Arts & Artists Revive Inner City Neighborhoods

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Gallery owner "Soup" describes his newest creation on the back wall of The Paintyard. Photo by Melanie Robinson.

Gallery owner "Soup" describes his newest creation on the back wall of The Paintyard. Photo by Melanie Robinson.


As a native of San Antonio who’s had the privilege to work internationally and study in New York and Los Angeles, I feel obligated to share my insight into a potentially vibrant part of town that’s been underrepresented until recently.

Like a community wall plastered with graffiti, to the visionary artist, it has the potential to be transformed into a beautiful street art mural that represents its inhabitants and a becomes beacon for others.

I had the privilege to study Urban Studies under Dr.Robert Von Mahs (New School of Public Engagement – NYC), I don’t see how this city’s Eastside growth will come from a new brewery, which was inferred at a recent panel discussion sponsored by San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside.

Eugene Simor, founder and owner of Alamo Beer, is now planning for the construction of his new Alamo Brewery in Dignowity Hill at the foot of the Hays Street Bridge. Will it serve as a catalyst for additional development and neighborhood rebirth? Only if it’s a local microbrewery that also services the immediate area, in my opinion.

The ribbon cutting and reopening of the Hays Street Bridge drew a crowd in 2010, but today it mostly stands empty.

The ribbon cutting and reopening of the Hays Street Bridge drew a crowd in 2010, but today it mostly stands empty.

Reading Bekah McNeel’s article on the Rivard Report, I think the panel missed an underlying truth about how neighborhoods change and come alive again with cultural and economic activity.

The key is young people, creative young people.

Inner city neighborhood regeneration and growth is primarily driven by youth; artists, small business owners, and venues that attract traffic. If you visit East Austin, separated from the rest of the urban core by I-35, you’ll find plenty of local shops, venues, art studios, and lofts in what was once an impoverished area. Art and a local lifestyle attracts young professionals who can work close to home.

The prime urban example of a dynamic change in an underrepresented neighborhood is Brooklyn, a once-sketchy borough in New York. It was huge on crime, dilapidated, and mostly impoverished until the late ’90s. Urban revitalization programs were launched to combat the crime rate and rejuvenate what once was the city’s sprawling industrial complex that was socially polluted as well as environmentally polluted. Environmental goals are mostly driven by the youth in schools who are active in raising awareness and promoting sustainability.

Artists priced out of Manhattan, even its once untouched downtown pockets, were attracted to Brooklyn’s affordable housing. They opened studios, started local businesses, and helped property values as crime rates improved and neighborhoods once strewn with garbage took on a well-kept look. Click here to read more.

The lesson here: As artists move in, they brand their own image, and that, in turn, attracts other youth into the area, thus transforming the neighborhood

“There goes the neighborhood,” is the inevitable outcome of such change, and what generates tensions.  The biggest obstacle to growth is a lack of a desire to change, as can be seen in King William Historic District, understandably. However, while rising property values lead to further gentrification, low-income families are forced to move elsewhere in search of affordable housing.

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.

My Brooklyn” is a documentary filmed in 2012. It demonstrates gentrification’s rapid impact on what is now one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S.

Some of San Antonio’s most rapid growth is focused around the Pearl Brewery in Midtown and Blue Star Brewery in Southtown, yet the reality is that these locations are more than just brewery locations. They are renovated districts that offer mixed-use spaces for restaurants, performances, galleries, studios, and lofts. This is what the Eastside needs.

In 2011, I assisted City Councilman Diego Bernal’s social media in his Vote for Diego campaign, as I believed he had the right qualifications, as an artist, for an enriched inner-city that will some day match the larger metropolitans. Since then, there have been many improvements and rapid growth coinciding with his tenure and the Mayor’s SA2020 plan.

As a local filmmaker, I would hope to see SAGE make an effort to promote studio spaces for creative services like film and game development. Many empty lots and warehouses can be renovated into studio lots that could drive international traffic along with local economic growth.

Oakland natives started a program that offers 6 months free rent in vacant spots, called Popuphood. It removes the entry barrier for small businesses, allowing young entrepreneurs to develop their businesses, increasing public accessibility and commerce. Detroit also offers an economic development fund called the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program (DRFP), which offers a fellowship for professionals to connect with local businesses in the area. There are many vibrant ideas which exist, yet lack the exposure.

