Before Hemisfair

Snippet from a recent submission to Luminaria 2017, happening this year at Hemisfair Park. The 1968 World’s Fair displaced a sizable chunk of the historic Lavaca neighborhood. In this 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, overlaid with the eventual Hemisfair footprint, the residences and businesses that constituted downtown San Antonio’s southern edge are depicted. Double Dip Ice Cream. Ramos Molina Tortilla. OK Bar + Grocery. The names ring of authenticity, the kind you can’t just invent. Strangely, the businesses that used to serve the neighborhood are eerily in line with those that the HPARC redevelopment promises to bring back to the site, albeit in a mixed use environment in lieu of a single family one.

For many urbanists in San Antonio, HPARC’s redevelopment over the past decade is the most exciting project in the city, a P3 (public private partnership) beacon of excellence in a city often content to accept lower quality development. The opportunity would never have been possible had the 150 acres not been seized by the city via eminent domain in the mid 60’s. The Hemisfair story offers a potent reminder of the nature of urban space – space which gets torn down and rebuilt over time – and the opportunity costs of preservation-minded historic districts.

A small cadre of photographers like Harvey Belgin of the San Antonio Light had the foresight to document the neighborhood in the years leading up to its destruction. Those memories live on in UTSA’s Special Collection of photographs at the Institute of Texan Cultures, an amazing archival resource for all things historical San Antonio. One particularly potent series of photos, included here, shows the forceful removal of the Toudouze family, an elderly couple with deep neighborhood ties who ardently protested against the Hemisfair project.

Whether you view the World’s Fair as an unjustified seizure of private property or the necessarily painful moment preceding San Antonio’s future civic park, the history is undeniably important and unique to San Antonio.