Fifty years later, an urban design research exhibit excavates a forgotten history of the neighborhood displaced for the 1968 World’s Fair.
Before Hemisfair ‘68, the park lived numerous other lives, evolving in step with San Antonio as a whole. Until now its story lay scattered in books, articles, dissertations, and archives, without a succinct history about this time and place accessible to the general public. The Neighborhood Before tries to tell that story in a balanced way, acknowledging the painful erasure of an entire community on equal terms with Hemisfair’s bright future. What was lost by destroying this neighborhood? And what can San Antonio gain from the unique opportunity the park presents our city today?
The neighborhood’s story goes something like this….
Studies by UTSA’s Center for Archaeological Research 1 confirm the land was used by native tribes, incuding Apache, Comanche, Coahuiltecan, Payaya, and many others. After the Spaniards arrived in the early 18th century, the area functioned as farmland for the MisiÓn San Antonio de Valero. By the end of that same century, with a languishing convert population, the mission was secularized and its farms were divvied up amongst Spanish noblety as depicted in the 1912 Rullman map.
During the battle of the Alamo in 1836, the defenders reportedly burned the jacales that populated the Barrio del Alamo to prevent their Mexican attackers from using them as cover. Before and after the battle, the landowners who inherited the land as a result of secularization handled their estates in various ways according to their own interests. Some held on to their plots, others divided them amongst heirs, but most eventually sold them off to new owners. One such owner was Joseph H. Beck, who purchased a large plot immediately across the acequia madre and west of the Barrio del Alamo. The transfer of land from Spanish to German hands was symptomatic of a larger demographic transformation the city experienced during that period, one not without its own set of growing pains. In 1848 he paid deputy city surveyor W. Smythe to divide the tract into 8 new city blocks known as “Beckville.” The development marked an important step in the neighborhood’s transition into a vibrant community of immigrants from across Europe, Mexico, and beyond.
“The political turmoil in Germany during the 1840’s coincided with Texas statehood,” 2 and many Germans, including prominent families like Kampmann and Halff, settled on or near Goliad Street. The influx of Germans into the area led to it being dubbed Germantown – a term that, like Chinatown, is less formal name than general reference to an ethnic enclave. The neighborhood reached its peak sometime around World War I after an influx of Mexican immigrants arrived fleeing the Mexican revolution in 1910. A citywide period of decline started with the Great Depression, and recovery efforts stalled for several decades. Plans for Hemisfair ‘68 began to develop as an economic catalyst in the 1950s, and by 1966, the last families were forcibly removed as shown in the image to the right of this board.
“Places lost or displaced by HemisFair alone included manufacturing plants, shops, stores, warehouses, two schools, two parks, and four churches. The fair site also displaced German and Polish zones and … Mexican immigrants fleeing the revolution.” 3 It is estimated that 1600 people were displaced. The full pre-fair history of Hemisfair is a subject that merits further research and discussion – a conversation that should happen publicly and transparently, balancing what was lost with what is yet to come.