Call me a Ping Pong-er. Not to be confused with the Boomerang Generation, Ping Pong-ers move back and forth, never staying in one place long enough to get really settled. I invented the name, but it seems to fit many in our perpetually mobile society.
This is my third stint in San Antonio. First on the South Side through graduation from Highlands High School nearly fifty years ago. Second in 1985 with my then-husband and son, only to leave again in 1991. Finally a homecoming in the autumn of 2011 to live here in retirement. By then my son and ex-husband had gone their separate ways, and I’d been away from San Antonio for twenty years.
Back and forth, back and forth, and now back again.
Coming back has stirred many memories. I remember watching from my back porch as the Tower of the Americas grew some 20-30 feet a day, an astounding feat of construction for its time. I remember when people came downtown to shop at Joske’s, Frost Brothers, Solo Serve, JC Penney and other stores. They’re all gone now. I’ve heard that the Joske’s sign at the corner of the Rivercenter Mall on South Alamo and East Commerce Streets may return. That would be a good thing.
A lot has happened here during the last 20 years. I missed the development of U.S. 281 North and the expansion of I-10 West with the desecration of many hilltops over the fragile Edwards Aquifer. I missed the rise of the sibling suburbs and the many new strip centers, which look much like those anywhere else in the country instead of reflecting local character. Seeing all these things for the first time all at once came as quite a shock, one which I’ve not yet overcome.
Good things have happened, too. Downtown is buzzing with energy and anticipation. New commercial and residential projects and creative re-purposing of old buildings dot the urban landscape. Our economy is among the best in the country. People are coming together for a dialogue on urban planning and revitalization. This is a good time to be back home.
Now “home” is in the Jefferson/Deco District on the Northwest side. Roughly bounded by Fredericksburg Road to the north, I-10 on the east, St. Cloud to the West, and Woodlawn on the South, the Jefferson District and Monticello Park include the historic and stately Thomas Jefferson High School and the Deco District.
There is a mix of single and multi-family housing ranging from the very modest to mansions. Houses show a range of historic styles, including Spanish Revival, traditional cottages, and the quirky. And yes, there is at least one Deco house.
Many properties with “good bones” are ripe for renovation. One can buy a cottage here rivaling those in Alamo Heights at a fraction of the cost. Pride of ownership is evident in many of the homes, such as this one with its distinct landscape design:
The Deco District has its own business district, which is undergoing revitalization. The Woodlawn Theater offers plays and musicals as a lively part of the local arts scene. La Bandera Molino on North Zarzamora has a wonderful mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe blessing its parking lot; perhaps that is why it has some of the best tamales in town. Even the neighborhood H-E-B is known as the “Deco-B”.
Friendly men on bicycle carts cover the neighborhood to sell paletas (frozen fruit bars) from El Paraiso, a local tradition since 1984. One can hear the tinkling of their handlebar bells and the honking of their bicycle horns as they pass by.
Jefferson is also the home of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Part of the San Antonio Independent School District, the YWLA is the first all-girls public college preparatory school here. It emphasizes math, science and technology – fields typically under-represented by women. Many of its students are economically disadvantaged, although this is not a requirement. They are expected to graduate from a four-year college and to avoid many of the pitfalls that prevent adolescent girls from reaching their full potential.
I was driving by recently just as school was letting out for the afternoon and I stopped to chat with some of the students. They confirmed that it is a good school and is making a difference in their lives. I plan to volunteer there – you can too. San Antonio needs more schools like the YWLA.
As with anywhere else, Jefferson-Deco is not perfect. Loose dogs, some in packs, are in evidence. The City is giving the dog issue higher priority in its new budget, and hopefully there will be some improvement soon. There are some neglected properties begging for someone to give them a new life. And sometimes the sidewalks on major thoroughfares are littered with drunken men who are harmless, but nevertheless disconcerting.
These are widespread problems, not unique to this neighborhood or even to San Antonio. They can be improved if residents work together with local government and civic and faith-based organizations to educate people, provide more opportunities, and find some answers.
I’m eager to be involved in these and other issues, and I hope you are too.
Yes, I’ve been a ping pong-er. But this time I’m here to stay.
Dr. Betty Dabney is retired from the faculties of Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She has also worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment, for Fortune 50 companies, and has been an independent consultant in environmental health. She was on the Maryland Governor’s Commission for Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. In her spare time she is a fine-art photographer: bettydabney.com.