Bekah S. McNeel

By 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
Dignowity Hill community event: the Pushcart Derby Credit: Courtesy / Rachel Chaney

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.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.