Take Me to the River (Walk)

San Antonio River Walk (Lea Schweitz)
San Antonio River Walk (Lea Schweitz)

San Antonio, Texas. Here’s a city that knows how to do a River Walk. 13 miles of lushly landscaped liquid greenways with barges and river taxis for water transport and concrete sidewalks for feet, wheelchairs, and strollers.

According to the tour brochure, the River Walk, the Paseo del Rio, “is the largest urban ecosystem in the nation and certainly the most vibrant.” Visitors are invited to “step aboard a River Walk barge for an exciting and entertaining narrative of the rich history of the River Walk.”

Umm. What?
“The largest urban ecosystem in the nation? Certainly the most vibrant?”
What could that possibly even mean?

This was a space I needed to see. I opted out of the “exciting and entertaining narrative” of the barge tour, and walked. John Francis style. On foot. In silence. Not seventeen years of silence and without a banjo, but my own mini-planetwalking pilgrimage in Texas to listen to the River Walk. (If you don’t know John Francis, you should! Check out planetwalk.org)

I was in San Antonio for the annual American Academy of Religion meetings. Each year, thousands of scholars descend on a city to share scholarship on a range of topics that aims to be as diverse as the global religious landscape.

Vibrant is not the word I’d use to describe the portion of the River Walk lined with restaurants and shopping. Commodification? Disneyification? It’s a walk, and there’s water, but it doesn’t look or function much like a river. I took the floating dead fish and squirrel as symbolic confirmation that vibrancy might not be the right word.

I mean, seriously. There’s a Hooters Restaurant.

With access to a car, I might have given up. Simply turned around, but my River Walk adventure was less about a destination and more about getting to know the river. Besides, when I travel by foot, the lure is to go forward. I’d be walking either way, why not explore?

As the River Walk flows out of downtown, it is transformed. It takes on a dynamic stillness, and far fewer people. Just past the South Alamo Street bridge, the path splits. The high road is smooth paved sidewalk; the low road offered uneven rock stairs down to the river. I took the low road and metaphorically stumbled into a place where a walker can hop across the river over large stepping-stones. There was the running river, swimming ducks, grasses blowing in the wind, a brewery just up the hill, a residential neighborhood across the way, and signs warning about the risk of flooding. A complicated spot, but this is the spot that really got me thinking about vibrancy.

Apparently, the idea is trending. As Thomas Frank notes, “everyone is so damn vibrant these days.” Akron, Ohio. Rockford, Illinois. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. San Antonio’s River Walk. Can true vibrancy be everywhere? Can it be so easily available – at least to those with privilege to access it? Isn’t this a cheap vibrancy?  It’s a placeholder for the shallow, surface sparkle of something that looks lovely just long enough for the beholder to be distracted and entertained.

There is an oft-repeated myth that crows and magpies collect shiny objects. They don’t. The truth in the myth is not about the birds, but about the humans that seem to resonate with the idea of a creature who hoards cheap vibrancy. That’s not a story about crows; it’s a story about some of us.

The crows outside my window have joined my circle of spiritual guides. Their “caw-cawing” exhorts resistance the lure of cheap vibrancy – an especially grave danger in politics and the holidays. They are calling me into a costly vibrancy that holds space for difference, weaving it into a truly vibrant system where a deeper beauty may shine.

Dr. Carolyn Finney gave a fantastic talk in the Advanced Seminar for Religion and Science. She reminded me about John Francis and taught us new ways to read urban nature through intersecting lenses of race and representation. (For more, see her book: Black Faces, White Spaces.)

And, there were stories – her own and others’, like Brenda Palms Barber. Barber is the founder of Sweet Beginnings, a social enterprise business that employs formerly incarcerated folks as beekeepers on Chicago’s West Side. No cheap vibrancy here. This is the kind of vibrancy that holds together ex-cons-turned-beekeepers, apiaries, the criminal justice system, and North Lawndale in order to produce some beelovebuzz – which includes honey and skin care products. A paradigm of the truly vibrant life.

Wishing you and your communities a truly vibrant holiday season that shines through the New Year.


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