I grew up off Nogalitos Street in a modest three-bedroom home that was nestled between taquerias and automotive repair shops. I lived with my parents and older brother. We grew up across the street from my grandparents, a street over from my uncle and his family, and minutes away from the conveniences most San Antonio family desire — panaderias, taco joints and parks. On the weekends we woke up to sounds of roosters crowing, children playing in the streets and conjunto songs on the radio.
This experience could pass for the sounds of any neighborhood growing up in San Antonio. But, this was my neighborhood, off Nogalitos Street, down in the Southside of San Antonio.
Southside San Antonio consumes me — from the grandmother-like figure kindly calling me mija as I shop in her tiendita to the hardworking family man walking his lawnmower down the street to cut the grass of a neighbor — these are humble, family-focused residents who have the same desires of living in a neighborhood that will provide resources for not only themselves, but their children. As a native South San Antonian, I beam with pride telling people where I came from, and what this community means to me. Even after moving out of the neighborhood, I can’t help but feel proud to see Nogalitos Street teeming with improvements ranging from infrastructure to community-focused projects. The following are just a few examples of what’s coming to the Southside San Antonio’s Nogalitos area:
Collins Garden Community Garden
Earlier this month volunteers gathered to create the Collins Garden Community Garden, the newest green space in San Antonio. Volunteers were on hand to plant trees, pathways and build garden beds. The process of bringing a community garden to the neighborhood was a lengthy one. Angela Hartsell, community gardens program manager at Green Spaces Alliance, said talks began in 2012 and were abandoned after it was determined that the soon-to-be community garden wasn’t receiving the amount of interest they typically look for in a community. A few months ago, Collins Garden community members, including Jovanna Lopez, reached out to Green Spaces Alliance once again. They had a better support system from the community and felt now was the time to get the community garden off the ground.
“We rely on buy-in from the community, and they have sufficient support,” Hartsell said.
After filling out a request for proposal (RFP) to pursue bringing a community garden into their neighborhood, Lopez rallied neighbors to support the effort and it worked.
Hartsell said that the partnership with Green Spaces Alliance is “for the life of the garden, or as long as the community wants to work with us.”
“We want to get off the ground real strong in the beginning so they (the Collins Garden Community Garden neighborhood) can do what they want to do — garden,” Hartsell said.
The Collins Garden Community Garden is Green Spaces Alliance 37th active community garden since the organization was founded in 2007.
(Read More: Collins Garden Park Gets a Food Forest)
Collins Garden Farmer’s Market
Lopez is also a key player in bringing the Collins Garden Farmer’s Market into the neighborhood. Following H-E-B’s Nogalitos store closing for renovations in May 2014, Lopez feared that the “community was going to be a food desert.”
She approached the San Antonio Food Bank and San Antonio Parks & Recreation department to get the ball rolling on the Farmer’s Market. Since kicking off in March 2015 the Farmer’s Market has hosted two to three vendors during each event, and are able to accept WIC vouchers and food stamps.
Lopez’s inspiration for the Collins Garden Community Garden is from south central California's The Ron Finley Project. The words of Ron Finley’s TED talk spoke to Lopez. Finley took matters into his own hands, and planted a “food forest” in the front of his house on a strip of land (150 feet by 10 feet), which was owned by the city but maintained by the homeowner. Finley’s group, L.A. Green Grounds, planted a food forest with fruit trees and vegetables comprised of volunteer gardeners from all over the city.
Lopez, a master gardener, and Jacqueline Salame, her co-garden steward, a junior master gardener, have a goal to “get the community out, and learn about gardening.” Salame is blending her work with Centro para la Semilla, the group has a “purpose to give children the opportunity to learn an art and hopefully master it.” Salame added that art builds self-esteem in not only the children but the community as well.
“I believe children will be more likely to make healthy lifestyle changes which in turn will successfully make significant health changes in the community,” Salame said.
Next year, Centro para la Semilla plans to have gardening and cooking classes at Collins Garden Community Garden.
“We want the community to come, and embrace it (the Collins Garden Community Garden),” Lopez said.
Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who was in attendance with her young children, said as she worked alongside volunteers young and old that she “loves to see the youth involved with parents.”
Lopez expressed a similar sentiment.
