The Flood of 1921 is often referred to as a seminal moment in San Antonio’s development, principally for how it spurred the actions which resulted in the central feature in the city’s international identity, the River Walk along the San Antonio River. What has been less understood — and I would say never connected in our public discourse — is the tragic destruction wrought by the flood in the residential areas of the city and particularly in the poverty-stricken Westside colonias.  

In his new book, West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, Char Miller has documented an aspect of San Antonio history that is generally acknowledged as a major event but not well understood for all its gravity and significance.

The heart of Miller’s book is the idea that after the damage to the downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods was assessed, engineers advanced projects to prevent such a devastating flooding from happening again. The city leaders, pushed by the downtown merchants, helped fund and build the Olmos Dam and the San Antonio River flood bypass that would protect the downtown. As a result, the downtown buildings and the central area upper-income neighborhoods have never flooded to that magnitude again. Indeed, the San Antonio River was transformed into a linear park, which since its commercial development during HemisFair ’68 has become one of the most visited places in Texas.

But despite the plans presented by the engineers at the same time, little or no attention was paid for the next 50 years to the creeks on the near West Side, where the flood destroyed 1,500 homes and killed over 80 residents. Economic power brokers made sure that the high-value real estate was protected while ignoring the barrios of the West Side and relegating them to suffer repeated floods, destruction, and death for decades. 

<I>West Side Rising</I>, Char Miller
West Side Rising by Char Miller will be published by Trinity University Press on Sept. 7. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press

Miller presents the case in such an irrefutable way that it is shocking. Even for those of us who feel that we have known the general sequence of events, the evidence is deeply painful because Miller lays it out with such clarity and power.

Miller taught history at Trinity University for many years before joining the faculty at Pomona College and has effectively been San Antonio’s premier public policy observer. He writes in an old-school style that at times makes the reader feel that one is reading a dispatch from the period, perhaps because he intersperses passages from the newspapers and reports of that day written in the more formal language of the time. The effect is positive. The book flows in a way that feels timely and urgent and conveys San Antonio history as if it is being lived again. There are places where the style is academic, presenting statistics and data, and other places where the style has the page-turning pace of a storyteller sharing a compelling saga. Again, the result is positive, because in the end the interwoven styles result in a narrative that is both authoritative and human.

In the early chapters, Miller describes the topographical and climatological features that make San Antonio vulnerable to such floods. I have lived here for 60 of my 74 years since birth and I have never seen or heard a clearer explanation of how the interplay of the Balcones Escarpment on the northern edge of our city and the heat and humidity of the Gulf of Mexico generates thunderstorms and drenching rains in the spring and late summer months. Nor have I read a better description of the features of the rivers and creeks that converge along the San Antonio River basin: the Cibolo, Salado, Olmos, Alazán, Apache, Martinez, Zarzamora, and Medina waterways. Miller makes us realize that floods are a natural part of San Antonio’s landscape, and even in modern times they have us on alert many evenings each year.

Miller uses Spanish military reports concerning an 1813 flood that almost demolished the early fortress and settlement to provide evidence of the regular frequency of destructive floods. But the descriptions of the 1921 storm are the most heart-rending.  Drawing from a report titled La Trajedia de la Inundacion de San Antonio, produced about eight weeks after the flood, Miller writes: “The social and economic disparities that defined San Antonio, the report’s anonymous authors argue, were made explicit in the different kinds of damage the river and creeks produced: ‘The San Antonio River hit the rich — it affected the big stores on Avenida C. The powerful houses of Houston and Commerce St.’ By contrast, Alazán Creek — ‘an imitation of a brook, a laughable pantomime, a thin and flexible snake’ — proved ravenous. ‘It was the taker of lives — it was a cruel executioner who wiped out every poor soul it encountered.’” 

More than 80 people died or disappeared on the West Side. Local government leaders purposely underreported the deaths as they launched a public relations campaign to counter national reports that the city had been largely destroyed. They underreported by counting as a death only a body that was identified. The dozens of people who were swept away and never found were not reported as deaths.

