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When the San Antonio Missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, Charles Birnbaum had mixed feelings while San Antonians were celebrating.
“It’s not to diminish the importance of the Missions,” said Birnbaum, instigator of the Leading with Landscape III: Renewing San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park summit, “but I thought it was a lost opportunity. I think the story of San Antonio is the story of water. The Missions and Brackenridge Park are places connected by water.”
Ultimately he wants to see Brackenridge Park become part of a National Heritage Area, encompassing the San Antonio River to the missions. This would elevate it far beyond its addition in 2011 to the National Register of Historic Places, he told the Rivard Report. It would be a step up, providing management, interpretation, and identity.
“It allows people to understand how the city was shaped, how it’s connected, and how we are connected to the past,” he said.
Birnbaum, a New Yorker now working in Washington, D.C, has a philosophical dog in the fight as a landscape architect and author focusing on landscape preservation and urban design. His passion for preserving, understanding, and connecting to the past led him to found The Cultural Landscape Foundation, of which he is president and CEO.
Among other ways of achieving his goals, his organization created a comprehensive online database of designed landscape heritage called “What’s Out There?” The cross-referencing of historic, natural, anthropologic, and other aspects of places will dazzle anyone interested in the deep dimensions of important places. As his business card says, it’s all about “connecting people to places.”
Plans are underway to bring a What’s Out There Weekend, a series of free interpretive tours led by experts that showcase the country’s landscape heritage, to San Antonio during the city’s Tricentennial celebrations in May 2018.
Birnbaum chose to locate the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s annual board meeting and attendant summit in San Antonio to spotlight the significance of Brackenridge Park, which he finally saw with his own eyes only a year ago. Because it wasn’t designed by a famous landscape designer such as Frederick Law Olmsted, it flew under the radar in the books he and other landscape architects study.
“When I saw the park for the first time, which was only last year, I was blown away,” he said. “I don’t think there is another municipal park in America that can boast 11,000 years of history in one place.”
National Heritage Areas are established by Congress and advised by the National Park Service; there are only 49, including Niagara Falls at Niagara University, The Baltimore National Heritage Area, the Hudson River Valley in Albany, NY, the Mississippi Delta in Cleveland, Ala., and the Shenandoah Valley of New Market, Va. None are in Texas.
President Ronald Reagan, in dedicating the first National Heritage Area in 1984, described it as “a new kind of national park,” a still-active place where “historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.” The communities within designated areas collaborate “to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs,” according to its website.
To Birnbaum, the description of a Heritage Area fits Brackenridge Park to a T. Its stories just need to be peeled back and revealed – an undertaking he sees the Summit as beginning.
“I think a lot of people who go to Brackenridge Park, although there are tangible things you can see like the Sunken Garden, are not going to know the cultural lifeways that moved through, to know there are remnant features from the early 18th century underfoot,” he said. “It’s just not visible. We need to instill value, to teach people about the history of this place so they understand it, and then engage.”
These stories of various peoples and uses through time make Brackenridge Park and environs greater than parks revered for their design.
“The word we use is a palimpsest,” he said. “It’s these layers of history side by side, sometimes one on top of the other. That’s Brackenridge Park – it is unrivaled.”
In his presentation to the Renewing San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park summit, Birnbaum listed 10 layers in the park’s palimpsest beginning with the prehistoric era and Spanish colonial occupation and extending through 19th century Mexican rule, quarrying, waterworks, horse-racing, formal development of the park and its facilities, and improvements by the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Association.
The second half of the 20th century through today have less drama – though participants chuckled when Birnbaum mentioned the uniqueness of camping out in a municipal park, such as Brackenridge sees every Easter weekend.
Birnbaum also sees potential for individual National Historic Landmarks such as the Sunken Garden.
“It’s one of the first quarries turned into a garden,” he said. “This is something that happens today; there was just one done in China. But here you have the cultural lifeway story of the Jinju family who built it out and then sadly had to leave during the war years.”
The Jinju family was returned to Japan during World War II despite their faithful stewardship of the park. An old sign welcoming visitors to the “Chinese Gardens” remains in the gardens today.
With the support of the National Park Service, the park could become an “in-the-landscape” equivalent to the Witte Museum’s outstanding work in showing natural and cultural history.
“For me, the bottom line is that there is a richness of cultural landscapes here in San Antonio that is not yet discovered and known, and that the work of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy is one example of this richness,” he said. “Clearly, nothing else rivals its 11,000 years of history spanning 10 periods. And there are countless other sites – such as San Pedro Springs Park and the Botanical Garden’s acequias – whose stories are waiting to be unlocked, to be told to a 21st century citizenry.
“That’s why physical and historical context matter,” he continued. “I believe the conference will begin the peeling back of the layers, starting to reveal some of those contextual values for the city. There is a richness here that I think is waiting to be unlocked and told.
“That’s what this conference is about and why we’re involved – it’s so core to our mission. It makes visible, instills value, and engages.”