04: Under the Bridge

 

Hightower Like most major US cities, San Antonio has a bunch of highways that converge near downtown. Just a mile north of the Alamo, Interstate 35 intersects US Highway 281, which at that point turns into Interstate 37 that then heads south to Corpus Christi. All of this occurs over Broadway Avenue, a major surface street that heads north from downtown.

           

On a map, all the ramps, exits and flyovers associated with this interchange look really confusing. Almost as confusing as the opening description I just gave. But when you’re driving it, the highway signage does a fine job of getting you where you need to go.

 

If you ever walk around under a major interchange like this one, you get a feel for the vast amount of engineering required to make our highway system work. You also get a sense of how much land it occupies. It’s hard to perceive distance when moving at high speeds, but highway interchanges take up a lot of space – space that’s typically wasted and totally unused. You also get a sense of how loud highways are.

 

If you look a little closer at the land under this particular interchange, you start to see something else.

 

You start to see that certain areas have been marked out with spray paint. Other areas have been enclosed with orange construction fencing. Still other areas have been mowed and manicured with a surprising amount of care.

 

And for a brief time every April, a truly remarkable thing happens. This normally deserted space under the highway becomes a thriving community – one that is built, occupied and then completely disassembled in a little over a week.

 

That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the fourth episode of The Works, a podcast about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

The list of holidays we observe here in the US is fairly standard. Of course there are the big ones like Thanksgiving and Christmas, but there are other holidays that are only celebrated in specific parts of the country. New Orleans, for example has Mardi Gras. In Chicago, many offices are closed on Pulaski Day. When I was working on a project in Louisville, we moved meetings and deadlines to avoid the Kentucky Derby, which everyone there simply referred to as “The Derby”.

 

In San Antonio we have “Fiesta”.

 

Fiesta started in 1891 as an event to honor the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. Yes, it’s a little odd that the Spanish word for “party” is used to describe an event commemorating two key battles in the war of Texas independence from Spanish-speaking Mexico. But few seem bothered by inconsistencies during the citywide party. During the two-weeks of Fiesta, the drunken debauchery is considerably less than at Mardi Gras, and events are not as exclusive as the Derby.

 

Also, there is a much bigger focus on eating.

 

There are over 100 official Fiesta-related events that bring together people from across the city regardless of their ethnic or economic background. It is truly something the entire city participates in - you see houses decorated with colorful ribbons and piñatas in the both the northern suburbs as well as the neighborhoods of the east side.

 

All these festivities culminate in the Battle of Flowers Parade, the oldest and arguably biggest event of Fiesta. The parade attracts over a quarter of the city’s population. It is run entirely by a group of women who wear yellow hats – a group of women that includes Maureen Hillman:

 

Maureen The Battle of Flowers is a women’s organization established to commemorate the heroes of the Alamo and we have a parade every year close to April 21st which was when Texas was liberated. We’re an all woman’s organization. We wear yellow and it’s the largest all-volunteer women’s parade in the country.

 

The parade route starts just north of downtown, heads south on Broadway past the Alamo and then turns west to head towards Main Plaza. As you can imagine, it can be hard to find a good place to watch the parade.

 

It turns out the space underneath the I-35 / US 281 interchange is one of the most sought-after spots to watch the parade. It’s near the beginning of the route and the elevated parts of the highway offer shade and protection form the elements.

 

When I first moved to San Antonio in 2002, I noticed something unusual was going on underneath the interchange. In the days leading up to the parade you’d see platforms constructed, tents pitched and grills fired up. It’s something local news reports occasionally mention in passing as they describe ongoing Fiesta activities:

 

KSAT Anchor Well as the people at NIOSA are having fun, other Fiesta fanatics are in it for the long haul. This is video taken earlier today of people claiming their spots along Broadway – more than three days before Friday’s Battle of Flowers Parade…

 

Hightower Several days before that report aired – and more than a week before the Battle of Flowers Parade - I saw a group of men hanging lights underneath one of the ramps of the interchange. That’s when I met Robert Trevino. It turns out he’s been watching the parade form that particular spot for a long, long time.

 

Robert I’ve been doing Fiesta here since… ’76.