Miller describes how in the aftermath of the storm city engineers put forward concepts to control the floodwaters. Central to all of them was to build Olmos Dam to contain the waters from rainfall in the Olmos Basin to the north from rushing past the headwaters of the San Antonio River and into downtown. Some plans actually called for directing floodwaters to Alazán Creek, which had already proven incapable of handling floodwaters of the 1921 volume. In effect, they were surrendering the Mexican neighborhoods of the West Side as “a sacrificial zone”. Over the subsequent decades local bonds funds and federal funds were used to complete Olmos Dam and to build a flood bypass to channelize the San Antonio River downtown. At every decision moment, funds for flood control of the Westside creeks were either reduced, diverted, or eliminated. The downtown thrived as investments in the first generation of high-rise buildings became feasible with reduced exposure to flooding.

Real Estate advertisements feature the opening of Olmos Dam as a selling point for Park Hill Estates.
Real estate advertisements feature the opening of Olmos Dam as a selling point for Park Hill Estates. Credit: Courtesy / Char Miller

Meanwhile the West Side remained the poorest area of the city with slum housing, lack of plumbing, unpaved streets, and massive vulnerability to floods. And predictably floods inundated the West Side with regularity. I grew up on the West Side in the Prospect Hill neighborhood, so named because of a slight rise in elevation from the surrounding area, and three blocks down the hill to our west I watched annual flooding of the Apache Creek drive poor families from their homes, often resulting in drowning deaths.

The problem of Westside flooding was resistant to solutions for the next 50 years.  Miller describes how in the 1960s conditions were so horrific and inequitable that they spurred new voices representing the poorest neighborhoods to draw attention and demand action. First among those voices was Henry B. González, who was elected to Congress in 1961. He attacked the problem, pushed the local authorities, and secured unprecedented levels of funding from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Programs. Miller is vague on the precise sources of federal funds, but one source of funding was Johnson’s Model Cities Program, which directed funding to flood control structures along the Westside creeks on an unprecedented scale. As a young Model Cities staffer, I was awed by the large-scale construction in the areas where I had seen deadly floodwaters as a teenager.

Miller is correct in his recognition that true citywide focus on the problem of drainage and flooding came with the advent of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a community organizing effort sponsored by the Industrial Areas Foundation from Chicago. It was a grassroots-led, church-based effort guided by community organizer Ernesto Cortes. Unlike previous attempts to organize community action around predetermined causes, Cortes encouraged COPS leaders to gather their neighbors in church halls and living rooms to listen to the people. Unfailingly, the highest priority in the neighborhoods was to prevent flooding. It became the central rallying theme for a mobilization that energized parishes, confronted business leaders, demanded action from city officials, and helped design and pass the necessary bond issues. 

Over the next decade COPS not only secured construction of essentially all the highest-priority Westside and Southside flood control projects, but in so doing created a new balance in political power in the city. The business and traditional political leaders were no longer the sole deciding voices. Blue collar workers and women church leaders from the most marginalized neighborhoods could make their demands known and have a reasonable chance of getting them into the queue for action. Every major bond issue that followed was offered to the public as a balanced compromise: arterial streets for the growing Northside areas and flood control and basic infrastructure for the awakening West and South sides.

During this time the city government, under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, offered voters a single-member districting form of city government to replace the less representative existing at-large system. The poor neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for more voice in municipal decision-making. That was the power generated by the fights to end the inequities of flooding: It unified the poor neighborhoods as never before, it created a new equilibrium in voice and representation, and it ushered in a new model of progressive, multicultural governance that has propelled San Antonio forward as never before.

It is ironic that such a destructive force as the flood of 1921 created so much change — chronicled and unchronicled. The chronicled result was the creation of a flood control system that made possible one of the most attractive downtown water features in any city in the world and ushered in decades of high-value investment. The unchronicled part — that is until Char Miller has presented it so clearly — is that the most destructive aspect of the flood, which city leaders of the period tried to diminish, was the most transformative in terms of the basic power dynamic of the city.

As permanent benefits, the West and South sides are experiencing new physical and economic opportunities. The creek system is now a network of bicycle and hiking paths that encircles the city and opens up land for attractive development on the West Side, in the old stockyards area of the near South Side, and along the Mission Reach still farther south. It is happening steadily but it escapes our notice until someone like Miller applies the intellectual rigor to spell it all out — the topography, the history, the politics, the injustice, the transformation, and the opportunities. Miller has written a well-researched, insightful, and important book that tells the back story of one of San Antonio’s most transformative experiences.

West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, by Char Miller, will be published by Trinity University Press on Sept. 7.

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Henry Cisneros

The former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros is the chairman and co-founder of American Triple I, a developer, investor, and manager of infrastructure...