South of Southtown: Life on the Other Side of the Tracks

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Callie Enlow is a young journalist and Denton, Texas native who experienced life on both coasts before landing in San Antonio several years ago. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Enlow has written nationally for The Onion, Kirkus Review, and various websites, and locally for San Antonio magazine, the San Antonio Current, and Plaza de Armas.  

In the first of what we hope are many stories for The Rivard Report, Enlow explores her own Lone Star neighborhood. Life there leads her to weigh her choices: buy a house and settle down, or move on to another to another city.

By Callie Enlow

The real test of how much you love a city is whether you’re willing to buy a house there. For years, as a renter, I had the luxury of being ambivalent about San Antonio. Now, however, my landlord needs to sell this house, I’m getting married to a lifelong San Antonian, and we have the opportunity to buy our rental home. That old lyric from the Clash, “should I stay or should I go,” just got a lot more relevant.

At the center of this emotional see-saw is my neighborhood: like many in the “inner loop” of San Antonio, it’s lower-middle class, majority Hispanic, and reasonably close to several leisure-time attractions. It’s been my home for three years, and it’s hard to imagine leaving just as it looks to be coming into its own. As I weigh whether to make the biggest investment of my life, I want to know if it will ever actually get there.

The east-facing street view of Lone Star Boulevard on the way to Mission Reach.

The east-facing street view of Lone Star Boulevard on the way to Mission Reach.

My neighborhood proper is called Lone Star, just south of Southtown, on the proverbial other side of the tracks from Blue Star, Cevallos Lofts, and King William. In fact, a set of extremely busy Union Pacific rails make up the back border of our property. To the south, it stretches down to I-10, to the east the Mission Reach, and to the west I-35. Walking out my front door, if I turn right I’m at the Second Saturday hub on the corner of South Flores and Lone Star, featuring Fl!ght Gallery, SMART Art Project Space, Gravel Mouth, Gallista Gallery and more. If I turn left, I can round the corner for an easy trip to La Tuna and Blue Star, or continue further down Lone Star Boulevard to the Mission Reach.  Since I’ve moved in, I’ve witnessed the birth of multiuse developments like Cevallos and St. Benedict’s lofts, hip restaurants like the Monterey, Feast, Bliss, and the Friendly Spot, and even some service and boutique establishments. Yet for the most part, development screeches to a halt when it hits those Union Pacifica tracks, in more ways than one.

With charming older neighborhoods such as those San Antonio has in abundance, many fear development means charmless commercial structures moving in and longtime residents being forced out due to higher property taxes or rent. In a New York magazine article discussing this topic, Adam Sternbergh delightfully pegs the presumed consequences of Brooklyn’s gentrification as “Housing prices balloon; boutiques and bistros blossom; and before you know it, some bearded dudes in vests have bought the local bodega and opened a saloon festooned with taxidermied animals.”

Sternbergh points out that there’s not always a clear causal relationship between displacement and gentrification, however. He cites Columbia University Urban Planner professor Lance Freeman’s research, which shows many poor and undereducated residents in parts of New York were actually less likely to move out of a gentrifying neighborhood. I’d wager this would be even more apparent in San Antonio, where extended families populate neighborhood houses like red tiles on a checkerboard, just a quick jump away from one another, and are thus even less likely to abandon the family compound.

Freeman writes that residents often appreciate the better services that come with a developing neighborhood, and their new vocal neighbors, who have the time and the know-how to petition city officials for all manner of much-needed improvements, from street paving to better lighting. For example, in January, I attended a meeting in our neighborhood discussing a proposed quiet zone that would muffle the 35 trains per day zooming just behind my and my neighbors’ property lines. While many credit District 5 Councilman David Medina with this inspired idea, a considerable early push in the direction came from the Cevallos Lofts developers, who cited train noise as a major concern and held preliminary neighborhood meetings on the issue. None of the residents attending the January meeting seemed to be wringing their hands that salvation from the frequent blaring horns would also inevitably drive them from their homes.

Thankfully, here in San Antonio the neighbors should have plenty of time to evaluate and react to any community or cultural damage caused by gentrification. This is because development here creeps on so slowly one wonders if it is actually moving forward at all. To wit, back in 1996, U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez wrote in a letter to Avenidas del Rio Business Corridor Chairman Jeff Neathery that “When I consider the assets we have in place, particularly the river and the missions, and the interest of the busines

s and lay community, I am confident that we can transform this area into a beautiful and successful district. The Flores-Roosevelt-Presa area is filled with promise.” Fifteen years later, that promise is just beginning to be realized.

A charming rehabilitation of a formerly ramshackle home in the Lone Star neighborhood.

A charming rehabilitation of a formerly ramshackle home in the Lone Star neighborhood.

