The Riverwalk

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A map of the Riverwalk

Along the downtown section of the Riverwalk

A restaurant on the Riverwalk

Planet Hollywood Riverwalk

A quiet part of the 1930s section

Part of the northward extension of the Riverwalk

The Riverwalk was built as a public project in San Antonio during the 1930's, based on a small walk dating from the early years of the century. It's expanded more recently -- you could stroll the 1930's D-shaped portion in less than a not too hurried hour. A spur was added to the site of the 1968 Hemisfair, and recently a northern extension leads up the river to the public library. The Walk encloses its own world. It is set below the grade of the city streets; it focuses you on the river, the passing boats with their cargo or tourists, the parallel walk on the other side, the shops and entrances, the trees. Street bridges arching above signal the various city blocks, so you are both detached and connected. I first visited it in 1966, when it had been long established, and since then it has changed at an accelerating rate.

Originally the Riverwalk was a promenade where already established hotels, restaurants, offices and apartment houses opened doors onto the river. It was a city street turned water boulevard, with little sidewalk cafes and terraces. Some parts were plainer, which is still true on the southern part of the "D." There you find stretches without tourist attractions, where people are going about the activities of daily life. That section demands familiarity with what is inside the pleasant but unlabeled openings to the river. Even on the more touristy northern and central stretches there are still some older terraces with restaurant tables where the locals gather.

The tourists are enticed and accommodated. There are now souvenir shops, kiosks, faster foods. Portions of the walk have been malled. You are offered brands rather than singularities. Next to the terrace for an old institution, La Mansion Hotel, you find noisy trendy restaurants, then a tee-shirt store. The atmosphere in those sections is different, out to get you with a slightly frenetic hilarity.

At the turn of the D there is a mini-mall. Imagine the conceit of enticing tourists inside, away from what they came to experience, into a space that is indistinguishable from their malls back home. The mini-mall is in the basement of a new hotel that has its own atrium, so it creates a space that ignores the Riverwalk but depends on it. There were not so many people inside. There is larger mall at the end of the Hemisfair branch of the walk, but at least there several floors of stores are in a U-shape that embraces and views the pool where boats land and depart.

There is older traditional market just off the Riverwalk. It is called La Villita and it antedates not only the Riverwalk but the entire American city. That market is up on the street level and an attraction in its own right. It does not need the Riverwalk, but it has an entrance there.

Opposite La Mansion's dignified restaurant terrace and a little down to the left was the Hard Rock Cafe San Antonio, and directly opposite La Mansion they were building the San Antonio edition of Planet Hollywood, a themed eatery/bar. To be themed is the next step beyond being malled. The chains offer you a unified experience. This is the Planet Hollywood; you are entering the same zone from its door on the Riverwalk as you did from its door in London. Not just an anonymous selling place but a brand name Experience. Dionysus tamed.

Along the Riverwalk, the outdoor Riverside Theater's little amphitheater faces a stage on the other side of the river canal. It looks a little shabby compared to the glitzy attractions, but it offers free public space where you can sit on grassy terraces and watch the spectacle walking or boating by. People chat or eat lunch. (There was a boat parked at the theater, labeled "Park Ranger." It made me look for the bears. Were they all around?) Sitting on the grass you can watch the tour barges go by with their regimented rows on hard benches taking photos and trying to hear the guide's enthusiastic spiel above the sound of the motors. They go around and around, with a brief shortcut on the real river, which is now colonized by a northward extension of the Riverwalk to a new hotel.