“Where the Locals Go”: The Pearl Brewery, San Antonio

When the lady at the Havana Hotel says “you can turn left on the Riverwalk and walk to the touristy area” or “you can turn right and walk to the Pearl, where the locals go”, go to the right. This was my second time in San Antonio, and touristy or not, the Riverwalk is one of the world’s great urban amenities. But the first time, I had not walked north to the Pearl Brewery District and was I glad I did this time around.

The Pearl Brewery building and park

Ok, I will get the covid discussion out of the way. I am very grateful to be vaccinated, as this stroll through San Antonio would have been a totally different, panic-inducing experience two months ago. Texas has no mask mandate, although many restaurants, hotels and stores still require a mask for entry. But as you can see in the photo, public life is returning to almost normal, social distancing circles on the grass notwithstanding.

The Pearl Brewery is one of the most exciting adaptive reuse projects I’ve ever seen. Over the past twenty years, the developers of the former brewery complex have created a vibrant and wildly successful mixed-use historic district/neighborhood with apartments,shops, offices, parks. The centerpiece is the 1894 Second Empire brew house, which now houses the Hotel Emma. With its $500+ a night rooms, you might want to just have dinner at Supper Restaurant and ogle the fabulous restoration that has preserved vestiges of the industrial past. The lobby was bustling and the park outside was filled with families, couples, old and young, prom photo-ops, strollers, and bikes. As the lady said, “where the locals go.”

The lobby of the Hotel Emma, with preserved old brewery equipment

The redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery district has taken almost twenty years, including an extension of the Riverwalk called Mission Reach which also includes the San Antonio Museum of Art, completed in 2011. Perhaps what I love most about the Riverwalk is how visionary it was. Having spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia, which squandered about fifty years figuring out what do to with the Delaware riverfront, I experience a bit of jealousy for the dream hatched in 1929 (!!) and realized through the Works Progress Administration in 1941, of a project that would both control flooding of the San Antonio River and eventually create a new urban space animated by walkways, restaurants, public art, plantings and people. (OK, to be fair to Philadelphia, I note that a public poll in USA Today placed the Schuylkill River Trail ahead of the San Antonio Riverwalk-take that Delaware River!)

I’m just a tourist passing through San Antonio and I know nothing of the seventy years of political battles that must have gone into the making of what the Riverwalk is today. But, as a tourist passing through, I’m grateful for the city and community leaders who reclaimed the San Antonio River for the people.

Illuminated fish under the I-35 overpass

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