Brackenridge Park: San Antonio’s Neglected Crown Jewel

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By Robert Rivard

Leilah Powell is a woman on a mission. She is the first executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, appointed in 2010 to serve as steward and advocate for the park’s natural settings, its threatened historic treasures and underdeveloped recreational amenities. The enhancement and protection of Brackenridge Park, the city’s premier public green space,  is a worthy cause central to the resurgence of San Antonio’s historic core city, but it’s also a daunting challenge.

Brackenridge Park and its neighbors draw nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, led by the San Antonio Zoo and a vibrant, growing Witte Museum, which Saturday celebrates the grand opening of the Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center. The historic Brackenridge Golf Course, which occupies 113 acres on the park’s southern border, underwent its own $3 million makeover in 2008. Spurred by a $20 million gift from Charles Butt, CEO and Chairman of H-E-B Grocery, the San Antonio Children’s Museum will open a new $45 million complex on Broadway across from the park in 2015.

Yet many in San Antonio do not use Brackenridge Park or appreciate its potential. “For many in San Antonio, the park is their backyard,” Powell says. And there lies the problem: many of those with backyards — the city’s more prosperous citizens — see Brackenridge as a working-class venue, a place Mexican-American families hold holiday fiestas with the adults circling the grill and the kids taking swings at piñatas. It’s the public park equivalent of the VIA bus system.

Sure, the park also attracts runners, cyclists, nature lovers and others, but the numbers are incidental. Race and class color our park views. It’s unfortunate that such bias prevails, even as the Broadway Corridor is transformed into a bustling gateway to the downtown. In other cities, a 343-acre downtown park with history and a river flowing through it would be humming with people seven days a week. It also would be embraced by developers with an eye for a view. In other words, such a park in other cities would serve as a giant green engine driving economic and cultural development.

Leilah Powell

Leilah Powell

Brackenridge Park, founded in 1890, lies just below the headwaters of the San Antonio River. It’s been called the most significant archeological site in Texas, with indigenous life documented as far back as 9,000 years ago. “People were sitting alongside the river and grilling meat 5,000 years ago, and people are still sitting alongside the river and grilling meat,” Powell told her audience, repeating a quip recently offered by UTSA President Ricardo Romo, an avid photographer whose images of families celebrating Easter in Brackenridge Park were the subject of a Witte Museum exhibition and an earlier Rivard Report story.

There is little or no signage to inform the visitor, but the city’s 18th century acequia started here, bringing water from the river first to the city’s Eastside, and after the construction in 1776 of the Upper Labor Dam, to the cultivated fields of what is now the Westside. Alas, you’d never find the remnants of the dam today without a guide. Neglected, even abandoned historical buildings like the 1878 Pumphouse #1, the oldest industrial building in Bexar County, dot the park.

“We’re not telling our story very well,” Powell said Monday as she addressed members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. That will change, she promised, when signage similar to that now visible on the Mission Reach starts to be put in place inside the park.

Advancing a slide, Powell exclaimed, “Look there, Brackenridge has the best public bathrooms in the city. You’d never build these today.”  Sure enough, the rock structures feature clerestory windows set within a pagoda-like roof, and carved detail along the upper walls.

A family walks along one of the shaded roadways in Brackenridge Park.

A family meanders along one of the shaded roadways in Brackenridge Park.

San Antonio has long been a city short on parks and even shorter on park funding. The City of San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department has only enough funds for basic park maintenance. More than 100 feet of a historic stone wall along the river collapsed months ago and remains in a  state of unattended rubble. Few public officials see Brackenridge as the cornerstone of a revitalized Broadway Corridor.

The Trust for Public Land ranks San Antonio 35th among the nation’s Top 40 cities for park space. Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso all rank higher.

Imagine this Ad: “Apartments with Park View”

In any other city, hi-rise apartments would stand sentinel over the expansive views of winding river, dense woodlands and open fields. A few towers north of the park offer such views, but there seems to be no political appetite for taking, say, Avenue, B, a glorified back alley, and converting it into park frontage with new mixed-use development.  Fear of what area neighborhood associations, especially the notoriously cranky River Road Neighborhood Association, would have to say about such a proposal, probably leads some officials to decide the conversation is simply not worth starting. I have plenty of friends who live in the funky, off-the-beaten-path neighborhood created by the construction of Hwy. 281, but I’ve never understood why a few dozen residents are allowed to define or limit use of a citywide amenity.

