Since mission times, the San Antonio River has been vital to the city’s fortunes. Destructive floods in the 1920s and subsequent oil drilling reduced its flow, leading to plans to pave the river over. Instead, a careful landscaping scheme, started in 1939 by the WPA, created the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, now the aesthetic and commercial focus of San Antonio. The walk, located below street level, is reached by steps from various spots along the main roads and crossed by humpbacked stone bridges. Cobbled paths, shaded by pine, cypress, oak and willow trees, wind for 2.5 miles beside the jade-green water, with much of the city’s dining and entertainment options concentrated along the way.
La Villita (“Little Town”), on the River Walk opposite HemisFair Park, was San Antonio’s original settlement, occupied in the mid- to late eighteenth century by Mexican “squatters” with no titles to the land. Only when its elevation enabled it to survive fierce floods in 1819 did this rude collection of stone and adobe buildings become suddenly respectable. It is now a National Historic District, turned over to a dubious “arts community” consisting mostly of overpriced craft shops.