 

Hightower For the record, that’s 39 years. I know that without doing the match because I was born in 1976. So every spring that I’ve been alive, Robert and his family have set up camp underneath this same bridge so that they would have the same view of the same parade.

 

And Robert’s preparations for the parade aren’t limited to the week before the event.

 

Robert We work it month after month – we come mow the lawn and just hang around and just… for six, seven months we just claim our spot and make sure we got it every year.

 

Hightower An informal system of law has emerged where a family can reserve a place to watch the parade. If you can prove you’ve claimed the space first, it’s yours. Over the years, people have tried to claim Robert’s coveted space.

 

Robert Oh they try. But – you know – what I do, I come monthly – you know – month after month. I’ll skip a month but I come when I’m mowing the lawn and working and I’ll clean it up. So we take video – you know – we get a little video so when they come and try to claim the spot the video’s got a date and time and what day I was here so we show them the video so they kind of back away and they understand, hey – you know – because it’s first come first serve but they don’t know that I’m here monthly. Every month – it takes me seven to eight months – whatever it takes for me to be front row, first show, the best seat in the house.

 

Hightower And Robert does not squander his ideal location. The setup he builds is elaborate. The space we’re talking about here is about 80 feet by 40 feet, all of which is underneath the elevated lanes of northbound 281. In addition to a wood-framed platform to view the parade, a toilet and a working bar, Robert decorates his space as well.

 

Robert Every year I add a little more and more. You know, now I’m going to really go out with a big bang this year. I’m going to put up a bunch of decorations and I got a big DJ coming in and I’m going to hang a couple of piñatas off the bridge and just make it all fun for the kids.

 

I got a big generator that I’m going to get power and light this place up and have a great time.

 

Hightower This setup isn’t just for him. Although he leads the construction effort, he shares the fruits of his labor with many others.

 

Robert I got probably 75, 100 people coming to this party and we have a great time and it’s all family and friends and grandkids …

 

Hightower For Robert and his family, this has all grown into something much larger than the parade it is built to view. To call his setup a camp or a viewing platform is to do it a disservice. It’s become something far greater than that. It’s become a family tradition – one he takes pride in upholding.

 

Robert We look forward every year to do this. It takes me like around four good working days to prepare this whole set up here, you know. By the time I get done I’ll lay carpet all under this bridge because the dirt and the mud. I put carpet – it’s nice and clean – then we hang the piñatas for the kids. And like I say I’ve got about 75 people coming. Plenty of food. Plenty of drinks. Just out here having a great time.

 

I look forward to it every year. You know to make this party happen for my family and my friends. Like I said they all counting on me. I always say I’m not going to go back but I can’t stay away!

 

Hightower Robert is in the landscaping business and he has been able to arrange his schedule so that he can spend time preparing for and enjoying the parade. All that said, one thing I kept noticing as we talked was that Robert didn’t mention much about the parade itself. And the fact is, despite its history, the parade isn’t all that remarkable. With all due respect to the ladies in the yellow hats, this isn’t the Tournament of Roses Parade. There aren’t dozens of huge inflated cartoon characters like you see at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Sure there are marching bands and floats and it’s a lot of fun, but it’s just a parade.

 

And for as much time and effort as Robert puts into claiming and making his spot under the bridge nice, it’s still a camp underneath a highway overpass. There’s the constant sound of cars whoshing by. And remember, even though it’s in the shade and it’s only April, we are talking about south Texas here so it can already be really hot and humid.

 

Despite all this – or perhaps because of all of this – Robert has many fond memories of the time he and his family have spent under the bridge.

 

Robert There are just so many memories here.  Good memories, too. You know, I’ve got four daughters and when they come around and we’re hanging around here we talk about all the good times we had down here but there are just so many stories, man.

 

I remember there was one year we were out down here having a great time. It was about one in the morning and all of a sudden it got real windy. And all of a sudden the thunder came and hail came.

 

Hightower The technical term for the meteorological event he is describing is a “gully washer”.

 

Robert We all jumped inside the tent and we had about a foot and a half of water and the thunder just kept thundering and then hailing and then my daughter she got scared, “Dad, let’s go home! Please, let’s go home!” And so I left everything behind, we got in the truck and we went home. Came back the next day…

 

Hightower I wondered if this was one of those stories that a parent remembers differently and more fondly than the child. And so I asked Rachel, his daughter, what she remembered.