Powell has little to work with at this point in time, save for her own passion and drive, and a supportive board. Powell hails from a family with deep roots in San Antonio. A former high level city and county official who served for several years as special assistant to Mayor Ed Garza, Powell is an ideally suited candidate to lead the conservancy. Despite those credentials, Powell draws an embarrassingly  modest part-time salary. She has no full-time staff, and oversees a meager five-figure budget. Her list of donors is small. She almost fits the definition of volunteer.

An archeologist holds a flint scraper found during a park dig.

An archeologist holds a flint scraper found during a park dig.

Yet Powell admirably pushes on, telling the Brackenridge story to anyone who will listen. I believe she will build the conservancy into something significant. Even at her Monday presentation, however, Powell encountered design and development professionals who seemed generally unaware of the dimensions of the park’s needs and the lack of funding.

The Japanese Tea Garden

The Japanese Tea Garden

“Embracing our history helps us, as a city, move forward in so many ways,” Powell remarked to the group. One of her slides, depicting the Japanese Tea Gardens, was cited by Powell as evidence that the city’s efforts to lure tourists here predates HemisFair by 75 years. Another untold aspect of the story is that the Gardens sit in one of the city’s many abandoned limestone quarries, which have become home to everything from a university to an amusement park.

How many people in San Antonio today, Powell wondered, know the story of Kimi Eizo Jingu, a Japanese-American artist who lived with his family in the Garden early in the 20th century, opened the Bamboo Room tea salon, served as caretaker, and raised eight children there. A few years after his death in 1938, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day officials evicted his family from their home. The name was changed to the Chinese Tea Garden and was left that way until 1984 when then-Mayor Henry Cisneros presided over the restoration of the Garden and its name in a ceremony attended by Jungu’s children. It’s an important chapter in the city’s civil rights history, but again, it’s found today only in books and Internet searches.

“It pains me that roads and drainage out poll cultural facilities and parkland in bond elections,” Powell said at the AIA luncheon. “It tells me that this city doesn’t support the quality of the built environment.”

Three San Antonians who Changed the Big Apple

Powell and those who support her can draw inspiration from three other San Antonio notables whose work in establishing park conservancies have left lasting marks on the same city: New York.

Robert Hammond

Robert Hammond

Robert Hammond, a 1988 Alamo Heights graduate, is the author of  recently published book,  “High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky.” Hammond is the co-founder and president of Friends of the High Line, founded in 1999 to preserve and convert an abandoned elevated railway on Manhattan’s Westside into what is now an internationally celebrated urban park. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani resisted those efforts and advocated tearing down the elevated railway. Today, not only is the High Line alive with locals and visitors, but some of the world’s most recognized architects have projects rising alongside it.

I lived in New York in the 1980s when the Central Park Conservancy was founded. A San Antonio woman, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, is credited as the driving force behind the transformation of Central Park. City officials lacked the funding to maintain and restore the park to its original splendor, so Rogers and other like-minded park supporters created something out of nothing. Today the conservancy’s trademark logo is widely recognized, and its online store generates millions in profits that further park preservation.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Warrie Price

Warrie Price

Yet another former San Antonio resident, Warrie Price, founded the Battery Park Conservancy in 1994 and serves as its president today. The post-9/11 transformation of the historic park and surrounding property and buildings adjacent to the World Trade Towers site draws millions of visitors a year.

There was a time when such creative forces routinely left San Antonio, drawing nary a question or complaint, but increasingly, people with vision and purpose are yearning to be part of transformation in San Antonio. Powell certainly fits that description. As she undertakes a revision of the City’s dusty 1980 master plan for Brackenridge Park, Powell will have to find allies for her cause and some significant philanthropy to catch the public’s attention and imagination. Perhaps we should invite three former San Antonio residents to come home and take a tour of Brackenridge Park. Their accomplishments could serve as inspiration to their hometown and their insights could guide us forward.

Leilah Powell

Leilah Powell

You can contact Leilah Powell at lpowell@brackenridgepark.org or follow her on Twitter at @brackparkconserv.  To make a tax-deductible donation to the Brackenridge Conservancy or to find out more information, visit the website at www.brackendridgepark.org.  All Brackenridge Park photos courtesy of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

 

 

31 thoughts on “Brackenridge Park: San Antonio’s Neglected Crown Jewel

  1. When I came to San Antonio in 1964 the public perception was that the San Antonio River started at pumps underneath the Hildebrand Avenue bridge.

    George Brackenridge would rise freom his gateless cemetety.

  2. I heard Leilah speak recently and was fascinated by the stories she told of Brackenridge Park. By coincidence, I’m on my way to New York on Friday and plan to visit the High Line which I missed in January due to rain and cold the day I planned to go there. And I’ve already marked my calendar for walking tours of Central Park while I’m there. Chose my hotel for its proximity to Central Park.

