Noting that the skyline of downtown San Antonio hasn’t changed much since 1968, 90-year-old Tom C. Frost IV mused that so much else has. Frost was one of the figures instrumental in bringing the first world’s fair of the southwestern United States into being.
“Because of HemisFair, we began to present ourselves as a Hispanic city,” Frost said, “as the confluence of two cultures that came together in North America.”
The official theme of HemisFair ’68 was “The Confluence of Civilizations in America,” and its focus on the role of Latin America helped achieve recognition by the Bureau of International Expositions, the official body that granted World’s Fair designations.
Half a century later, civic leaders are employing much of that same language to promote San Antonio’s Tricentennial, in the Witte Museum’s Confluence and Culture exhibition, the six-venue Common Currents show, the recently dedicated Confluence Park, and in many of Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s speeches about the city’s 300th birthday celebration.
This weekend, San Antonio will celebrate the 50th anniversary of HemisFair ’68 with ¡Viva Hemisfair!, a free festival open to the public Friday through Sunday, April 6-8 at the original Fair’s downtown grounds.
Special events and exhibits will honor dignitaries who helped make HemisFair possible, while examining the history of the fairgrounds before, during, and after the momentous six-month exposition.
Nirenberg will speak at a HemisFair commemorative reception on Friday, at the Institute of Texan Cultures, which was built originally for the Fair.
“The confluence of cultures in San Antonio has become even more pronounced since HemisFair highlighted the concept,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report via text message Thursday.
“We are proud of our diversity,” Nirenberg said, praising it as a source of cultural richness and vibrancy. “As a compassionate, welcoming city, we embrace cultural differences. We know that with communication our differences become a strength, making us a more thoughtful, understanding community.”
An Engine of Change
Former Mayor Lila Cockrell recalls the Fair as transformational for the city. “The spirits that were generated at that time are continuing to work,” she said.
Today, “we have an appreciation for the cultural contributions of each of the groups” that make up San Antonio’s mix of ethnicities, she said, “and of course, we now have an even more diverse city.”
Before becoming the first female mayor of San Antonio, Cockrell served on City Council from 1963-70, pivotal years in the development, realization, and aftermath of HemisFair. Though history has smoothed over many roadblocks, she easily recalls those that beset preparations for the huge undertaking.
She remembers “the feeling of being so proud at the fact that HemisFair could actually happen, in spite of all the challenges and all the last-minute things that weren’t finished.”
“Mayor Mac,” as the 96-year-old Cockrell calls her former colleague Walter W. McAllister, mayor at the time of the Fair, asked master builder H.B. Zachry to build the Hilton Palacio del Rio on a rush schedule, to accommodate the massive flow of dignitaries expected to visit the city during the exposition.
Zachry complied, earning praise for the design and for finishing the work safely on an unusually tight timeline – nine months from design to completion. However, according to Cockrell, the mayor didn’t like the bill Zachry submitted, and refused to pay.
Such bad blood was eventually resolved by the Fair’s perceived success, despite financial losses in the millions, unexpected management turnover, attendance below projections, and even a horrendous monorail accident.
Low attendance during HemisFair’s opening days was attributed to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and subsequent national unrest, a mere two days before the Fair’s opening day.
“The entire black community [was] suffering a national loss,” Cockrell said. But the Fair’s focus on equality of North American peoples and nations may have had a hand in the city avoiding much of the tumult rippling through the U.S. that year, “because we were trying to make some progress,” she said.
San Antonio had a more complex ethnic makeup than other cities undergoing tensions, Cockrell explained, and “coming together and uniting to bring about a major event for the city, that was very important.”
Former Mayor Henry Cisneros recalls attending “our fair share of Fair events that summer,” as a 20-year-old senior at Texas A&M dating his soon-to-be-wife Mary Alice. Cisneros was active in student government, looking toward a career in city management.
“It was a tumultuous year in ’68, arguably the most since the Great Depression, or the Civil War,” he said, recounting a series of rending events – Hubert Humphrey’s election loss; the Tet offensive in Vietnam; the assassination of Robert Kennedy; police riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago; and “cities burning for a variety of reasons. It was just a year in which the country was coming apart,” he said.
Meanwhile, civic and business leaders had invested millions in inviting international recognition to San Antonio, described as “that prismatic city” in the Fair’s official souvenir guidebook.
Urban Renewal or Destruction?
Though the Fair initiated a tourism boom for the city, it may not have treated some locals as well. Street names that read like a brief history of San Antonio’s ethnic makeup were lost to what would become the 92.6-acre HemisFair grounds: Lafitte, Arroyo, Rose, Wyoming, Goliad, Haller.
Those names represent a longstanding neighborhood that was sacrificed through eminent domain, in order to set aside the acreage needed for a major world’s fair.
Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez rode the No. 68 Guadalupe bus into town from the Westside, making regular family visits to the fairgrounds to enjoy the affordable amenities. She recalls riding in her own bumper car to assert her independence from her older brothers.
After the Fair closed, it became her junior high school stomping grounds. She and her friends would hang around the “ghost town,” as she described it. “We could still move around and play, and wonder what had happened.” Sanchez recalls “laughing at City leaders for doing something that cost so much, but failing to think beyond 1968.”
After its six-month run, the handover of HemisFair to City management did not go well, according to Boone Powell, who oversaw the building of the Tower of the Americas as lead architect for O’Neil Ford & Associates.
