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.
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.
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.
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.
“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, 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.
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.You can contact Leilah Powell at email@example.com 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.