Native Americans dug an elaborate system of irrigation ditches, or acequias, to water the farmlands surrounding the string of missions founded by Spanish friars. According to an article written by Jose A. Rivera in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 2003, the farmlands near Mission San Juan Capistrano were served by this system:

… until the spring of 1958, when a channel improvement project relocated the bed of the San Antonio River two hundred feet away from the headgate of the San Juan Acequia. In the process of straightening, widening, and deepening the river, the site of the original saca de agua (the historic San Juan Dam) was buried with excavated dirt and rubble. The new channel was too far away and deep to supply water to the San Juan headgate by way of gravity-flow irrigation as had been the practice for more than two hundred years.

Secularization of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1824 included close to 500 acres served by San Juan Acequia. This land was granted to:

… military officers from the Bexar garrison, a former military chaplain, and four women, each coveting the quality of agricultural lands available at this mission site.

It took subsequent landowners decades of litigation and negotiations to regain their water access following the 1950s’ flood-control work undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Authority. The oldest water rights in Texas, Rivera writes, finally were restored in 2001, ahead of the San Antonio River Improvements Project.

Now, a short jog off the west bank trail of the San Antonio River Improvements Project leads through a field of wildflowers back to the ancient stone arched acequia, topped once again by water flowing into the restored ditches nourishing neighboring fields. The 13 miles of the recent river project, including the Mission Reach, represent a monumental effort by the Corps, the River Authority, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to restore the river ecosystem to a more natural, healthy state. The wildlife, fisher-folks, hikers, runners, bicyclists and paddlers using it attest to their success.

Only a stroll away is a contemporary addition to the river’s banks, “Whispers.” In 2015, the San Antonio River Foundation contributed this site-specific sculpture by Belgian artist Arne Quinze to the Mission Reach project. (Read more about Quinze’s sculpture here.)

Lush greenery and wildflowers carpet the banks all along the Mission Reach. Hope you get a chance to walk and explore it before spring is overtaken by the summer heat.

Ominous omens keep flying by…

OMEN, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

No matter what, it’s the San Antonio Book Festival’s fault. Writing about some of the authors scheduled to appear there sent me back to a post from long ago about Jake Silverstein’s book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which had sent me delving back into The Devil’s Dictionary. Hence the omen reference. Add to that overstimulation from listening to five full sessions of authors talking followed by the Literary Death Match.

National Park Service photo of red-tailed hawk

National Park Service photo of red-tailed hawk

This past Thursday morning, the Mister and I headed southward for our morning walk. A hawk swooped onto a tree not 15 feet in front of us. It was a newly planted tree on the Eagleland stretch of the San Antonio River, the name of which comes not from sightings of eagles but from the Brackenridge High School’s mascot.

The branches of this 12-foot tree were not big enough to successfully support a hold-onto-your-chihuahua-size hawk; so, before we could even zip out and focus the smartphone, he flew off. While we were fiddling like dummies with the smartphone, the hawk caught something white now dangling helplessly from the hawk’s claws.

I wasn’t thinking omen yet. But a mile or so later on the Mission Reach by Lone Star, we saw another hawk swooping through the sky. We were impressed by a two-hawk day because we rarely even spy one.

But that afternoon, there was a third flying across 281 right in front of me as I headed to a meeting.

Three hawks. Now that seemed ominous to me.

Some people view hawks as messengers. Messengers bearing warnings, not usually glad tidings. I was afraid to even begin to surf the internet to find out what it would mean if three were trying to deliver news to me. I elected to prefer the theory that the hawks just happened to live nearby; it was meal time; and I was passing through their grocery store.

The next afternoon was warm. We had the doors on the second floor wide open. I kept hearing noises, though home alone.

Bravely going back up the stairs to the third floor, I found the source. A sparrow clinging to the shade on the south bank of windows.

I’m thinking omens again. Some people believe a bird flying into your house is a sign of death. I prefer the belief it means a loved one is trying to communicate with you from the grave. That seems more comforting.

Unfortunately, the windows on the third floor do not open. I was pondering how I was going to convince the sparrow to go back down a floor to the open doors when the sparrow spied this:

spring-green

The bank of windows on the north side. Well, the sparrow went for it as fast as his wings could flap through the length of the house.

Smack. Thud.

I’m thinking serious omen.

A bird breaks his neck flying into your window, particularly while inside the house? Not a good sign. A harbinger of death.

But a break came. A major stroke of good luck. When the sparrow hit the glass, he fell smack into the middle of the trashcan beside my desk onto a soft bed of kleenix, ever-present during this season of pollen.

I was able to cover him with a jacket and cart him out to the back porch. Upon my removal of the cover, he sat there stunned for quite a while. He had been tricked by those very same green leaves once, and, no fool, he wasn’t going to race toward them again. After about 30 minutes, he trusted his surroundings and fluttered home.

Surely that trumped all prior gloomy warnings.

I fretted a bit all weekend but finally decided no news was good news.

brokenwindowOur daughter solved it all inadvertently with an email with this photo attached. Aha, the sparrow must have been trying to tell me there had been a storm in Austin, and a branch blew into their house and smashed a window. Phew.

And then, on the phone later, she told me about the impending death. The Mister’s Infinity that had passed her way was in the process of passing away.

The Mister was sad. He loved that car.

But I was jubilant. Those hawks were only trying to tell me the Infinity was dying. I can handle that. I never even learned to find it in a parking lot; one silver sedan looks just like all the others to me.

I’m not paying attention to messages from birds again though; no matter what that pair of coots on the Mission Reach seems to be trying to say. The foreboding row of dark cormorants perched on the dam won’t scare me.

And those herons and egrets? They and all the other birds who didn’t use to flourish here are only here because our environment is improving everyday as the San Antonio River Improvements Project matures.

clawThe Mister and I just happen to walk right across their dining room table, often interrupting a crawfish feast, as we head southward.

And, that sparrow spared by the bed of kleenix absolutely has to be a sign of good luck.

April 29, 2014, Update: The flock of wild parrots that are spied around Southtown periodically just spent about 10 minutes fluttering around a cypress tree outside my window. Spectacular. Wish they would stay, but I think even that temporal a siting is a good sign.