Friday, October 19, 2012

River Walk Critics Don't Get It | Casey's Last Word

As an admirer of Houston Mayor Annise Parker, I never imagined I would find her keeping rhetorical company with the likes of Charles Barkley and, of all people, Mark Cuban.

Yet there she was recently, joining the two in disparaging one of America’s greatest urban amenities: the River Walk.

Sir Charles, who revels in being outrageous, called it “a dirty little creek.”

Cuban, who revels in being obnoxious, labeled it an “ugly, muddy-watered thing.”

The mild-mannered Parker, who as far as I can tell revels in very few things, called it ...

... “a concrete ditch.”

She’s wrong on both counts.

The folks at the San Antonio River Authority tell me only along the extension to the River Center Mall is there a concrete bottom.

And not even the most clueless tourist could mistake that part of the River Walk for anything natural.

The horseshoe part of the River Walk, the historic and most visited part, isn’t a ditch in any sense, but the original flow of the river.

As San Antonians know, there were plans to by-pass it after a huge flood in 1921 killed 50 people.

There were also plans to pave over the original horseshoe bend.

The by-pass was dug, but the ladies who founded the San Antonio Conservation Society saved the river from being paved over.

Later Mayor Maury Maverick got his friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide Works Progress Administration money to turn the river into the River Walk.

We can only wish some of the stimulus money spent in response to the greatest financial collapse since the Depression had produced anything of such lasting beauty.

The river not only isn’t a ditch, it isn’t all that dirty for a river.

There was a time when employees at River Walk restaurants tossed waiters and waitresses into the river on their birthdays.

They weren’t in much danger from the depth, of course. But there is also no record of casualties from water pollution.

That birthday custom is a casualty of technology – cell phones.

Mayor Parker made her comment about the River Walk during a press conference regarding the naming of Buffalo Bayou by the American Planning Association as one of the nation’s “top 10 public places.”

The Buffalo Bayou, like the San Antonio River, is the lazy, unambitious waterway along which the city was built.

Like the San Antonio River, it has been channelized for flood control purposes.

Its grassy banks form a fine linear park to the west of downtown.

But there’s not much to it downtown, which may be why Parker gets defensive when people ask her why they don’t make it into the River Walk.

“Buffalo Bayou is a living, active water course,” she said at the press conference, after disparaging the River Walk.

“And it has to be kept in as natural state as it can be for flood control purposes to allow the fish, the birds, the turtles, the critters that live in there to get what they need from the bayou as well as the recreational opportunities for Houstonians.”

Perhaps she isn’t aware that the River Walk is no longer just the historic downtown area that attracts so many tourists.

Over the past five years it has been extended nearly 13 miles at a cost of $170 million, from the top of Brackenridge Park north of downtown all the way to Mission Espada well south of downtown.

This new and spectacular linear park not only includes sidewalks, picnic areas and public art, it also includes measures designed to protect wildlife from the side effects of urban development as well as from the sun and strong currents.

Mayor Parker should visit it.

She’ll see not a concrete ditch but a great engineering feat that accommodates the safety of a city and the needs of nature.

If she’s lucky, she’ll also see beautiful white egrets and great blue herons.

No comments: