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Commentary: Remember how the River Walk once glowed?

by Ben OlivoDec 26, 2018
Notice how the river barge's underwater lights glow, but the ones that hang from the trees do not. BEN OLIVO | HERON

The River Walk doesn't glow as it once did this time of year.

This isn't a matter of taste, but a matter of fact.

What I'm unsure about is whether we as San Antonians have come to accept inferior Christmas lights on our River Walk. I feel we have acquiesced to these specs of light, these LEDs, that have hovered so feebly above our River Walk the past eight years. I fear we'll never go back to the glowing incandescents that once cascaded down the tree branches like strings of fire.

I hope I'm wrong and that we haven't acquiesced, and that a fire still burns inside us as a city. I hope we haven't become accustomed to these LEDs as being pretty because they are something and something is better than nothing.

This could be true. What's definitely true is that San Antonio used to have a higher standard for what Christmas is supposed to look like for a downtown. We haven't met that standard in years.

Wait, hold on. You don't have the slightest clue what I'm talking about? Let's go back to the beginning of the "decade of downtown."

. . .

You don't have time for a long history lesson, so let me show you. The River Walk Christmas lights used to look like this:

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There are just a few dates left to see the beautiful holiday lights on a @paesanosriverwalk dining cruise. It is a romantic and amazing way to see the lights so don't miss out! Visit our website for details and to book!

A post shared by The San Antonio Riverwalk (@sariverwalkfun) on

Then Mayor Julián Castro wanted to become president of the United States. So he changed the River Walk's Christmas lights from warm incandescents to lame LEDs.

That's exactly what happened. I will gladly debate anyone who wants to challenge my recollection of these events. While mayor, and as a rising political star, Castro stuffed many feathers in his cap before leaving San Antonio. And hardly anyone on the City Council challenged him because they wanted to score political points with the future president—or somebody really important—of the United States. Literally, in the days before leaving for D.C., as if he was in one of those cash booths where the bills blizzard around, he did this. Now the River Walk Christmas lights suck for no good reason.

If my crystal ball worked properly, and I told Castro back then: President Barack Obama will bring you to D.C. to serve as his housing secretary. Then, Hillary Clinton is going to consider you as her running mate two years later, but she'll choose a person from Virginia, instead. But you'll still be all but guaranteed a high-level position in her cabinet. And that will set you up for your own run at the White House when Hillary terms out.

Oh, never mind. Donald Trump ...

Then he'd laugh in my face.

But Donald Trump did happen, and now Castro sits on the sidelines and there's no good reason why we need crappy Christmas lights on the River Walk anymore.

. . .

The San Antonio River Authority, which manages the Museum Reach's River of Lights, knows how to do a proper Christmas lights display. BEN OLIVO | HERON

I tell almost anyone who will listen: Our objective at the Heron is to present all the facts and all the viewpoints in a pattern of on one hand, on the other hand, on one hand, on the other hand until we've run out of facts and viewpoints to share, and then it's on you to decide how you feel about the issue.

We don't do the opining.

Except today. I must break this self-imposed rule because downtown San Antonio's Christmas is not what it used to be. You will never know how I feel about the Alamo plan or housing incentives or scooters (at least not anytime soon). The current LED Christmas lights? This one time, I will tell you my business, Kay.

They must go.

. . .

I think you officially become a crusty old journalist when you start referencing the past.

That said, I wrote this same column in 2012, a year after Castro made the switch from incandescents to LEDs.

There was much more conversation and controversy back then concerning the lights.

Castro's justification for the change was that it was a green, cost-saving measure for the River Walk. However, after I did the calculations, the savings was infinitesimal, something like $2,000 from one year to the next. This, after the project was nearing $1 million the first two years.

The first year, in 2011, the city purchased LEDs you could probably see from the moon they were so bright. They wrapped them around the tree trunks, instead of draping them down from the river's tree canopy. Where the glowing incandescents emitted a warmth, the purpleish lights around the trunks to me resembled an icy forest. Many people likened them to Vegas. And besides, squirrels had chewed through the wires causing outages throughout the river, which cost the city even more money.

In the end, the change was largely panned, the people (and the squirrels) won, and the city switched back to hanging the lights the next year.

Except, instead of going back to incandescents, they stayed with the LEDs that are there today. Where the incandescents gave off a reddish color, the new strands had odd non-Christmas colors such as yellow and blue.

The most important point I made then remains true today.

These LEDs don't reproduce well in photos. They don't pop like the incandescents did. The underwater lights of the new barges glow beautifully. Or, if you go to the river down by the Pearl, those lights pop and twinkle off the water's surface in Vincent van Gogh fashion. Perhaps those are LEDs, and perhaps they are made by a company other than the one that provides the River Walk its bulbs. I haven't bothered to research this piece that much. All I know is that those pictures look great, and the River Walk doesn't.

We must fix this. We must not forget.

The River Walk is supposed to be the backbone that ancillary Christmas lights displays complement. Instead, I find myself visiting other parts of downtown for holiday magic, such as the Pearl and the Christmas tree light show at the lock and dam. Shoot, even the candy cane colors of the unfinished Frost Tower radiate in a way worthy of pictures from multiple angles.

The River Walk was once this way.


. . .

Setting It Straight: A caption in a previous version of this piece attributed the Museum Reach lights by the Pearl to the Pearl. They are managed by the San Antonio River Authority. A previous version of this article misspelled the name of former President Barack Obama and Vincent van Gogh.

Editor's Note: Since spending nearly $1 million the first two years, the city's lights expenditures have leveled off. The cost to install, remove and replace the LED lightbulbs is about $10,000 more than it was before the switch in 2011—roughly $85,000 a year. The city says it can't calculate the energy savings, because the Christmas lights share the same meters with other power users, such as bridge lights, street lights, etc. Although, one would think you could take the monthly totals from the relevant meters, and subtract the non-holiday month averages from the holiday months to determine how much wattage the LEDs are using, and, therefore, saving compared to previous years.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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