    I knew of the High Line connection to San Antonio but not the Central Park Conservancy.

  3. This is a class driven article and some what racist. I am finding the articles on this website to be dripping with gentrification as I have been reading along.

    Brackenridge park is a San Antonio main stay and is used every Sunday by San Antonio citizens. I find it sad that people suggest that because “back yard” owning citizens do not find it appealing is a problem.

    This gentrification trend in your alls writing is becoming dominant. Many of the spaces you all talk about already have vibrant communities in them, just not ones you all identify with.

    I agree with a lot of what you all are trying to do in terms of discussing culture, art and community here in San Antonio, but I also see a slipperly slop it can become. Having lived in Austin for 10 years it is easy for me to see how the band wagon begins…

    Specifically writing like this worries me…

    “Yet many in San Antonio do not use Brackenridge Park or appreciate its potential. “For many in San Antonio, the park is their backyard,” Powell says. And there lies the problem: many of those with backyards — the city’s more prosperous citizens — see Brackenridge as a working-class venue, a place Mexican-American families hold holiday fiestas with the adults circling the grille and the kids taking swings at piñatas. It’s the public park equivalent of the VIA bus system.”

    I too am excited about the potential of San Antonio, but creating class and race driven divisions in my opinion is not a very positive way to discuss our cities future.

    joey
    mygeekylife.com

    • Race and class have driven the divide between who uses and who doesn’t use the park for decades. I am writing about that reality in an effort to break it down, not sustain it. There is no interest in displacing any current park users. The idea is to get others to visit the park and join in with them.

      • I agree with you Robert and I honestly feel you are not trying to displace anyone, but the way you all are framing and writing your pieces are doing so and coming across that way. I know you are a proud San Antonian trying to help our community.

        I am just stating my opinion and impression of what I read in order to give you all feedback. I write comments because I know you all care and would want to know how we the readers are perceiving what you are writing.

        Thanks!

        joey
        mygeekylife.com

        • Joey makes a good point, and Bob a nice reply. Brackenridge Park is a jewel precisely because it is a public place where most San Antonians feel comfortable. It’s the city park that draws people from throughout the community, and its users reflect our demographics more closely than those of other parks. If we as a community are committed to building awareness of our origins, understanding of our history and pride in what we are and can become, then our stories have to be told and then acknowledged by the widest possible audience. There are painful chapters, such as the Japanese Tea Garden, but I think that would be true in any community.

          At the same time, because Brackenridge is first and foremost a park, it must always provide a wonderful place for to have a BBQ, go for a run, play with the kids, or drink a cup of coffee and read the paper before work. We are doing a much better job at meeting these kinds of needs, although there are a number of things (replacing the portable toilet that provides disabled-accessible facilities in the trail area, for example) where more investment would enhance “San Antonio’s Backyard.” Continuing to improve basic park facilities is particularly important because a lot of folks don’t have or can’t afford a big backyard or a health club membership. But we are missing an opportunity if we only think about Brackenridge’s role as a backyard, because the park does or can fulfill environmental, educational, and economic roles that improve quality of life for everyone.

    • I would have to agree with Joey on that one. That particular paragraph was very poorly worded and I think it seemed to suggest that because people think of it as their backyard, it drives away a certain group of people. I used to run with a group on Wed afternoons in Brackenridge park. Whenever I take a day off from my day job at Rackspace, I take my son to ride the train (a train I rode when I was a child). I grew up riding the sky ride and am so pleased to see the gondolas sitting in the Rackspace office.

      I guess I didn’t realize “Brack” was a neglected park. I am, however, so pleased to see the investment in the park. It is certainly a jewel of San Antonio.

      • Angela, I was glad to read about your fond memories of the park and the fact that you are making new memories with your son. The Zoo train is great–my daughters love it, too. If you are interested in uncovering some of the hidden treasures in the park, please let me know and I will send you some of the family-oriented, self-guided tour materials that we have developed about the history and natural resources of Brackenridge.

      • Hi Angela

        That is precisely what I am suggesting: A certain segment of our population does not use the park because they isolate themselves from other segments of our population. Making that observation does not make me part of it. I’ve run hundreds of races in the Park over 20 years, and they are thinly attended. Only the old Zoo Relay attracted a significant field. If you ask people you know, I think many of them will acknowledge that they do not frequent the park, even if they don’t know exactly why. Why is Brackenridge so empty on weekdays, unlike any other urban park I can think of? One reason, as pointed out in another post, is the lack of development and activity along the park’s perimeter. But another reason is that many within easy driving distance of the park do not see it as a destination. My goal is to spur a new conversation about the park and a new commitment to help Leilah and her team find the resources and support to accomplish their important mission. Thanks for posting.