An example of a local nonprofit arts organization that needs a home, The Arts United San Antonio, is offering amazing opportunities to organize and display many talented artists, yet their showcases have been floating between various spaces downtown due to cost, exhibition space, and property owners unwilling to cooperate. My friends Daniela Riojas (recently awarded Best Photographer on Current’s Best of SA 2013),and Will Bermudez, state that they would love to have an established location, since they are also seeking to release a magazine in parallel with their exhibits. Their newest showcase on Metaphysical Expressions will exhibit May 18th at the Mercury Project.

[Video:The Arts United – Critiquing & Reimaging Society]

Conclusively, like historic South Alamo street and the renewed Pearl Parkway, the East Side could bring more local galleries, shops, cafes, and even food co-ops, yet with a more affordable entry. That’s what I envision bringing me to the East Side from the sprawl of the Northwest Side.


Rick is the Media Director for the internationally renowned  San Antonio Film Festival. A transmedia producer of film, video games, and digital media. He’s lived many lives, but found immortality in storytelling and consultation. He’s also currently pursuing a M.A. in Media Studies at the New School for Public Engagement in NYC. Available at


Related Stories:

The Pioneers are Here: SAGE Talks with Eastside Businesses

The G-card: Defining Gentrification in Dignowity Hill

[UPDATED] Lone Star District: The City Needs Another Billionaire

Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

With Little Neighborhood Support, Others File Suit to Stop Eastside Brewery

Where I Live: Dignowity Hill

Food For Thought: Pearl Alive with New Arrivals

Urban Fabric: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Families

18 thoughts on “Arts & Artists Revive Inner City Neighborhoods

  1. Great article! For the record, I think everyone on the panel did acknowledge that facet of how neighborhoods grow. I should have written more about it in my piece, so I am especially glad that you wrote this!

  2. I agree that artist lead the way and make all the difference in positive change for an area. You also mention small business… a brewery is a small business. You mention Brooklyn, so please don’t forget about the Brooklyn Brewery that is located there and how that small business helped to change the neighborhood. Wynkoop Brewery in LODO (lower Denver) was the first to locate in the area that is now soooo very hip and cool. I am not to say that a brewery saves the day but that it helps with much of what you stated. As a result of just announcing that the Alamo Brewery was to build in the area, I know of four other business that said the brewery was a key factor in considering the area.

    • Hi Eugene

      I just posted a timely link from Atlantic Cities as a comment to Rick’s story. I think there’s universal truth to both of your positions: Artists lead the way, they attract the rest of us, and we’d all like a good beer or well-made cocktail.
      Here we come.

    • Thanks for the comment Eugene,

      For clarification, I don’t oppose the brewery, as I’m a fan of microbreweries and the local aspect it promotes. Though without another emphasis on the arts, the brewery doesn’t have the creative capacity to provide the attraction for revitalization. So therefore it’s important to identify the impact that the arts has in relationship to the brewery. So to say a brewery alone attracts young people may be misinterpreted.

      It’s a concerted act of brewery, restaurant, and a performance venue; these are the things a lot of my friend’s would go out of their way for. Aside from this, the arts in general create what’s known as creative human capital, which in turn help produce creative firms and studios that may be involved in the creative economy and entertainment field. Film, books, music, games, media, etc., which is a multi-billion dollar industry.

      I got lost on the East Side a few weeks ago and saw the property that’s being disputed, it has a lot of potential and I could see it growing in the near future with the right investment. I do hope things work out for the Brewery, and I hope to see more businesses with a cultural outlook.

    • Hello Robert,

      The Flemington, N.J. article?

      It’s interesting that New Jersey doesn’t have as many bars as New York due to their prohibition-era laws. I stayed in New Jersey for a week, visiting a bunch of bars and restaurants, but never got a chance to fully hang out in Hoboken, the big thing that everyone spoke about doing was checking out the Pilsner Haus Beer Garden there, even while in Manhattan. In Manhattan, food and cafes were my big motivators for checking out places, and in Brooklyn, it was the cafes and local shops.

      Personally I think Hoboken and most of New Jersey is still behind, even though they have a very popular Beer Garden. Passing through it, it still has a heavy post-industrial look to it. It has the beginnings of attracting youth, but there’s still some missing pieces involved.

