Where I Live: Dignowity Hill

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After Renovation

Dignowity Hill kitchen AFTER renovation.

Bekah S. McNeelBy Bekah S. McNeel

Everywhere I turn people are raving about Urban Pioneers. Since we moved into our Dignowity Hill home almost two years ago (generously deemed “a fixer-upper”), we’ve received no shortage of pats on the back from our downtown friends, and no shortage of “have you lost your minds?” from our families. Certainly we had our own set of goals and expectations for life on the infamous Eastside, but it never ceases to amuse and surprise us how the reality measures up.

My husband and I are one of the success stories of finding jobs, a home, and a like-minded urban professional with whom to settle down in San Antonio’s city center. We grew up here, went away for college and grad school, traveled the world, and somehow made it back here to start our careers. We met in 2009, married in 2010 and began the house hunt.

Pushcart Derby

Courtesy / Rachel Chaney

Dignowity Hill community event: the Pushcart Derby

When we happened upon Dignowity Hill as first time homebuyers, we knew we’d hit the jackpot. A little 1890’s farmhouse with a yard full of citrus trees, 1.5 miles from my husband’s job at Lake|Flato downtown, and 2.5 miles to my job on Broadway. Totally bike-able. At the price we paid, my architect husband could turn the little white house that had been ravaged by time and amateur renovations into our dream home. Plus, we are marathon-runners, and with a six-block hop to the museum reach of the River Walk via the Hays Street Bridge and one of San Antonio’s best skyline panoramas, it was the ideal set-up for two urban professionals ready to re-root in their hometown.

We immediately began recruiting friends to join the adventure.

Before Renovations

Urban pioneering: Dignowity Hill kitchen BEFORE renovation.

It’s been harder than we thought, getting friends to catch the vision for living in the inner-city as it is now. Lots of people will come for dinner and talk about the future, but few will put their money where their mouth is and join the process. We get it. It’s not for everyone, and we’re quickly learning what to look for in a fellow Urban Pioneer.

Doers.  People who live in transitional neighborhoods are part of the transition process. We hadn’t been in the neighborhood for even a month before we were part of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, one of the most active and effective neighborhood associations in the city, according to the varied guest speakers who visit our monthly meetings. Under the leadership of Juan Garcia, a true pioneer to the area (before it was cool), the DHNA is a constant source of energy and discussion for the revitalization of the Eastside. We walked in and were instantly welcomed as “the new neighbors” by people who had been in the area for generations. They recruited us along with other young people to serve on teams, committees and advisory boards.

Iconoclasts. We grew up in San Antonio. We knew what was expected of us. We knew the mantras: “Location, location, location,” “good school district,” and “safe investment.” To which we replied: six blocks from the River Walk (they’re not making any more of these, you know), charter schools, and… housing bubble, anyone?

There’s a sort of rakish, cowboy mentality among the folks in Dignowity Hill. They don’t favor convention over progress…or novelty. The Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby is a great example of this. On race day, homemade pushcarts featuring luchadores, bumble bees, superheros, and one giant paper mâché bust go zooming through Lockwood Park, one of the two large parks in the middle of the neighborhood overlooking downtown.  It’s an event that captures the moxie of the neighborhood and its residents. By all accounts, my husband and I should have returned from whence we came: Alamo Heights, Monte Vista, north 281, Helotes…but this just looked like so much fun.

After Renovation

Dignowity Hill kitchen AFTER renovation.

Dreamers. In these neighborhoods, residents are invited to dream. If someone has a great idea for community-building, fundraising, or development, there’s very little to stop them. Housing prices are low, community support is high. It’s an environment that fosters those “someday…” dreams.

Someday you’d love to turn a warehouse into a live/work space? That’s what our friend David Ericcson is doing. Want to restore an old dry goods store and create a museum/studio space for resident artists? That’s what our friends Susan and Ugur are doing.  Thanks to things like the TIRZ and Inner City Reinvestment/Infill Policy, the barriers to dreaming big are notably small. Especially for a designated Historic District. When we hear about the nightmare of getting paint colors approved in Monte Vista…sheesh.

People people. In Dignowity Hill if you stand on your front porch long enough, you’ll end up with company. We’ve actually been to dinner in the homes of eight of our neighbors. They’ve been here as well. It only takes a couple of weeks. Our friend Liz is stationed at Ft. Sam and needed a rental home for her two-year assignment. Standing on the deep front porch of a potential Dignowity Hill property, we were soon joined by Sylvie Shurgot, the neighborhood realty expert, Byron the neighbor and landlord, and two other neighbors who happened to be driving by. We stood on the porch and chatted for a while, catching up on life. Liz moved into the neighborhood two weeks later. Within the month, she and Sylvie were adventuring in the Hill Country, she was having tea with her octogenarian neighbor on the front porch, and she was attending meetings of the DHNA. Liz is friendly, but she’s not some sort of super extrovert. That’s just the way it goes around here.