        • Thanks Robert! I guess my thought process is to present the awesome features of the park and why everyone should be using it rather than suggesting reasons why a certain group of people wouldn’t visit (speaking of the segmentation). I guess I don’t believe in my heart that this is the reason why people don’t visit. I think people just forget it’s there.

          Maybe our downtown trolleys should go through the park! That would be really cool (and might bring more downtown employees over during the weekdays for coffee or lunch). I actually can ride my bike down to the park (but summers are so hot). We have a great backyard where we can bbq and hangout but I look at Brack as a nice destination to explore new things (especially now for my son).

          Anyhow, thanks for brining Brack to the forefront. I really enjoyed reading the accomplishments of San Antonians as well. I had no idea that the High Line park was work from an Alamo Heights graduate. So cool!

  4. A great introduction to the park is the Zoo Train. The conductors talk about the history of the park, and you see a lot of different areas and uses.

  5. Thank you for your continued community service Leilah. Brackenridge Park is an incredible gem of San Antonio and is a place where everyone can enjoy. I look forward to seeing the improvements that will make it a constant stop for residents and visitors alike. The conservation of the parks history is an important aspect to the future development and I know you and other dedicated volunteers will make sure it is protected while also allowing responsible development along the park.

    Cheers,
    Zac

    • An important article (that I found thanks for Zac’s sharing on Facebook) regarding a critically-underused public park. My wife & I frequently walk from our house in Monte Vista to enjoy Brackenridge (and I’ve hosted several sangria-fueled hot dog cookouts near the Joske Pavillion). But unless it’s Saturday or Sunday, it’s quite empty.

      Public spaces (usually described by the worthless abstract phrase “open spaces”) won’t realize their potential if they’re not activated. And you activate public spaces by building clearly-defined structures (presumably filled with humans) at the edge. And there are real practical problems with this at Brackenridge (mostly in the form of the people who own the nearby real estate, and are unwilling to work on redeveloping their property).

      And to the gentrification alarmists wringing their hands, you’d be well-served to remember that great public spaces require investments from all citizens, especially wealthy people.

    • You’re quite welcome, Zac! Most days it’s a pleasure–today, for example, I spent three hours in the park with the consultant team that’s working on our Environmental BioDiversity study. We looked at native plants, talked about the egret and heron rookery, and discussed ways to manage vegetation that respect historic resources. Of course, the next step (finding money to integrate all of those concerns into a master plan) is likely to be a little less pleasant! Thank you for your support.

  6. As a native of San Antonio, I love to see new ideas for old places. We need to cherish our past and use it to grow a future that shows where San Antonio can be. I still think of SA as a small town but when I travel to another part of the city, I am amazed with the growth. Since this is still a military city, I have lived with people from all parts of the country and from overseas. We can all learn from others and when we work together, we can do so much.

    • Laura, closer coordination with the military is on our “to do” list at Brackenridge Park Conservancy. Since you can throw a rock from some parts of Brackenridge Park and hit Ft. Sam (although I really don’t recommend that), we can have a great opportunity to serve and honor our military men and women, and to recognize this part of our history. Right now we are discussing Memorial Day concert for 2013. Send me your email (lpowell@brackenridge.org) if you’d like to be added to our mailing list.

  7. This sounds like a very exciting development for the park. When my children were young we went to the park several times a week to the zoo, train, playground or to the Witte Museum. Now that my kids are in college I don’t really have a reason to make regular trips to the park. Perhaps small-scale weeknight events such as jazz concerts or outdoor family movie nights (on one of those inflatable screens) would attract new visitors. I also wish the Miraflores park area was open to the public although I realize it is hard to protect the artwork in the park. I think Miraflores would be a nice setting for an outdoor event with music and refreshments.

    • Debbie, I couldn’t agree more. If you’ll send your e-mail address to me (lpowell@brackenridgepark.org) I’ll add you to our mailing list. We have some neat events coming up in the fall, such as Parkotberfest in October, and we also hold tours and other gatherings. Thanks for your interest and your comments.