While San Antonio’s slowness does protect against displacement, it also frustrates homeowners sick of having to wait for deep-pocketed neighbors and businesses to demand of the city services it should already be providing, like proper infrastructure, better animal care services, and more stringent code compliance. These same reasons turn off potential buyers and investors. I’m reminded of this every time I walk from my house to the Mission Reach. While access to the river from Blue Star and King William can be found at several points, for the streets between Cevallos and Mitchell, a distance of more than one mile, the most convenient access point is the beginning of the Mission Reach at Roosevelt Park. Local residents to the west must go via Lone Star boulevard, passing a pack of intimidating stray dogs, the unsightly Newell Recycling plant and as-yet abandoned Lone Star Brewery. The route is only partially side-walked and littered with broken glass and sharp, rusty metal scraps. There’s a train track across Lone Star as well, and though it’s infrequently used it can cause a major delay in reaching the park. This all acts as a considerable deterrent from enjoying one of San Antonio’s more significant urban planning achievements located just blocks away. I can’t help wondering if the Lone Star Brewery actually developed, or if a few more homes were refurbished down here, whether my long-suffering neighbors would still have to deal with such blight. Going north to King William is similarly marred by the bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly Nogalitos, Flores and Probandt streets, the only ones that run north-south. As Sternbergh writes “In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to wait for the dual bugaboos to arrive before you get a decent grocery store or adequate police patrols.”

While San Antonio is far from an ideal world, especially on the South Side, my neighbors confirm that Lone Star has already changed significantly in one area. Jesse, 22, grew up in this neighborhood. He has a shaved head and lots of monocrhome tattoos, mainly portraits, like a photo album scattered on his arms and torso. Sometimes he and a friend play tennis in the middle of the street between our houses, breaking for cars like Wayne and Garth in their Wayne’s World hockey game.

Shards of glass, metal, and plastic litter the sidewalk outside the old Brewery on Lone Star

Shards of glass, metal, and plastic litter the sidewalk outside the old Brewery on Lone Star

I asked Jesse if the neighborhood was different from when he was a kid. He nodded. “There’s no more drugs.” Then he pointed to an overgrown vacant lot caddy-corner to my house, “the gangs used to all be there,” he said, next gesturing to the vacant warehouse across from the field, “and there.” “They aren’t here anymore?” I asked him. He grinned at my ignorance. “You don’t see them, do you?” he asked in what I hope was a rhetorical manner.

A quiet zone and no gangs are good, but is it enough to herald the change people keep predicting for my neighborhood (not to mention several other blighted areas in San Antonio)? To get a little more perspective about the neighborhood, I turned to Irby Hightower, a founding principal with Alamo Architects. His firm offices right around the corner from my house and they developed Cevallos Lofts to be the “magic link” between Southtown and South Flores. Hightower also co-chairs the Mission Reach oversight committee.

“San Antonio changes slowly but it changes,” Hightower told me.  “I don’t think there’s much potential for stagnation,” he continued, noting that even during the recession development inside the loop in San Antonio continued at a consistent, if plodding, pace. But as for living in the new, hot, it neighborhood, not so fast. “One of San Antonio’s problems is that it has so many great neighborhoods. The moment prices go up in one area, people switch over to another area.” This can drag down the momentum of neighborhood development, said Hightower, although he noted that while it might be depressing in a 20-30 year outlook, in 50-60 years most neighborhoods will at least have seen some positive growth. For much of the South Flores to Southtown area, Hightower is slightly more optimistic, ballparking that in 10-15 years, it “will really turn into a nice neighborhood.”

That’s still north of the tracks my little house sits right behind, though, and I wondered aloud what could be done for areas like my little corner of the world, where potential was high but for whatever reason development remained low. Were we always to be doomed to being just four, or two, or one blocks away from a fully functioning neighborhood? Hightower, whose firm happens to engage in several urban infill projects, suggested a city-backed program to help investors develop the several vacant lots and abandoned buildings that dot such neighborhoods. But he also mused about targeted, enhanced city services to do basic things like enforce code compliance, mow vacant lots, and remove litter. “When you demonstrate that people are caring about the neighborhood, it has a real effect,” said Hightower. “If every signal you send is that no one cares, that neighborhood is done pretty quickly.”

Photos by Callie Enlow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “South of Southtown: Life on the Other Side of the Tracks

  1. Interesting read. I would ballpark southside san antonio in a drought of infinite proportion. With the money spent at midtown and above, especially with infrastructure, it is likely the city development and wealth will remain at pearl brewery and above for more than just 10 to 15 years.

    It will take more than redevelopment. It will take a renaissance that usually only happens once neighborhoods approach the 50/70 year mark. We are about 20 to 30 away from that.

  2. Great article! I too have wondered what will happen to the neighborhoods South of Southtown and if we really will have to wait another 20-30 years for a revitalization to happen there. Thanks for sharing your perspective on your neighborhood.

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