Tuesday, August 08, 2006

RiverWalk Rocks

RiverWalkA few days ago, I damned with faint praise Leclede’s Landing in St Louis as a second rate Tacky Tourist Drinking District™. A week later on our trip, we visited Riverwalk in San Antonio, which by all measures is a first class T2D2. We were there on a hot humid weekday evening and had to wait a half hour to take the boat cruise tour. The informative and entertaining tour covered a lot of history and culture of both the Riverwalk area and San Antonio in general.

Taking a travel tip from Rachel Ray about getting the locals opinions about where to eat, we asked the native San Antonioian tour guide what the best Mexican restaurant on the Riverwalk was and he recommended Rio Rio. The place was still busy at 9 pm, but we were able to snag a waterside table, where we shared a jumbo margarita and dove into the food, which was excellent. This also gave us a great vantage point to watch the other tour boats and dinner cruises ply the river. Afterwards we worked ourselves to the Pat O’Briens branch opposite the Menger Hotel where we were staying for even more alcohol.

Tacky Tourist Drinking Districts come in two varieties, the organic and the developer-driven. An organic T2D2 is where a cluster of bars just happen to spring up and become popular enough to form a destination in their own right. The French Quarter in New Orleans is the prime example of this. The Buckhead area in Atlanta is another case of word of mouth creating a destination. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and Ybor City in Tampa are other places where the bar and restaurant scene just reached critical mass.

More often than not, cities, seeing this phenomenon, try to capture lightning and build their own entertainment district where none existed before. A master plan is developed or a developer hired and a former wasted part of town is brought back to life. Lacledes Landing was one of these. Underground Atlanta was an organic T2D2 that was killed by subway construction in the 70s only to be rebuilt by a developer in 90s. Baltimore has both an organic one in Fells Point and a phony one at Power Plant Live (not to be confused with The Power Plant a few blocks away). The Brickyard area in Oklahoma City has stolen the San Antonio Riverwalk concept right down to the arched pedestrian bridges and flat-bottomed tour boats.

Rivercenter MallThe San Antonio Riverwalk straddles a fine line. There is clear evidence of phony theming surrounding some of the genuinely authentic locations. One branch of the Riverwalk even dead ends into a huge suburban-style shopping mall. The riverboat tour guide tells how they moved a historically protected hotel several blocks to make room for an even bigger hotel to go up.

San Antonio River Flood Control DamThe San Antonio River through downtown itself is a glorified water feature maintained by the city to support tourism. A dam just past the riverboat garage controls the level of the water through downtown. Outside of downtown, for most of the year, the real river is a muddy creek barely visible from the high banks. The flood control aspects of the Riverwalk have taken a backseat to the need for tourists to float around an outdoor theme park. Locals will let you in on the secret that they have to drain the Riverwalk once a year to clean out all the muck that has floated in from the zoo upstream. Definitely don’t drink the water, and I would recommend a long hot shower if you happened to fall into the water in a tequila-induced stupor.

For the most part, tourists don’t seem to mind as long as the Disneyfied illusion of historic context is maintained. I know I had a good time. The place is pretty, popular, and within stumbling distance of hotels. All the qualities of a fine Drinking District. And we exploited it to the hilt.

For more pictures of the Riverwalk, see this Flickr set. Be sure to check out the sleeping ducklings.


Anonymous said...

I would add to your excellent analysis that just because a T2D2 is "organic" doesn't make it fun or cool. Having lived in San Francisco and Baltimore, I can tell you that Fisherman's Wharf is a depressing touristy hellscape; Power Plant Live in nicer. I don't care how slickly manicured it is, at least it's clean. Fells Point is nicer still, of course.

Actually, I'd argue that Power Plant Live and Fells Point have unusually high concentrations of locals for T2D2s (though they both clearly fit the T2D2 category pretty well), PPL mostly drawing from the burbs and FP from the city itself. This is in great contrast to Fisherman's Wharf. I don't know of any Bay Area locals (natives or transplants) who ever went to FW unless forcibly dragged by out-of-town relatives. The only fun thing to do at FW is to go to Alcatraz -- which is actually incredibly fun and is not to be missed.


Elizabeth said...

That River Walk Tour looked really pretty. I really need to get out of the state and visit other parts of the country! Anyway, I would say the whole city of Nome is an organic T2D2. Ok, well, not the whole city, but all of First Street. When I lived there some felt very proud that there were more bars than churches and that it had been the original "Sin City" in 1902 or something.
OT, but I just wanted to say that Susan Butcher died Sunday. She was an amazing athlete and person.

Anonymous said...

C'mon, you were in Memphis a little while ago, you didn't hit Beale St.?

A very famous T2D2, IMO.


yellojkt said...

Good demographic breakdown on PPL vs Fells Point. PPL seems to get a lot of bachelor/ette party action which as I mentioned makes for good free entertainment. It also has the site liquor license that Fells Point doesn't. I was trying to come up with a better example than Fisherman's Wharf that everybody would recognize. I ate my obligatory dungeness crab and got out of there as fast as I could. Waaaay too touristy. Even for me.

liz, I will make sure to check First Street out when my wife gets her Alaska cruise. I hope they stop in Nome.

bc, I did check out Beale Street but regrettably stayed sober. I may comment in more detail in the future.