Plastic bags and Sonic cups wash up like driftwood in my front yard. The recycling plant across the street throws dead cars into heaps of other dead cars at 5 a.m., and the train rattles pictures on the walls at all hours. Packs of feral dogs chase me when I go for my morning run.
This is the best place I’ve ever lived.
Just across the river is the super-chic (and super-pricey) King William district, and two blocks up the road are the hotspots La Tuna and Blue Star. The engines of gentrification are roaring just a quarter mile north; the newly opened Cevallos Lofts and Steelhouse Lofts cater to the young crowd that wants easy access to downtown and Southtown, but where I live, the nuisances of trains, recycling plants, and poverty keep gentrification at bay. It’s nice. My rent is cheap!
My wife and I fled the desert of Arlington, Texas where we both grew up and spent the now-customary post-graduation years: When you realize that your degree means nothing and there are no jobs so you may as well move back in with your parents.
We lucked into work overseas and traveled a lot, learning about the different ways humans build cities and live together, learning what makes the Great Cities of the world Great Cities; we came to understand that you can have cities where humans come together to see what they can achieve, a conception of civilization as an endless, communal work of art – or you can have cities where people want a cheap place to own a house.
When we returned from Korea, Arlington was no longer bearable. Nine miles was too far to drive to the closest bar, and the Arlington Highlands, essentially a mall you can drive through, was a poor substitute for a legitimate public space. San Antonio – with its emphasis on neighborhood development, public transit, and public spaces – seemed like a good choice.
All we knew was that we wanted to be close to the river, close to the Friendly Spot, close to downtown. We wanted to be able to ride our bikes without fear of being flattened by 18-wheelers. We spent a day disabusing ourselves of the idea that we would be able to afford the King William area, then cruised into the neighborhood directly west of it. We were skeptical.
There was a ball-bearing plant. Acres of waste land tombstoned with abandoned shacks. If the broken window theory were true, we could look forward to burglary, arson, murder. (The police blotter for the area suggests the broken window theory is full of crap.)
We watched with naturalist fascination as a pack of wild dogs savaged a trash bag, recalling footage of hyenas ripping apart a zebra carcass [graphic video]. We love dogs! We knew right away this was where we wanted to live.
We found a centenarian wood-frame house that used to be a restaurant. It was cheap because the ceiling space is infested with indeterminate yet playful mammals. When the howls of Union Pacific keep me up I listen to them chase each other through the attic. I hope they’re having a good time up there.
We removed the bathtub and found it was load-bearing. We have a grease trap in our kitchen that sometimes delights us with the odor of explosive sewer gas. The scent of lead sulfides and hydrogen cyanide, the unmistakeable savour of automobile upholstery dissolving in industrial acids, wafts from across the street. The inorganic macromolecules make for spectacular sunsets.
But we can watch Hemisfair fireworks from the front porch. We know our neighbors – they’ve lived here for their entire lives, for the better part of a century in some cases. We’ve exchanged the ritual baked goods and loans of tools, and we stop and chat whenever we see each other. This makes me feel safer than any gate around my community ever could. We have a constant stream of foot and bicycle traffic across our front yard. I love it. It makes the neighborhood feel alive and gives the dogs something to bark at.
Treasures have unfolded in our neighborhood. Many of the houses and yards are in poor repair, true, but there are many triumphs of landscaping and gardening, homes where the owners may not have much in the way of resources, but have invested time and love. I have found strange wild trails through thickly weeded abandoned lots, pocket jungles in this dense urban landscape.
I have discovered street art that would make Banksy swoon, portraits of anonymous soldiers waving white flags, weird wild monsters or stream-of-consciousness hiphop figures on dead buildings where the windows are boarded and the electric meters pulled.
And Second Saturday! It stuns me to realize some people still don’t know of it. Imagine something like First Friday, but with no cops and more free booze; with bands like Deer Vibes playing on the loading dock of a warehouse/gallery; where the artists are hungry and working hard. The South Flores Arts District is home to many excellent galleries and studios – Gallista Gallery, Comminos Gallery, R Gallery, Fl!ght – and the second Saturday of every month they throw open their doors and play host to a crowd of excited energetic art gogglers. It’s still small enough (especially compared to First Friday) to be really vibrant, exciting, organic, evolving.
And that’s the rub.
That vibrancy – that rare genuine expression of bohemia, is what draws the dreaded spectre of gentrification, which will price these artists out; destroying what makes the place unique and interesting in a rush to commodify those qualities. There are a lot of abandoned industrial sites that would make great $1,700/month lofts – but only if they can get over the trains, the recycling plants, and the feral dogs. Until then, go have some barbacoa at My Little Taco House, get some sweet new rims of unknown provenance on Nogalitos, and drink all the free beer at all the galleries on the second Saturday of each month. They really appreciate that.
Jens Rushing washes fire trucks for a living, and sometimes gets to ride in them. He also plays guitar in your new favorite band, Reconquista. He has been known to enjoy a beer.