The year 1968 was a time of whiplash change in the U.S. Strife would come to cities across the country amid war protests and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; earlier that spring, President Lyndon Johnson issued his famous withdrawal from politics, stating that he would not seek, nor accept, the Democratic party’s nomination for president. The country, it seemed, was about to pull apart at the seams.
Yet for six months in San Antonio, the world came together at Hemisfair for the World’s Fair. Nearly 6.5 million people visited the Alamo City that spring and fall from points across the globe, sharing in “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” a stunning tribute to San Antonio’s rich history and diversity. The year also happened to be the city’s 250th anniversary, and Texas' hospitality was writ large in this small city with a big heart.
Fast-forward to today. Visitors still flock to San Antonio from around the world; today, however, they can see a city with both a big heart and big ideas, from the Mission Reach and Broadway Reach extensions of the River Walk to the architecturally astounding Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
One of the latest additions to downtown is Hemisfair's Yanaguana Garden, the first phase of a 10-year development project that pays tribute to San Antonio’s World’s Fair legacy and also builds on it, cementing the city as one that shares its culture and creativity with people from across the globe. A first-class gathering place for kids and adults alike, the Yanaguana Garden offers so much to do that you’ll be telling the hotel front desk you’re extending your stay.
“This is the city’s vision, and they deserve the credit for it,” said Andres Andujar, the CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., whose mission is to grow the area bordered by Cesar Chavez Boulevard, South Alamo Street, Market Street and Highway 281 into a dynamic center of parkland, recreation opportunities, restaurants, hotels and residences that will easily make it a must-see destination in San Antonio’s downtown scene.
Yanaguana Garden is the first step, a rolling greenspace with myriad activities for kids of all ages, including climbing structures, a splash pad, sand play spaces, a bocce court, chess tables and ample seating areas. On weekends, visitors can find farmer’s market vendors, street fairs and musical acts. Enjoy outdoor movies. Walk through the garden’s meandering paths or rent a bike and explore San Antonio’s Mission Trail.
When you’re looking for refreshment, your options abound – and you never need to leave the park. Located in a renovated historic home, Revolución Coffee + Juice offers caffeine, cold-pressed concoctions and snacks, as well as a schedule of free yoga classes in the park. Bavarian-born brewer Vera Deckard is making beer on-site at the OK Brewery & Eishaus, where a host of classes allows you to make your own beverages. Con Safos brings guests new takes on classic San Antonio dishes, with flavors authentic to the Alamo City. And Paletería San Antonio features agua frescas, homemade ice creams and, of course, paletas, all made with fresh ingredients and big chunks of fruit.
“The garden is where all of the city’s heritage – Native American, Spanish, German, Mexican, Polish – and its history and present all come together,” said Andujar. “It starts with the garden’s very name.”
Long before Spanish explorers set foot in San Antonio, naming the city for Saint Anthony of Padua, Payaya Indians settled on the banks of the San Antonio River, and called the place Yanaguana, which means “spirit waters.” According to legend, Yanaguna was a spirit who lived in the headwaters of the river and took the form of a blue panther. The native anhinga bird would dive into the water hole to receive sustenance from Yanaguana. When the anhinga bird emerged, the water from its feathers dripped onto the earth below nourishing the soil. Just like the sacred water spirit, the Yanaguana waters were believed to give life.
That heritage comes to live in the form of a massive, brightly colored mosaic and seating area in Yanaguana Park, made by local artist Oscar Alvarado, featuring huge sculptures of the ahinga bird and the blue panther. Children and adults alike will appreciate the whimsical artistry as well as the history of the pieces.
Andujar calls it a “pre-k to gray” play environment. “Everyone from the smallest visitor to guys with gray hair like me can enjoy this space,” he said. “A former mayor liked to say we were in the decade of downtown.”
The garden’s location right along the River Walk and in the heart of downtown makes it a natural place for visitors to explore and return to again and again. What’s more, Andujar knows that Yanaguana is just the beginning: Civic Park, in the shadow of the convention center, is set for completion in 2018; Tower Park scheduled to open in 2020, is the third and final leg of the project.
“All over the country, people are coming back to downtowns, to live and enjoy what’s there, as well as to work. Hemisfair truly takes downtown San Antonio’s amp up to 11,” he said, paraphrasing the popular pseudo-documentary “This is Spinal Tap.”
That means a future of more amenities, gathering spaces and activity in San Antonio’s already active downtown core by Alamo City residents—and visitors, too. “…There is a savvy kind of tourist who wants to know where the locals go, and to go there,” Andujar said. “Hemisfair is that place.”