Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thoughts on San Antonio

The Urban Communications Foundation held a day-long seminar in San Antonio this week. We brought together a number of people to discuss the various aspects of how cities communicate and how they enable people to communicate. The discussion ranged from gentrification, to urban redevelopment, to political organizing, to spatial and environmental design and to technological infrastructure. Even though the group struggled to find a common definition of urban communication, the struggle was a productive one. There was a consensus that real-time, face-to-face interaction is a positive thing. How we achieve that end, and the relative authenticity of that end, is still wide open to debate. Some consider tourist spaces as less than authentic, others find that any instance of "public" is authentic for those experiencing it - regardless of whether or not its wrapped up in consumption. Some consider mediated interactions as necessarily oppositional to face-to-face interactions. Some, including myself, believe that media always serve a pedagogical function, and the rise of social networking technology is increasing the desire for all kinds of interactions (including those in real space).

Walking along San Antonio's RiverWalk, a lot of these issues came up for me. My first thought was that the Riverwalk felt like an exhibit at Disneyland. When I looked into it, I learned why that might be the case. In 1961, Marco Engineering Company of California, who was one of the major designers of Disneyland, was hired to do a report on the commercial potential of the river. They concluded that all the buildings which back up to the river should be developed in an early Texas or Mexican colonial style and provide basement space for easy riverside access. They also suggested that the city hold frequent festivals along the walk. While their plan didn't take off immediately, within several years, it was well under way. Today, we look at what appears to be a fully realized plan.

That the Riverwalk was influenced by the brains behind Disneyland does not, in itself, detract from its ability to function as a thriving public space. But I had this distinct feeling while wandering around the Riverwalk that the city's face had become so beautiful, it was willing to turn away from those who actually live here. In the act of communication, the city stopped communicating. It's true that Riverwalk is the envy of many cities in the country because of its economic success. But it strikes me as an antiquated model and one that cannot be sustainable. It is equivalent to AOL in the late 1990s. By cutting off their network from the wider internet, they believed they could better manage the "public." As it turns out, people were not satisfied with an internet (with a lowercase i), they wanted an Internet. Even while spending 99% of their time in local and definable networks, they wanted to have access to the larger network. Cities are the same way. Localized internets will not work for the sustainability of urban spaces; the local is only as powerful as its ability to extend beyond its boundaries.

1 comment:

Daniel Makagon said...

Eric highlights some interesting historical information about the River Walk. I found the mix of lights, narrow sidewalks, and the river itself to be an excellent model for drawing people to a downtown district. Clearly the River Walk attracts more tourists and vistors than locals. It would be nice if some of the buildings would be converted to add housing at street level, creating a multi-use district that would provide a greater mix of tourists and locals.

On a different note, but still related, when I exited the train today at the Fullerton el stop I was struck by the noise at the station. Spending a bulk of my time in San Antonio in the convention center or along the River Walk made me realize how quiet that section of downtown San Antonio is compared to other downtowns.