 

Rachel Oh my goodness. I will never forget I was like, maybe 12 or 14, and I’d camp out with my dad since I was younger – “daddy’s girl” or whatever. And there was this really, really bad thunderstorm – you know April showers and stuff. Oh my God it was terrible. And we were the only ones here under the bridge. Oh my God it was terrible and I was so angry in the morning and I was so scared and I was, like, “I want to go home! I don’t want to be in the rain anymore!” Our tent was, like, almost soaked. We were, like, trying o pull the water out of the tent and stuff. And I was like, “This is not for a girl!”

 

Hightower Rachel has lots of fond memories from the time she’s spent under the bridge.

 

Rachel One of the good memories I have was growing up with my sisters and my cousins, all the kids would be out there in the ditch back there by the highway, and the highway would be closed already, and that hill over there looked so big to us… And you know how the kids would roll down the hill and get all dirty and all itchy and stuff? And now I’m all like, “That little hill? I can’t believe we did that.” But we were, like younger. You know, like four, three years old or whatever.

 

And then, you know, get in the mud, because there was always mud and everything and get into trouble, too.

 

Hightower In talking to Robert and his family, I came to realize that while the parade may be the event that brings them all together, in the end it’s not why they get together. When I asked Rachel directly if it was all about the parade, notice how she said it was, and then immediately started describing how it wasn’t.

 

Rachel It is and it’s about family time, it’s about – you know – getting into the whole culture and everything – the fiesta – being here in San Antonio, growing up here. I mean it’s about everything – about living a beautiful life. It’s fun. I mean it’s just awesome to interact with everybody. Because you meet people off the street and they talk to you and you kind of become friends after that. They come and see you the next year and the next year and there are people that I’ve seen only once a year and they come, “Oh, I met you last year.” You know so that’s awesome.

 

Hightower I met up with Robert again on Thursday night, the evening before the Battle of Flowers Parade. He had been very busy. As promised, an electric generator was powering strings of lights hung from the columns supporting the bridge. The whole place was glowing, and Robert was glowing, too.

 

Robert Well, for the last six days I’ve really been working my butt out and as you can see everybody is getting together. I finally got my setup nice and tight where it’s ready to go. I’m just waiting for the show to come down the road.

 

Oh I’ve got my porta-potties in, I’ve got my booths all laid out, a whole bunch of my meats are here already. All my supplies are here except for, well, around four in the morning we’re going to – believe it or not  – me and my wife – we’re going to make two kinds of tamales down here... It takes us a couple of hours and a half to put it together to put the can of tamales up there on the grill, on the fire, and let it sit for an hour and a half and then it’s ready to eat. They’re real tasty. They’re real good tamales.

 

Hightower And on Friday there was the parade. It was a fine parade. And then there was another one on Saturday night – the Fiesta Flambeau Parade. It was a fine parade as well.

 

And then when I drove down Broadway on Sunday afternoon, it was all gone. Like Brigadoon, the little community under the bridge had disappeared into the mist, leaving only the memories of what was.

 

Earlier in the week I asked Robert if he planned on being there again next year, which will be his fortieth year under the bridge.

 

Robert Oh yes sir – with God willing – yes sir. As long as I’m in good health and, you know – year after year as long as I can.

 

The Battle of Flowers Parade may not be the most spectacular parade in the country just as a little patch of land underneath a highway overpass may not be the most beautiful place to go camping. But sometimes it’s not the quality of the space that matters, but the quality of the memories. And good memories can be built anywhere - even under a bridge.

 

Special thanks today to Robert Trevino, Rachel Trevino and Maureen Hillman as well as the Sidney Lanier High School marching band.

 

As always, thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood for help with the podcast’s logo and to Clara, my work-out partner, for help with its name.

 

Clara You know, I listen to these podcasts too. Maybe you could just refer to me as your wife.

 

Hightower Maybe.

 

The music today is by Chris Zabriskie. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.

 

If you enjoy listening to this podcast, please rate us on iTunes and if you have time, leave a comment there as well.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.