  8. I make this comment without having been to Brack in about 3 years (not because I don’t want to).
    I would not want to look up through the tree canopy to see an apartment highrise-lined park. Of course, I could just go a few feet from Ave. B and it wouldn’t be an issue. What about the noise? Just retreat further into the trails. I get the argument. But, no environmental factors were mentioned in this article, thought I am sure it is major issue in Powell’s work, or that the park was revitalized back in 2007(?). As much as I missed the paved roads right along the river, I knew it was best to convert those roads into trails because car emissions were eroding the river bed. The sculptures, trail markers, and information displays were an added bonus. Within a matter of a year, markers had been broken, displays written upon. I also get the classist argument, as hard as it is to hear (or read), but I feel it is an outdated one. I think the people who would use parks to begin with and that live in the area already use Brack for it’s various resources. I would never go drive to a park outside 410 or 1604, and I wouldn’t expect those people to come down here. I wonder if it is not so much a question of the park’s amenities, historical treasures, and conservation but a matter the city or the organization actually maintaining the park.

  9. In all these comments no one mentions cleaning up the river so that it can be swimmable again. Look at old pictures or talk to people who went back in the day – you could go swimming in the river.

    Now look at us. River is too dirty, they wall it off so people can’t get in, people’s connection to the water is severed so they stop caring and the resource degrades further.

    Then look at what we do. We have a parks bureaucracy that is only capable of making things worse: build more, pave more, Disney-fy more. They cannot envision removing the concrete, repairing the stone, designing to prevent erosion, cleaning up the water, and providing for areas where people could access the river and swim. They are incapable of conceiving beauty. Even people with a sixth grade education in the Great Depression that built the park could conceive of beauty, but not these people. They know only the “value engineering” of the modern cheaparse corporate contractor.

    McBureaucrats cannot envision beauty. S/he can only give excuses as to why we can’t, why we are now Ameri-CAN’Ts and Mexi-CAN’Ts because we are not allowed to do anything including swim in our own rivers, and how someone could get hurt or sick or drown and it’s not in my budget and no the union rules say I’m not allowed to cut staff doing make work jobs and I’m just following orders. It would take 20 years of fighting McBureaucrats and the city lawyers, and you’d have to set up a parallel non-profit foundation and citizens advocacy group, raise half the money yourself, bribe and payoff and lobby city politicians for two decades, and then maybe finally before you die someone would turn a shovel to start on a half-baked version of a swimmable river. That is how it works in this country now. What was once done in two or three years during the Great Depression without any bs cannot be done any longer because we are now Ameri-CAN’Ts and Mexi-CAN’Ts.

    So most people give up. They take the cool stance, which is, well, the cool yuppies are going to move in on Broadway, but there’s already too many slave cattle using the park and the water quality is already too degraded and there is not going to be enough water in the future anyhow, so we’re never going to have a swimmable river ever again. So let’s just spooge some money here and there, plop plop plop, and build some junk to paper over the ugly parts of the park, and maybe get rid of those dang birds that poop all over the place. Yeah. That’ll make it cool.

    • Swimming in the river again is a grand goal. Couldn’t agree more. Let’s keep the discourse civil, please.

    • Brian/Abra, I know how easy it is to get frustrated with the limited resources available to maintain and improve the park, and with the seemingly haphazard improvements. The existing Master Plan was adopted in 1980 and slightly updated in 1997 to allow for a small infusion of bond money. Neither the 1980 plan nor the 1997 update described, documented or considered the park as a natural environment. The various ecosystems, ranging from an Edwards plateau remnant to the riparian corridor itself, were neither treated as resources to be protected or assets to be maximized–they were just not addressed at all. BPC, with the support of the River Authority, SAWS, the City and the County, has commissioned an environmental study so that we can start the natural resources planning piece. When we raise the required funds, we can then integrate the natural resources component into the recreational and cultural resources planning and management strategies. The egret and heron rookeries are a great example–if people are going to swim in the river at Lambert beach, how do we accommodate nesting, federally-protected migratory birds? Another example–how should vegetation be treated in order to minimize impact on historic structures but encourage the restoration of native habitat? While this isn’t rocket science, it will take a little time to sort out competing uses. If you’d like to get more involved, please don’t hesitate to contact me at lpowell@brackenridgepark.org. Thanks for your interest.

  10. During frequent visits to Brackenridge I notice a grouping of “buckeye” trees near the bank of the river adjacent to
    the intersection of Red Oak Rd and Tuleta Dr. Can any interested party possible identify the species of these buckeye trees?

    I could include a photo of the spot where the trees are.

    Thank you,

    Jim Baines
    Wildlife Photographer
    Copperas Cove, TX

  11. Pingback: Photos: Brackenridge Park playground | San Antonio Charter Moms

  12. And don’t forget the beautiful Faux Wood art by Demetrio Rodriguez that dots the park. My favorite is the walkway on the Northside of the park near the Urrutia property. I even found his signature .

  13. I find it meaningless to mention race in any context. So what, we come from different backgrounds and cultures. If we keep dredging up race it perpetuates the bad things associated with it…why can we not just all be ‘citizens’?

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