      The fact that Brooklyn is home to Pratt, an Art Institute, helps drive a lot of artists to the area and transform it into the “hipster” capital. I think San Antonio’s unique diversity and historical qualities will keep us from just copying other cities’ trends and generating our own.

      New Jersey still has a ways to go in revitalization, but the sustainability successes seen in New York are starting to spillover.

  3. I am also against the brewery in Dignowity Hill. A park wouldn’t be such a good idea either and I agree what Ms.Taylor said on Texas Week with regard to the park and the homelessness issue in the area.

    The brewery will have an effect on the Eastside but it will be superficial like the AT&T Center. It may be a spur economic development with incentives to local companies and entrepreneurs in the area to create a small economic cluster.

  4. The conversation widens. Check out Valentino Lucio’s front page story today in the Express-News. His anecdotal presentation of coming development on the near-Eastside certainly underscores the Atlantic Cities article we posted here yesterday that says bars are a forerunner of everything else to come in inner city neighborhoods undergoing revitalization. That would seem to argue that the Alamo Brewery and adjacent dining & drinking venues will spur other cultural and economic development.

    • I need to find a copy of the article from the Express News (having issues activating the digital subscription online).

      Here’s another article regarding growth in Downtown Brooklyn’s revitalization and what they call “professional gentrification.” It may be “trendy stores and novel restaurants” that are the key, the brewery would fall under the “novel restaurants” category. Yet the key here is the move in of new startups, which creative firms would fall under. So it’s a two-part approach. It could be a hookah bar, a tea house, oxygen bar, boba-tea shop, sushi bar… so it doesn’t just have to be a bar or brewery.

  5. Richard, thanks for being part of the discussion. I agree that the key to revitalization is young people. Where we differ is that I don’t believe that the only way to attract young people is through art. I think establishments like the brewery and other eating, drinking and entertainment venues along with housing with reasonable rents will attract young people as well. Even though I don’t agree with it all, I really appreciate your well thought out discussion of the issue. We need to keep the discussion going from all points of view.

    • Hello Jackie,

      I greatly appreciate your comment. I agree art isn’t the only way to attract young people, but art combined with cultural amenities attract young people. My argument was more about the branding of what contributes to growth. These are the stepping stones that will bring young professionals with startup companies who can invest their firms in the area close to these local amenities and local retail that could spawn with the right incentives. There are many ways that the quality of life can be improved for residents living there now, and for the residents of the future.

      From the ASA briefing:

      “Economic development approaches that integrate arts and culture are usually combinations of facility-centric, people-oriented, and program-based approaches. Development of an arena, cultural center, incubator space, or creative district is an example of a facility-centric method, while a people-oriented approach could include facilitating arts professionals’ development by approving live-work spaces, supporting arts centers, creating cooperative marketing opportunities, or commissioning artworks. Program-based approaches target a specific issue within a community, such as developing an arts program — whether gardening, mural making, or public art displaying — to address the issue of vacant property; promoting health education through a local arts festival, exhibitions, or performances or plays with health themes; or displaying artwork in vacant storefronts to attract passersby and enliven an area.”

      If the planned San Antonio-San Marcos-Austin speed rail develops (out of Sunset station), then it will bring much of that talent down to the East Side area and become a hub of the creative economy that could turn San Antonio-Austin into an entertainment powerhouse like Los Angeles or New York, yet with the unique cultural image of Texas.

      The brewery is part of a larger puzzle to be recognized.

  6. Another thing to consider is that the brewery is going in on a spot where there is currently nothing! That’s something to remember when we talk about the Eastside. Any business that invites any amount of foot traffic is a vast improvement to the empty lots we’ve got right now. The added bonus of the brewery is that it’s a primary development that can actually spur secondary development (as opposed to the industrial warehouses that have no foot traffic, visitors, or connection to the area). I think many of the artists in Dignowity (and there are quite a few)will enjoy having some commerce within walking distance.

    • You’re definitely right about the use of land. I don’t deny that Brewery will bring a lot of foot traffic to an almost hidden area. I think that with the opening of the Brewery, and seeing more businesses move into the area, there’s a unique opportunity to help spur secondary development of a creative economy to inhabit post-industrial buildings that could use renovation and offer incentives for the artists to use vacant spaces to exhibit their artwork and improve the attractiveness of the areas.

