No room at the trough

There’s a history to the individualistic streak in Texans. Characters too freakish to be fictional and frighteningly determined to achieve their goals established the state — political and cultural complexities be damned. It’s why the former republic has generally resisted integration into the United States of Generica, and why being an “Oregonian” or “Floridian” doesn’t have the same impact as “Texan.” Independence and individualism run deep and extend to how we regard our cities — so a proposed ordinance regulating vendors on the River Walk that goes before City Council on October 5 endangers maverick qualities unique to the state’s number-one tourist destination.

Vague complaints about smaller vendors usually bemoan gaudy, tacky wares and boorish displays hawked to tourists, but the money the ticky-tacky brings in is at the core of the proposed law: Big-business interests that support the ordinance are trying to corral the money at every level on the River Walk. The economic pie baked by San Antonio tourism slices out like this: The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau projects 2006 convention-delegate expenditures will reach $549.3 million; the governor’s office determined that 2004 Bexar County visitor-spending exceeded $4.2 billion; and the National Park Service calculates that $1.2 billion is generated annually for San Antonio by the tourist industry alone. With these kinds of figures, the pie isn’t dessert — it’s a full-course meal, and the banquet may be co-opted by corporations with limitless appetites.

Spearheading regulation efforts is the Paseo del Rio Association, ostensibly a nonprofit formed to promote the River Walk, but one all too eager to shill for homogenizing corporations. This isn’t the first incident; Mayor Phil Hardberger proposed limiting chain restaurants on the River Walk and was stymied by the association, whose membership is weighted with nationwide corporations. Multi-presence food-service giants on the River Walk include Joe’s Crab Shack and Landry’s Seafood, and Paesano’s Restaurant Group, which owns Paesano’s River Walk, Zuni Grill, and Naked Iguana. County Line BBQ, Dick’s Last Resort, and Texas Land and Cattle Restaurant, none unique to San Antonio, represent other chains.

This isn’t to say that all large restaurants and businesses on the River Walk are anti-vendor, and many have developed independent symbiotic relationships with smaller operations. Hal McClosky, who has been the proprietor of River Walk Floral for 17 years, and seller of $7 individual roses, cooperates with static businesses on the River Walk, and faces an end to his livelihood if the ordinance, in its current form, passes. The proposed limitations would force some vendors to move up and off the River Walk, and away from the tourist flow, to enter and leave businesses they serve by street-level access only, or in the case of McClosky, to cover up his flowers between deliveries. Such limitations seem designed to purge the River Walk of independents by means of sheer frustration.

McClosky employed college students during busy seasons, but due to aggressive citations from park police (with some officers going undercover to catch those meddling kids peddling foul floral products), he’s kept pace on his own, delivering his product to businesses by individual agreements. But increasing harassment by law enforcement and an uncooperative Paseo del Rio Association moved McClosky and other independents like Robert Martinez, a caricature artist on the River Walk for 14 years, to hire attorney Paul Fletcher to argue for fair and equitable regulation.

Fletcher’s clients propose expanding a pilot program administered by the Paseo del Rio Association, which would grant permits on a monthly basis to small vendors. This program started and ended with Martinez, who leases a space at the Commerce Street Bridge. Such an abrupt end is somewhat inexplicable, as Martinez’s success as a regulated vendor should have been encouragement for broadening the program. What has resulted is a concerted effort to remove by intimidation all vendors not directly associated with an anchor restaurant or business. This seems like payback for litigation filed by Fletcher on behalf of the vendors. Fletcher and his clients support controls in some form, but with, as Fletcher puts it, “a fair set of rules and regulations.” They insist the ordinance goes too far in limiting conduct by all retailers on the River Walk, disallowing the unique requirements of mobile businessmen like McClosky, or a stationary artist like Martinez.

Even the vendors aren’t arguing that they should have free reign of the River Walk, but a balance between what corporations want and what smaller businesses need is paramount. Otherwise, the city risks the Disneyfication of an historic public space entrusted to citizens. And if the ghosts of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis can handle raspa peddlers and street preachers in Alamo Plaza, the River Walk could certainly find room for a few men and women determined to make an honest living.

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