Workers organize toys that were donated to San Antonio Housing Authority residents on Wednesday at SAHA headquarters. Photo by Rocky Garza Jr. | Heron contributor

The Alazan-Apache Courts toy drive seemed doomed after more than half of the 200 toys collected were stolen from the property's community room last Friday.

Then, San Antonio stepped up to replace the stolen gifts—and then some—as the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) received more than 2,000 toys from the community at large since the theft.

Roxanne Aguilar, 35, was among the people who received gifts during a toy distribution Wednesday at SAHA headquarters. Aguilar, who lives at a SAHA community on the northwest side, said the toy drive would allow her to surprise her three kids on Christmas Day.

“This program helps a lot because with the pandemic there (are) very little jobs," Aguilar said. "So what they are doing helps provide a lot."

Aguilar said she was shocked when she first heard about the stolen toys, but was grateful for the community's response.

“I think it’s very awesome that we have people that care not only about themselves, but others,” Aguilar said.

Terrence Blackwood, 43, said it was his first time participating in the program. His son was wanting a laptop, and Blackwood was happy that he could grant his son’s wish.

“It should make him a little more happy because he is getting more gifts than usual," Blackwood said.

SAHA was able to increase the amount of children that received gifts from 60 to 1,600 due to the community's generous efforts, and it allowed the agency to give toys to residents at other public housing properties, not just at Alazan-Apache.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg helps distribute toys to public housing residents on Wednesday. Photo by Rocky Garza Jr. | Heron contributor

"San Antonio is always a community that stands together and rallies around each other, especially during times of need and times of crisis," said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who helped hand out toys on Wednesday.

"This is all of that rolled into one and it’s such an incredible response from the community and hearing that children are giving other children their gifts so they wouldn’t go without one during Christmas is everything you need to know about our city."

SAHA Spokesman Michael Reyes said the agency received gifts from community organizations and churches, and even from kids who offered some of their own toys. He said the San Antonio Police Department is still investigating the theft, and no suspects have been identified.

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Sammy Nieto, a retired executive at Valero Energy Corp., founded the toy drive at the Alazan-Apache Courts more than 25 years ago. Through a program funded by Valero, Nieto served as a mentor for youth in the area who were cited for truancy, and were required to attend college-prep and motivational courses.

During his service, he remembers encountering a man he met that told him in Spanish that "he had no money to buy his kids shoes."

Nieto said he felt the Alazan-Apache Courts, where the average family income is $9,000, was in need of assistance the most.

When he learned of the outpouring of support from the San Antonio community, Nieto was shocked at the generosity.

“The city of San Antonio woke up and said 'You’re not going to do this in this city,' and they came back and donated a bunch of gifts and money," Nieto said. "It’s a great city and they have a great heart and it shows from the people who donated.”

More than 2,000 toys were handed out to families in need on Wednesday at SAHA headquarters. Photo by Rocky Garza Jr. | Heron contributor

Rocky Garza Jr. is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. Follow him at @r0ckssss_ on Twitter

For the past few weeks, we've visited what are normally downtown San Antonio's most popular spots for viewing and taking pictures of Christmas lights. In most places, the crowds haven't been as large as they usually are, for obvious reasons. But we wanted to share with you the photos we captured anyway.

We'll be updating this slideshow throughout the holidays.

Photos by Heron contributors Chris Stokes (Travis Park, Alamo Plaza and Pearl) and Stephanie Marquez (Main Plaza, Frost Bank, and Rivercenter), and Heron editor Ben Olivo (Casa Rio scenes and H-E-B Christmas tree arrival).

Follow the San Antonio Heron on Instagram for more holiday photos.

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Contact the Heron at hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

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!

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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.

Remember?

. . .

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

If you haven't seen the Christmas tree light show at the lock and dam on the Museum Reach, well, here it is. The five-minute display syncs Christmas-y patterns and colors with classic and modern holiday tunes. Now, if we can get something like this throughout the river ...

And here what the rest of downtown looks like all dressed up for the holidays.

Merry Christmas!

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

It’s that OPEN Holiday Market time of year.

Shoppers can expect to find unique and fun gifts from 14 local businesses—Bohemian Gemme, DiZurita, Flor Boutique, Girl & Guy Code Soaps, HERNÁN, Honeydipped, J Lacel Boutique, Jowa, Lirica, Love Art Style, Lulo Texas, Marta Francine, Meechi Ceramics, and Red Cat & Co—inside the vacant retail space at 231 E. Houston St. over the next two weekends.

The 2018 Holiday Market kicks off with a grand opening celebration 5-8 p.m. today (Dec. 7) with live music, small bites and drinks, and free totes with a purchase from one of the vendors. The market will be open noon-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 1-7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 16.

The OPEN Downtown Pop Up Shop Program, developed by the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) in 2013, uses vacant downtown spaces to provide small business owners with temporary, low- to no-cost storefronts. The program also provides local businesses with an opportunity to connect with customers in a traditional setting and activate the downtown area as a place to visit and shop.

“The OPEN Holiday Market is the perfect occasion to shop for unique gifts while celebrating and supporting local businesses,” CCDO Director John Jacks said in a press release.

Since 2013, more than 80 local businesses have helped activate 20 vacant downtown spaces. Several participating OPEN pop-ups have gone on to sign long-term business leases elsewhere downtown, such as like Eye Candy Boutique (Houston Street Garage building), Bird & Pear and Huipil Market (both at La Villita).

Elsa Fernandez, owner of Eye Candy Boutique, launched her plus-size fashion store online before she applied for the OPEN program in May 2015.

“The (OPEN market) was my first time popping up and introducing the (clothes and accessories to shoppers in person),” Fernandez said. “It was really helpful because it helped me to get my audience downtown and really test the concept for Eye Candy Boutique.”

Following her success with the OPEN pop-ups, Fernandez applied for a storefront opportunity with the program in fall 2015. Eye Candy Boutique was selected as the first vendor to open for business at 531 Navarro St.—a previously vacant space owned by the city—and allowed Fernandez to operate as a brick-and-mortar, rent-free for 90 days.

Fernandez’s quality fashion and fun accessories quickly found a loyal customer base, and eventually led to her signing a long-term lease with the city. The program has helped her create a strong network of local small businesses that help each other grow.

"Thanks to OPEN, we’ve been able to expand the retail downtown in a way that hasn't happened before … to be here now, downtown, for three years, and to see the landscape changing, and see the (urban core) revitalized—it's an incredible thing," Fernandez said.

The program currently hosts two pop-ups inside the Book building at 140 E. Houston Street. Her Hippie Heart specializes in boho decor, while Pink & Silver Fashion offers one-of-a-kind, handmade clothing and accessories. The shops planned to close earlier this fall but thanks to popular demand, they will remain open until the last week of December. Their hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays- Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays.

Pink and Silver pop-up shop at the Book building. BEN OLIVO | HERON

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