We’re a quirky bunch here in the small San Antonio historic district known as “River Road,” bounded by Hwy. 281 on the west, Brackenridge Park on the north, the San Antonio River on the east and Texas' oldest 18-hole municipal golf course – built in 1916 – on the south. None of us who live here can agree on anything except for one basic, indisputable fact – we all LOVE living here.
The oldest home in our neighborhood was constructed in 1780, “The Zambrano Homestead,” the private residence for more than 80 years of one our city’s leading cultural dynasties, the Rosengren family. From the elegant Lucchese (boots) home with its own opera stage, potter Harding Black’s former residence, and Jazz impresario Jim Cullum’s River Road Country Day School manse where Georgia O’Keefe once painted, to Broadway producer/author Walter Starcke’s (I Am A Camera, which later became Cabaret) cunning cottage adjacent to the River, it’s a cozy community of primarily 1920s, '30s and '40s bungalows and abodes.
And the value of those humble abodes have been shooting ever so jaw-droppingly skyward for years now. A reality attributable to the two words every savvy realtor has tattooed on the inside of their eyelids: location and charm.
Everyone gets "location." You want to be in the center of everything but, thank you very much, “At a distance.” We’re five minutes to downtown, seven to San Antonio International Airport, six to the Quarry Market – but it’s all “over there” somewhere. Near, but not here.
"Charm" is that more intangible commodity. Is it the flowering orange tree in the front yard, the worn stone pathway through the jungly garden, the gazebo, the porch swing, the old growth trees, the gurgling River (we’ll call it an earnest stream at this juncture), the balcony overlooking the back nine of the verdant green stretching languidly before you? It’s all here in River Road – lot’s of charm. “Quirky” charm.
Did I mention we don’t agree on anything in River Road? Apparently the only thing we love more than actually living here is a good old-fashioned fight. The poor souls down at the City's Office of Historic Preservation have been known to burst into tears and rend their garments at the sight of an assemblage of River Road huffies bursting into their offices on South Alamo Street, demanding redress, or, at a minimum, the right to build a front yard chicken coop.
We’ve been a party to a lawsuit now for more than five years with a Dallas developer that insists on building a six-unit apartment complex at 112 Lindell, a site that's been a single-family residence since the 1930s. With the original house being restored, it would be a total seven-unit complex. We fought like hell to save the original house and they gave up one of their original apartments.
There are no other six-plexes in River Road. We went “historic” to protect ourselves from this very thing occurring, but the developer liked our “location” and “charm” so much he found a way around our city’s arcane zoning laws. We haven’t given up, they haven’t given up. An entire village in Guyana could send its children to college and get their teeth straightened for what all parties have spent on this continuing nightmare.
We vehemently protested the building of the Witte Museum Garage in Brackenridge Park. We’re notorious tree-huggers, and both the Witte President/CEO and the Director lived in River Road at the time. We held up the drainage project on Hildebrand Avenue for more than one year at the very real prospect of being flooded out of our homes, and we fought the Museum Reach “Bike and Hike Trail” that was hell-bent on sending hundreds of strollers and looky-loos down Craig Place and across the low water crossing, which becomes a raging Zambezi torrent after one of our nominal Texas cloudbursts.
No, we’re not certifiably deranged over here, despite the preponderance of Democratic – gasp – Party signs you see in most people’s yards. The more appropriate adage, as fuddy-duddy as it sounds, is we simply give a damn. People in River Road really do care – a lot – about this place they call home.
That’s why we’re so opinionated. So picky. So prickly. Dare I say it – if other neighborhoods in San Antonio cared as much to fight the good fight about the things that are important to them as we do here, this city would be a number one, world class, you-can’t-stop-us, not now-not ever, fantabulous place to live. But I digress.
One small example of how we do it just a wee bit differently in the neighborhood is how we just celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, July Fourth. Every year we have a neighborhood gathering across from our bountiful Community Garden – thank you, Larry Clark and Russell Smith – in Davis Park. Yes, I know it was called Allison Park until about a year or so ago when the City, unannounced, erected a new sign changing the name. Neighborhood pitchforks were being sharpened and the requisite tar and feathers collected when a consensus suddenly arose – save your energy for the inevitable bigger fish that consistently swim our way.
And so, we pause every year to celebrate this most American of holidays in a truly heartfelt and patriotic way: we eat watermelon, we drink sweet tea, we have pony rides for the children, we bring our folding chairs and sit under the towering oak trees, and we “visit.” People under the age of 40, take note – back in the day, people used to actually “visit,” i.e. conversation/discussion/humor/interaction/jesting/social intercourse. It was a lot of fun – and there were NO CELL PHONES. I know it sounds weird, but it actually happened.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) came this year and delivered a stirring call to action about the education crisis in Texas. City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), sensibly clad in shorts with untucked shirt-tail, spoke enthusiastically about the marvelous future of our very old, very historic city. Former River Road Neighborhood Association Chair Chris Green read the ENTIRE Declaration of Independence and City Archaeologist Kay Hindes presented the most intriguing and apropos homage of the day: an unveiling of a new “1776” Texas Historical Commission marker.
Long time River Road residents Sally and Bob Buchanan, planned and financed this lasting memorial for our neighborhood and the city. Sally, founding president of the San Antonio River Foundation, among a slew of other notable achievements, has been going through some rather hellacious health problems of late.
Yet somehow she found the time and energy to steer a commemoration plaque through the Texas Historical Commission, have a stone plinth constructed to showcase it, and then have it sited alongside the 18th century “desague” (literally, “drain”) feeding off the circa 1776 Acequia de Arriba Labor (the Upper Labor Aqueduct) constructed by Spanish Colonials and meandering to this very day through parts of our River Road neighborhood.
It’s a splendid addition to our fantastically rich-in-history and multi-cultural city. We have such a story to tell here and I particularly love the fact that when I go to Boston or Philadelphia or New York and I see historic markers stating, “George Washington did this, Ben Franklin said that, Paul Revere lived there.” We have all that and more right here in San Antonio.
Our nation's Independence story is a beautiful thing, but it isn’t the ENTIRE story. There are many, many equally compelling and stirring tales that happened concurrently right here, right in our own neighborhoods.
Please stop by and visit our city’s newest historic landmark in Davis/Allison Park next time you’re by our neighborhood. We promise to be good – for awhile, anyway.
Top image: Members of the River Road Neighborhood gathered at Davis Park during the 4th of July. Photo by William Sibley.