The scene at Wheatley Courts Thursday morning was part tent revival, part civic pep rally, and part impromptu dance party. A public event to commemorate the looming demolition of one of San Antonio's oldest public housing projects turned into a celebration.
Among the morning's speakers and audience, there was no lack of appreciation or nostalgia for Wheatley Courts Homes or its indelible presence in the Eastside's social fabric and history, but the energy in the air was all about the future of the neighborhood.
"We recognize that sometimes you have to tear down to build up," U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett said as the event got underway. "We are laying a new foundation today."
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Between now and 2017, Wheatley Courts will become home to 417 new residential units. Tenants have been temporarily moved to other residences; all have been promised the opportunity to return. Quite a few residents attended Thursday in a demonstration of continued commitment to the neighborhood.
Phase One of the redevelopment includes construction of 220 mixed-income units, with a guarantee from the San Antonio Housing Authority of a "one for one" policy so no residents will be denied the opportunity to return. Seventy percent of the units will be set aside for lower-income residents, while 30% will be priced at market rate.
The transformation will be about more than residential units. Streets, sidewalks, lighting, and landscaping all will be upgraded, helping to create a pedestrian and bike-friendly community. Nearby Menger Creek and the surrounding land will be cleaned up and developed into an outdoor recreational amenity.
"There have been lots of times when people said it's never going to happen," said Beverly Watts Davis, the director of SAHA's Choice Neighborhood Programs. "Well, now is the time. This is our time. We are going to make this work."
She closed her remarks with a flourish: "As they say at church..."
"Amen!" the crowd responded.
"The County is playing a role in this project,too," said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who received an enthusiastic welcome equal to that given Mayor Taylor when he was introduced. Wolff promised the County would open a new BiblioTech digital library on the property as well as a University Health System medical clinic.
Wolff then touched on a political theme, one that aroused the audience and that other speakers would echo: "I can't say enough about Mayor Taylor. Anybody who thinks she was just going to be there for a while..." Applause and shouts cut off the rest of his sentence.
Then it was Taylor's turn.
"It's important to acknowledge that at one point in time in our history Wheatley Courts represented progress in our community, but it's time to turn the page," Mayor Taylor said. "This has been a long-awaited day ... This is something so many of us have been working on for so long, and at last, it's in sight. And it's the result of so much collaboration."
Her District 2 Council replacement followed.
"The Honorable Ivy Taylor," Councilmember Keith Toney trumpeted, drawing another round of applause for the mayor as she sat down. "We are going to get accustomed to saying that ... she deserves it. She works so hard."
The crowd responded enthusiastically, and with each day Taylor is in office as interim mayor, speculation grows that she will announce her intentions to seek the office in May, an announcement that, if it does come, likely would happen after the Nov. 4 general election and before the end of the year.
"I am proud to represent District 2," Toney said. "There have been so many promises made, so many promises broken."
SAHA CEO Lourdes Castro Ramirez, who awaits Senate confirmation of her nomination as Assistant HUD Secretary sometime after the November election, reminisced how a $250,000 grant to explore neighborhood revitalization on the Eastside eventually grew to a $100 million commitment from Washington and local government.
"One of the constants of the process has been the engagement and the hopes and the dreams of the residents," she said, thanking them for enduring the discomfort of being moved to make the redevelopment possible. "Wheatley Courts has been home for more than 70 years to so many families, and we are committed to making this community home for the next generation of families.
"This is so much more than the redevelopment of public housing," Castro Ramirez said. "This is the transformation of a neighborhood."
Sylvester Perez, SAISD superintendent, promised a transformation of Wheatley Middle School, which he said had the highest percentage of academic improvement in the district. He also drew strong applause when he spoke about Sam Houston High School, once targeted for closure, as dramatically increasing its graduation rate and growing its student body by 160 students last year and 75 students this academic year.
"Sam is back!" he declared.
Wheatley Middle School will be transformed into Wheatley Community School, offering classes in the daytime and a range of community services in the evenings and on weekends, including adult literacy classes and community health programs.
(Read more: Eastpoint the Focus of Major Eastside City Investment.)
The roster of official speakers was long Thursday, but the last word went to LaShawn Robertson, a resident.
"We're here today for the demolition of Wheatley Homes, which has been our home for many, many years and brings tears of sadness," she said. "But it also brings tears of joy. On behalf of all the residents, we can't wait to come home."
Robertson was invited by Mayor Taylor and others to take control of a staged detonator that triggered a confetti bomb that rained down on the dignitaries.
If anyone wants to understand the rhythm of political change at City Hall, it was right there on stage as the air filled with colorful confetti and Mayor Taylor and Councilmember Toney, both sporting hard hats, started boogying to "Celebration," the 2003 hit song by Christian pop group Jump5.
With all due respect to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, can anyone imagine former Mayor Julián Castro being the first one out on the dance floor at an 11 a.m. urban renewal event?
If that wasn't photo-op enough for the gathered media, Mayor Taylor then climbed into a nearby front-loader to symbolize the pending demolition of the 70-year-old public housing project that will soon give way to neighborhood transformation unlike anything yet seen on the city's historically neglected Eastside.
The mayor didn't actually drive the heavy machinery. Demolition of the now-empty housing project would await another day, but not for long.
Thursday was an unmistakable expression of community pride, both in Mayor Taylor, sworn into office on July 22 to complete the unexpired term of former Mayor Castro, and in the selection of San Antonio's Eastside as one of five national Promise Zone neighborhoods by HUD.
Wheatley Courts is named for America's first published African-American poet, Phyllis Wheatley, born in Africa and pressed into slavery, then brought to Boston in the 18th century and subsequently named by the prosperous Boston merchant who purchased her.
Her development into a poet of considerable fame led her to a performance tour of England, and at home, to meet and read for then-Gen. George Washington. It is an extraordinary story not found in any of the histories of the American Colonies or Revolutionary War I've read. Wheatley was eventually emancipated, but the man she married died in debtor's prison, and she and her children ended up living a life of abject poverty.
All the more reason to give new life to her legacy in the neighborhood that bears her name with pride.
*Featured/top image: From left: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, Mayor Ivy Taylor, Wheatley Courts resident LaShawn Robertson, and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett celebrate the demolition of Wheatley Courts with a symbolic push of a dynamite plunger, releasing confetti. Photo by Robert Rivard.