While driving around San Antonio's Eastside on Monday afternoon, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) saw a community that has low expectations of itself. It's a problem he and his neighbors see almost every day, but on this particular Monday, near-Eastside residents also saw small signs of improvement. Specifically, banners of improvement.
The City's Office of EastPoint has installed 60 street pole banners across the footprint of the federally designated Promise Zone and will add 155 more over the coming months as part of the first phase of its branding strategy. Subsequent phases will involve more community events like outdoor movie screenings and music festivals as well as more public art.
"This branding is the beginning of the change of expectations for cleanliness, appearance, and pride in our community," Warrick said.
The near-Eastside has received a bundle of federal initiatives, designations, and grants focused on improving education, housing, public safety, and general quality of life in the historically neglected part of town. While some programs have already started (EastPoint to Work, the Wheatley Courts redevelopment, and expansion of after-school, summer, and internship opportunities for students), the branding strategy represents EastPoint's first cohesive attempt at reaching beyond these established programs into everyday neighborhood life.
Anyone walking or driving on main corridors in the Eastside on streets like Nolan, Commerce, Houston, Walters and North New Braunfels Avenue can see a tangible representation of the revitalization efforts underway, said Akeem Brown, the new head of community engagement and communications for EastPoint. Brown previously worked for Warrick in the District 2 office.
"I am extremely excited to join the Office of EastPoint and be able to participate in the revitalization of the Eastside," Brown said. "I believe the key to our communication strategy for the next few months will be to focus on embracing the strong Eastside culture while cultivating a movement of action engagement."
Each banner features iconic cultural and/or architectural structures of the neighborhood and were selected via public input meetings that started this summer.
Warrick hopes the banners and coming branded events will provide a "greater sense of community and solidarity" around Eastside neighborhoods such as Denver Heights, Dignowity Hill, Harvard Place/Eastlawn and Government Hill as well as attract more participants in workforce and education opportunities.
"It's hard to believe we don't have full classes (for EastPoint to Work) when we're giving free child care and work education classes for free," he said. "Maybe they don't believe it's real or haven't had enough of their friends go through the program ... regardless, we don't want funding to run out without the maximum amount of people taking advantage of it."
"Our vision is that by 2025 the Promise Zone will be a diverse, mixed income community," EastPoint Director Mike Etienne said. "We need the residents to be engaged to carry it on and we need nonprofits like SAGE (San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside) to build capacity to sustain this effort."
Driving around the Eastside on Monday afternoon, it was sometimes difficult to find the banners, which were often located at intersections already cluttered with signs for gas prices, offers to buy used cars, and other advertisements.
Etienne said that banners, while a small step, will have a psychological impact.
"It sounds small but it's amazing how neighborhood revitalization works," he said. "Some of the minor things that we do go a long way." Picking up trash, painting over graffiti, "people are looking for visible change because that gives a sense of hope that something is happening."
Funding for EastPoint's branding strategy, comes from its own budget, the Mayor's Office, Warrick/District 2's office, the San Antonio Housing Authority, Eastside Promise Neighborhood, and a $25,000 grant via the San Antonio Area Foundation.
"There are at least 9,000 people in the near-Eastside that are unemployed or underemployed," Warrick said, adding that if the neighborhood is experiencing "gentrification" then it's in the City's best interest to get existing residents higher wage jobs so they'll be able to afford new housing opportunities, restaurants, and other amenities.
"(The Promise Zone is) all about giving them those opportunities and allowing them to bridge the gap and be a part of this revitalization instead of being pushed away or kicked out of the community," he said.
*Top image: A Dignowity Hill EastPoint banner on the corner of Nolan and Pine streets. The Dignowity Hill banner features the Hays Street Bridge. Photo by Iris Dimmick.