Activists. As we pursue Pioneers, I think it only fair to give them a serious look at the joys and challenges of life in San Antonio’s urban core. The Eastside is an area that has received no shortage of attention from SA2020, City Council, non-profits, and the federal government. On paper, we’re booming. District 2 City Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, a much-loved neighbor in Dignowity Hill, has worked tirelessly in workshopping a solution to some of the Eastside’s major problems. As soon as we moved to the neighborhood we were educated on initiatives to increase security, bolster education, and attract business with Taylor leading the charge and hosting the meetings. The Eastside Promise Neighborhood, a United Way Program, is funded by $23.4 million grant aimed at improving the effectiveness and reach of Eastside schools.  However, even with such capable leadership, it takes a certain amount of patience to see the changes take effect. Entrenched cycles of poverty including high rates of mobility and illiteracy make educational reform slow. Bureaucracy means that just when it looks like the money is in the bank, ready to start an improvement project, there’s another delay. In the meantime there’s the shrinking but still very real presence of drugs, prostitution, and loose pit bulls. So what’s an Urban Pioneer to do? They volunteer to tutor at Bowden Elementary. They get to know the patrolmen in the area, and listen to them when they explain how to use the police department’s non-emergency number.  They show up at any civic meeting where they can get in the door to have their voices heard. And they find a stray dog, take it to the vet, and give it a home.

Dignowity Hill is in many ways the picture of what a neighborhood should be. It’s a civic organism that grows and changes while it instigates growth and change. It’s a group of people who want children to learn and play, professionals and young couples to make their dreams a reality, families to flourish, and retirees to stay involved.  Looking around the room at the DHNA meeting, it’s a true mixture of ages, races, education levels, and incomes. Not a meeting goes by without healthy debate, diverse points of view, and exciting possibilities brought by new faces. Exciting times are here on the Eastside, and the so-called Urban Pioneers are right in the thick of it.

Photos by Rachel Chaney Photography

Bekah McNeel, a native San Antonian, works for Ker & Downey promoting luxury travel. She is a founding member of the web-based philanthropy Read the Change.

16 thoughts on “Where I Live: Dignowity Hill

  1. And yet, Catholic Worker just can’t be allowed in the neighborhood anymore. Somehow the opposition to their work heralds for me the future of the neighborhood. Whenever a neighborhood is declared historic in San Antonio, property values rise and the original residents are either forced out by higher rents and property taxes or drawn out by the need to cash in the new value of their homes. It won’t be long before DH is as uniform as any of the other HDRC ruled neighborhoods. Enjoy the diversity while you can and consider whether the CWH is part of the diversity you are willing to accept and encourage.

    • Catholic Worker House does nothing positive for the eastside community. They feed people without encouraging or helping them to change their life by becoming
      productive members of society. Catholic Worker should listen to the eastside
      residents and move their homes out of this neighborhood. The eastside is
      trying to flourish, catholic worker says that they are doing a positive thing
      by feeding the homeless, but all they are doing is keeping this neighborhood down. The majority of the people they feed are criminals and have records, when
      catholic worker volunteers leave for the day, the homeless they feed stay behind. As long as the catholic worker house stays on the eastside, this neighborhood will never be a historical beauty such as king william, or alamo plaza. The city needs to remove catholic worker house from the eastside so that this area will have a chance to grow.

  2. Dignowity hill is such a beautiful neighborhood. I have a college with rental properties there. The views of downtown are unparalleled and the historic homes are so charming, even if many of them need work. Love what you’ve done with your kitchen!

  3. Under “Iconoclasts” you mention “charter schools” . . . tell me more! What do you think are the best options for families living in Dignowity Hill?

  4. Right now the charter schools most on people’s radar in the area are Bonham in Southtown and Hawthorn by the Pearl. The Carver Academy is going to become a charter school as well. I must say though, that even though I didn’t mention this in the article, we have high hopes that Bowden, the SAISD elementary school in our neighborhood is making great strides. Finding a charter school is definitely only a backup. We’re getting involved with efforts to support Bowden first and foremost…BEFORE we have kids!

  5. Part of the pioneering spirit that Bekah mentions is friendliness and support for each other. She and her husband bring that with them to Dignowity Hill. We need many more pioneers just like them and there is ample opportunity here to go around. One day people would look at this neighborhood and wonder why they didn’t get on board in the pioneer days.