  7. This article reads like an “artists will save the world ” argument. I don’t buy it.

    Eugene is a business man, and he has real money to invest, and all these “artists” that have come out with this is not “artsy” enough fail to recognize and appreciate the potential of this businessman’s dream.

    Economic development needs real money invested. Alot of the trends we see with people moving back to the urban core are people who have invested to renovate buildings for the economic feasibility of the prospect, whether it’s for business or residential.

    Consider Rick’s example of Pearl being a haven for “artists”. The last time I was at Pearl it was obvious to me that the people who invested in the complex were in it to make money.

    Southtown is great! I even rent a place there(and it has changed drastically in the past 3 years i have been, yes i feel like I am getting priced out)- yet i fully realize that my presence as a young “creative” type didn’t just make southtown boom overnight. Since Blue Star arrived, its been over 20 years.

    My point is re-development takes time and money. San Antonio should welcome businessman such as Eugene, treat him fairly and trust that his business sense should bear much weight when compared to “creative class of people” laying claim to all things surrounding recent economic and urban development trends.

    What the east side “needs” is economic development. There is not much time for “performances, galleries, studios, and lofts” when a community is lacking the money to pay for bills.

    Good luck Eugene, and I enjoy your beer!

    • The phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” comes to mind. In this case, the brush is mightier than the sword.

      South Town isn’t perfect, even though there are a lot of artists, it’s also a historical district, which kind of leads to a laid-back attitude, which isn’t entirely business-minded, or may take years to develop.

      The East Side has problems that South Town doesn’t, and those problems needs to be addressed to attract further development in the area. Artists are key to identifying and raising awareness (and sometimes solutions) to these problems. Artwork can be displayed in vacant store fronts. Empty lots can be turned into food gardens. Food trucks can be setup.

      The main barrier for a lot of these creative solutions usually involves government oversight or lack of interest. Yet when the creative economy factor is considered, these become much more important in the discussion. The creative economy merges economic development with artistic vitality for rapid production growth.

  8. Thank you for the wonderful commentary and responses.

    There are a lot of valid points brought up, making use of undeveloped land, the success story of Brooklyn Brewery, and the improved economic vitality that the Brewery can bring. It’s a complex process with many factors involved working in conjunction with one another. The Alamo brewery sounds like a great plan; the fact that there’s a park and restaurant planned, and with potential venue space, will be an asset to spur economic development in the area.

    However, my argument is based around countering the idea that a brewery, or beer, is initially what drives growth in urban revitalization. San Antonio has an unhealthy addiction to binge drinking, one of the worst in the country, and deaths related to it. I have a natural resentment since my 10-year old cousin was killed by a drunk driver near the Alamodome, he would have been 28 years old last December. I think it’s important to note that it’s not the beer, but the concentrated entertainment and cultural venue aspects that will be the positive motivators.

    It’s the Arts & Culture together that are catalysts for economic vitality. I came across this artlce recently from the American Planning Association,

    They bring up four key points:

    Keypoint #1

    “Economic development is enhanced by concentrating creativity through both physical density and human capital. By locating firms, artists, and cultural facilities together, a multiplier effect can result.”

    Keypoint #2

    “The recognition of a community’s arts and culture assets (and the marketing of them) is an important element of economic development. Creatively acknowledging and marketing community assets can attract a strong workforce and successful firms, as well as help sustain a positive quality of life.”

    Keypoint #3

    “Arts and cultural activities can draw crowds from within and around the community. Increasing the number of visitors as well as enhancing resident participation helps build economic and social capital.”

    Keypoint #4

    “Planners can make deliberate connections between the arts and culture sector and other sectors, such as tourism and manufacturing, to improve economic outcomes by capitalizing on local assets.”

    The entertainment and culture aspects are what will drive creative firms that can eventually create an “Arts District” to spur “creative” economic development, I’d highly recommend reviewing the full briefing. San Antonio has plenty of breweries, but what it’s lacking is a “creative economy” that cities such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Brooklyn have invested into inner-city development. People aren’t driven to SXSW just for the (mostly) free beer, they also go for the music, the film, games, and other cultural activities. Once all these factors are in place, East Side can become a hotbed of growth for all of San Antonio and allow competition in the multi-billion dollar creative economy. That’s real money that already exists in the world.

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