Powell said that the city manager at the time “was convinced that the fair would never open, and didn’t even appoint a key person to take over” from San Antonio Fair, the private corporation formed to operate HemisFair.
He, too, recalls a ghost town, and said the City “didn’t even know how to turn the lights on.”
“Troubled HemisFair Becomes Amusement Center,” reads a New York Times headline dated Oct. 20, 1968, describing a changeover to “Fiestaland,” an “entertainment park … adjunct to the $15 million convention complex next to the fair grounds,” which retained concessions, an arcade, children’s rides, restaurants, and the permanent HemisFair structures.
The City would hold a contest to permanently rename the fairgrounds, the Times said, but it eventually reverted back to its current name of “Hemisfair,” with its lower-case ‘f.’
Past and Present
Today, Hemisfair is in the midst of a major makeover. Its management agency, Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), has leased several historic homes to locally based restaurants, and is building a 151-unit apartment building that meets current “workforce standards” for including income-adjusted rental rates.
Andres Andujar, chief executive officer of HPARC, is busy making up for the lack of “a solid vision for what would happen after the Fair,” he said.
With a stated goal to return downtown residents to the district “at a density similar to the population that existed in the neighborhood before the Fair,” Andujar said the site is now creating jobs and generating revenue for the city, “bringing that vitality back into the fold in this area.”
While HemisFair made San Antonio “a poster child” of the convention and tourism industry, initiating 14,000 hotel rooms downtown, Andujar “sure would like to see 14,000 residences, if not two to three times that number, so it’s not just an oasis for the visitor, but a paradise for the locals.”
The ¡Viva Hemisfair! weekend celebration will not shy away from the sacrifices former residents of the area made to accommodate the Fair, said Drew Hicks, HPARC communications manager.
The event will honor “people who grew up in this neighborhood, playing in the streets when there were streets, and going to church here,” Hicks said.
There are many HemisFair stories, Hicks said, including his own memories of playing on the old wooden playground of the 1980s, and going to his first Spurs games at the original HemisFair arena. “We wanted this weekend to be an acceptance and a celebration of all of those stories,” he said.
The story of redevelopment and gentrification might be interesting to those who remember the old neighborhood, Hicks said, but might also attract younger people. “That story still has some lessons for us,” he said.
Nicolas Rivard and Gabriela Santiago of Parts, a design agency, are mounting an exhibit in the historic Herman Longini House along old Nueva Street. Placards show old maps of the neighborhoods that existed long before HemisFair, to the early origins of San Antonio as a 19th-century settlement. Guided tours of the other four historic homes on the grounds will be available with prior registration.
Other exhibits on display during the festival include a 1960s retro car and wine show at the Tower of the Americas, an UNAM show of South Texas artists Momo y Pompa, and the final installment of Common Currents at the Instituto Cultural de México, featuring 50 local artists each focused on a year between 1968-2017.
Former U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez originally envisioned a “Fair of the Americas” that would leave behind a “permanent community platform for cultural, economic and educational exchange,” according to the HemisFair 1968 souvenir guidebook.
Though the Fair had its bumps, and the transition to City ownership did not go well, it did leave some benefits in its wake.
Regarding the local impact, Cockrell said, “Without any doubt, it was an enormous undertaking that many would have thought beyond our capability at the time. But we did go ahead, and it really brought us light years into the future.”
Frost said, “The greatest achievement was that we learned how to work together and accomplish something in this town.”
Cisneros concurred, and pointed to broader currents at work in the city, state, and country. “You could not find figures more opposed” than Gonzalez, a liberal Democratic congressman, and conservative Republican Mayor McAllister. “You just couldn’t have more different outlooks or backgrounds, and yet they found a way to work together,” he said.
In political issues of the era, and in local and national protests over the war, King, and labor rights, “there wasn’t even a basis for conversation” between sides, Cisneros recalled.
But “the Fair provided an example of what could be done. When people talk about 1968 and the HemisFair in San Antonio being the turning point, the moment of awareness, the point of inflection for San Antonio, they are absolutely correct,” he said. “There is pre-1968, and post-1968 San Antonio.”
Powell said, “I think the chief legacy of the Fair was opening up a vision of the country, especially the state of Texas, to San Antonio and its multicultured aspect.”
In summarizing the progress San Antonio has made over five decades, he said, “We haven’t reached our maturity yet, but we’ll get there.”
Asked to comment on whether the city has realized Gonzalez’s original vision, Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) said, “Henry B’s vision has manifested itself not only in the educational Tricentennial programming, but also in how we grow our downtown amenities.”
For her part, Sanchez said she would like to see a restoration of the old No. 68 bus line directly into downtown and Hemisfair, which would allow accessibility for her working-class Westside neighbors.
Redevelopment is less than halfway done, Andujar said, and through a forthcoming “substantial community outreach effort,” Sanchez and others throughout the city can have their voices heard. “This is your opportunity to come in and tell us what Tower Park should contain, and how we should use it.”
The first community outreach session has not yet been scheduled, Andujar said, but the aim is to begin this summer.
With a slight adjustments to the year and century, the 1968 souvenir guidebook reads like an image and cautionary example for 2018:
“Bilingual and cosmopolitan, San Antonio lays claim to a lustrous heritage spun from the colorful threads of many cultures. On that foundation, HemisFair ’68, in the truest sense, is the outcome of visionary, 20th Century pioneering.”