  6. What a wonderfully written and an accurate description of the neighborhood and the community, especially after the support of each other at the recent planning commissioners’ meeting. Also as a marathoner and cyclist, living here since 2007, I have enjoyed the Hays Street Bridge. DH is very unique to San Antonio with its rich, diverse history and will never have that HDRC, uniform feel.

  7. Such an interesting read! Having bought in an “up and coming” neighborhood in Philadelphia six years ago, it’s fun relating do closely to what you experience in your neighborhood in such a different part of the country. Soon after miving into my home, I found myself surrounded by both like-minded neighbors who moved into our ‘hood because of its proximity to Center City via subway, bus or the easiest bike ride imaginable, and also an amazingly diverse community with all the food and unexpected holidays that come when you live so close to people from all around the world. In six short years, we’ve formed an impressive civic association and are very close to opening a grocery co-op – big strides considering people warned me about the “element” this side of Broad st was known for during my closing. It’s heartwarming to read about such a similar, overwhelmingly positive experience somewhere so different from here. Thanks for sharing!

    • My best friend works on H Street in DC. Very similar situation yours, I think. So encouraging to hear from other places where the process is happening!

  8. Bekah,
    Congratulations on being part of a great neighborhood and making a difference. You have leaders working together to make it work.
    I live in Government Hill and we are also working on having young profesionals moving in fixing up and all being pat of a great urban living life style.

  9. A refreshig read and spot on! I love Dignowity Hill and have tried to push it to potential center city fans looking to buy as a wonderful opportunity. Will continue to do so!

  10. I have enjoyed reading your real life story on Dignowity. My story is not all that different so maybe it isn’t so surprising I liked your story… biased I may be, haha. I love my craftsman home on Nolan St and enjoy the diversity of the neighborhood. Being at the bottome of the hill doesn’t diminish my great SATX skyline veiw and the access I have to the Riverwalk, Pearl Brewery, St. Paul’s Square and the Alamo (7 blocks away). Every year I look forward to the pushcart durby race in Dignowity park (It’s a hoot). I love eating at Poncho and Gringo’s on Pine and Nolan St. I love walking and joggin in Dignowity. It’s fun to see what house(s) are newly being renovated. The people are very nice in the area and have that southern hospitality flair we love in San Antonio, but it is still an urban core environment so some amount of vigilance is needed. It is true that the diversity of the neighborhood will change as is the history of most neighborhoods that go through gentrification like the Philadelphia example but the history is more likely to be preserved as houses are renovated and maintained and not burned down and dilapidated from squatters and/or arsonist (I’ve seen 2 homes in Dignowity that were diamonds in the rough only to be burned down before they could recapture their architectural glory).

    A “Fixer-Upper” can be a really rewarding life. I say life becuase it will become a part of your life as you have limited access to some rooms as they go through revitalization and as you wait for the next paycheck to finish up on the project that has been sitting for the last 2 weeks becuase you didn’t quite budget accurately, haha. This is part of the fun or you shouldn’t do it. At the end you get such a customized product you don’t get in modern homes.

    As an aside, I will admit I am not too sad to have the Catholic worker house leave. I am not sure it will happen soon. I respect their mission and their goals but it must not be blind ambitions guiding their behavior. I do believe we all have a part in helping the unfortunate but it must be with measured compassion that leaves a man (or woman) with something at the end of the day… does the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” mean anything? Now I will quote SNL’s Coffe Talk skit, The Catholic worker house is neither Catholic nor a house of workers. For the most part the homeless keep to themselves and I will not bore you with the statistics of mental illness and substance abuse seen in the homeless population but that scarce resources may be better spent in those areas (Don’t give money to panhandlers please).

    I will also admit I am excited to see the proposed Austin St. Lofts and the Alamo Brewing company to break ground soon in Dignowity. I try to use history and not emotions to decide on whether this is a good thing and if South Alamo St and the Blue Star brewery is any indication of what lofts and mircro breweries can do for a historic district then I am all in favor (research what microbreweries do around the country and the world; they are very favorable outcomes).

    Thank you Jaun (home owners assoc pres), the easide SAPD and Ivy (our District 2 councilwoman) for allowing for such a great story to have occurred and to be repeated (hopefully again and again).

  11. An interesting and inspiring article. Credit to both of you for making the move. If more folks like yourself move then the area will slowly transform. I am currently renovating a property on Blaine St and would like more information / forums on transformations within the area.

  12. This is the best article I’ve read on this exciting neighborhood. I’d love to read about an update.

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