“We want to engage kids to come out and grow,” Lopez said.
Gonzales said the garden brings the community together.
“The Collins Garden community is the ideal urban community,” she said.
The Collins Garden Farmer’s Market took a month-long hiatus during August because of the summer heat. Lopez said they’re looking into possibly transitioning the Market into evenings.
Chef Fred Anthony Garza has one successful restaurant under his belt. Garza is the owner of Vegeria, a grassroots vegan restaurant. Since opening in 2011, Vegeria has gone on to win multiple accolades including being ranked a top new restaurant by San Antonio Magazine to being nominated by USA Today was one of the top ten vegan restaurants in the nation.
Garza and his business partner Mark Voelkel have recently opened ¡Viva Vegeria!, located at 1422 Nogalitos, a plant-based restaurant with a menu featuring Tex-Mex and comida latina. ¡Viva Vegeria! is like stepping into your grandmother’s kitchen, complete with candles adorned with saints and images of the Virgin Mary scattered throughout the eclectic restaurant. Garza cites his grandmother as a source of inspiration to become a chef, her no nonsense attitude and passion for cooking led him to a life in the kitchen.
“There’s something beautiful about homemade, hand-cooked food,” Garza said.
Garza’s desire of “going back to the original roots” is one of the reasons he and Voelkel chose their location on Nogalitos. Garza grew up in Corpus Christi, but his boyfriend, Stephen Guzman, grew up on the Westside, and he wanted to bring his vision back to the community.
“It became a part of wanting to be on this side of town,” Garza said.
It also didn’t hurt that Garza’s grandfather used to own a Mexican restaurant, which Maria’s Cafe currently calls home, in the '30s and '40s a few blocks down Nogalitos Street.
South San Chamber of Commerce
President/CEO of South San Chamber of Commerce Al Arreola, Jr. cited that what’s happening on the Southside is a great example of “blending and mixing” within the community.
He added that following the closing of Kelly Air Force base in 2001, the residential landscape shifted. People who had moved to the area to work at Kelly were living in an area that they didn’t choose to live.
“Now, I see a mix of older residents living alongside Millennials, and they’re seeing our area for what it's worth,” Arreola said.
He went on to add that with recent improvements, such as the renovations to the Nogalitos Street H-E-B was “significant” in terms of availability for residents. Arreola also mentioned that major improvements to neighborhood infrastructure were on the rise from bike lanes to sidewalk improvements.
“The community’s need of improved infrastructure is becoming a reality,” Arreola said.
While the focus is on improved infrastructure and business development, the South San Chamber of Commerce recently released a special project they’ve been working on. Arreola and his team have been touring the Southside, and feature their findings in their #SoSA web shorts which focus on various neighborhoods in the Southside community.
Launched in early June, #SoSA, was part of a strategic plan to gain attention to Southside development and activity.
“The idea was to do this campaign, and spread the word about all the special things on the Southside,” Arreola said. “(#SoSA) is a way to highlight the Southside in a genuine light.”
“We’re genuinely pleased with what we saw,” Arreola said. “Everything looks so vibrant of what the Southside has to offer.”
Collins Garden Branch Library
Since June 2015, Collins Garden Branch Library has been closed for major improvements. The 30-plus year old library is undergoing upgrades, which will transform the front of the building, improve computer access, and address Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility as well as additional improvements.
Joel Bangilan, San Antonio Public Library public services administrator said the biggest complaints about the library ranged from the library’s acoustics to bathrooms not being compliant to ADA standards. The renovations are part of a 2013 San Antonio Public Library’s Extreme Makeover Initiative. Collins Garden Branch Library will also be the new home to the Council Field Office for District 5.
Aside from shifting priorities to a more electronic environment, Bangilan stresses the importance of their print collections. Bangilan said the San Antonio Public Library kept in mind the demographic of the community, which ranges from young to old.
“The digital divide in this community is pretty wide,” Bangilan said. “We’re creating a destination with this branch. The library is the focal point of activity happening in community.”
Collins Garden Branch Library is set to reopen in December 2015.
*Featured/top image: A group of more than 70 volunteers gathered on the morning of Aug. 8, 2015 to help create the Collins Garden Community Garden. Photo by Jennifer Herrera.