ustxtxb_obs_1996_09_27_50_00017-00000_000.pdf

Page 7

by

Photo courtesy the Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio, Texas . … . .. . ….. A Pontoon boat on St. Marys Street, September 1921 it there would be few tourists strolling along its now-placid waters, tourists who have become one of the mainstays of San Antonio’s modern economy. These critical spin-offs from the Olmos Dam’s very solid presence makes it perhaps the single most important public works project in the community’s history. But the dam was also a failure, in the sense that the decision to build it depended upon a disturbing and remarkably skewed distribution of public benefits in this, America’s poorest big city. That’s not what San Antonio’s Anglo-controlled government announced, of course, when it floated a $3 million bond issue to underwrite the dam, ensuring the central business district’s bright future; then it also voiced a commitment to establish a flood control plan for the waterlogged barrios. This was only just, for the vast majority of those who had died in the 1921 flood had been Hispanics who lived along dangerous creeks well outside the proposed dam’s protective zone. But as noted in The Survey, a national Progressive-era reform publication, the stage was set as well for the city to do more than the prosaic building of a complex of storm sewers. By sweeping away the dense tracts of “rude shacks, built in a hit-or-miss manner,” the 1921 flood had given San Antonio the perfect “opportunity for bettering the lives and sanitary conditions of the Mexican population” writ large. Out of an immense tragedy could come some social good. tion of the commercial center, the urban elite ignored the legendary drainage, housing and sanitation problems confronting those who lived on the West and South sides; their plight was theirs alone. Nothing captures this so perfectly as a paired set of City Council announcements in August 1924: at the same time it released millions of dollars to fund the Olmos Dam, the council voted to spend a meager $6,000 to cut brush along the San Pedro and Alazan Creeks. This remarkable disparity in financial investment and flood prevention technology, moreover, would continue for nearly fifty SEPTEMBER 27, 1996 years. The management of San Antonio’s flood waters, as with so much else, was channeled along the community’s sharply-etched ethnic divisions and class lines. The dire consequences of this discriminatory policy resurfaced continuously. In the ’30s, a series of murderous floods cascaded through the barrios, while downtown remained high and dry. When a massive storm stalled over San Antonio in June 1946, the Olmos Dam did what it was built to do, but on the West Side ten people lost their lives and thousands more were left homeless in the wake of rampaging floodwaters. The same results occurred in early June 1951: a punishing storm churned up the Alazan and Martinez Creeks, and “those old trouble spots,” as one newspaper tagged them, “roaring with bank-busting loads of water,” killed three residents. This pattern would be repeated until the ’70s, when dramatic changes occurred in the city’s political hierarchy. These were triggered when Justice Department-ordered electoral reforms insured west side representation on the City Council, breaking its control by the white-dominated Good Government League; this encouraged COPS and other secular and religious grass-roots coalitions to press local government to take the deadly floods seriously. Only when pushed by the formerly disenfranchised did San Antonio finally muster the political will to tap into federal dollars, via Model Cities funding, and begin to build a network of broad, concrete channels to defuse the longstanding threat the Alazan and Martinez Creeks had posed to the city’s poorest citizens and neighborhoods. Participatory democracy had triumphed. Its triumph, however, is mitigated by this damning reflection: it took the River City more than half a century to build the requisite infrastructure so that a West Side kid wouldn’t have to scramble up a tree to escape becoming yet another flood fatality. Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University and is writing a book on the 1921 flood. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17