Where I Live: Southtown

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Hugh DonagherWe arrived in San Antonio on the first Monday in 2011, relocating here from Silicon Valley so my partner Brian could help build the next generation of Cloud technologies at Rackspace. On Thursday, exhausted from unpacking and settling into our rented house on Barrera Street, we wandered down the block to have a drink at La Frite. Little did we know we were stumbling into the weekly "Lavaca and Friends" Happy Hour. Two hours later, we'd met about twenty of our new neighbors and had dinner with two other couples; thus began our infatuation with Southtown. In October, after 18 years as renters, we became first-time homebuyers, purchasing a home on Vance Street.

What drew us to Southtown in the first place? Frankly, moving to Texas as a gay couple gave us some serious pause. We figured that living near downtown in a major American city would put us in the midst of the urbane, progressive community we sought. We also assumed that the seventh-largest city in America would offer us the amenities we'd come to enjoy from 18 years of living in similarly-sized metro areas, and that those amenities would be found largely in and around the downtown area. Correct on all counts, as it turns out.

Hugh (right) and Brian (left).

Hugh (right) and Brian (left) enjoying Luminaria 2011.

While here for his interview, Brian was told we should look at King William. Online research confirmed that an area called "Southtown" was on the rise -- home to a diverse population, attracting creatives and professionals, young families and retirees, featuring historic districts with beautiful old homes being restored and interesting new developments being planned. Of course, the gays love gentrifying neighborhoods, so we were intrigued.

A very busy weekend visit to the city three weeks before we were due to move here took us all around downtown and left us frustrated after two days of searching. On the last day, as we visited the last house on the list of properties presented by our Realtor, we fell in love with the house next door, a yellow Folk Victorian with white trim and a red porch, nestled in the shadow of the Tower of the Americas. Alas, it was not on the market. Or so we thought. Serendipity intervened when the tenant appeared on the porch, moving her household goods out -- into the house we'd arrived to view! A call to the leasing agent revealed that the house we'd come to see was spoken for, but the house that captured our attention would be available for rent in three weeks' time. Success!

229 Barrera Street

229 Barrera Street

So that's how and why we arrived in Southtown. What kept us here? How did we decide, in 10 short months, to double-down and commit to the area as homeowners? Quite simply: the people.

From the warm reception at that first Happy Hour, to the community of regulars we love hanging with at The Monterey, and everywhere in between, we have been drawn into a network of friendly, caring, engaged neighbors. We enjoy living in a neighborhood where everyone knows your name and folks notice when you're absent. The kind of place where neighbors rally to raise funds to replace a tricycle stolen from a local fellow who lives with a disability, but uses his limited mobility to run errands for folks even less mobile than he. Southtown offers a sense of place that is truly a rarity in today's busy, busy, busy world that's so focused on online interaction that real-life relationships take a significant hit.

Our home on Vance Street

Our home on Vance Street

The house we purchased, an updated Folk Victorian built in 1938, sits on a small lot in the Lavaca Historic District (download a map). Our corner of the neighborhood comprises a mix of land uses: retail, commercial, restaurants, bars, and residential all coexist harmoniously. Only half a block off S. Presa, and a block from S. St. Mary's, our house sits directly across from the PikNik convenience store and the laundromat that shares its parking lot. Taco Haven is (dangerously?) situated just three doors down, and Mario's automotive repair business sits kitty-corner from us. Mark Bliss's namesake restaurant occupies a beautifully renovated and repurposed old Humble Oil filling station just a couple of blocks down the street. Other close neighbors include Bubblehead bubble tea house & hookah, J&O Cantina, and not one, but two restaurant supply houses, which sometimes come in handy when we're preparing to entertain! Brackenridge High School, Alamo Street Eat Bar, The Friendly Spot, Bark of Southtown, Southtown 101 Bar, El Sol Bakery and the Mission Reach are just a stone's throw away. Behind us is solidly residential all the way to César Chávez.

Southtown Hot Spots

Southtown Hot Spots

This wonderfully eclectic mix of businesses and people, including the parade of neighbors passing by our house on their way to these establishments, exercising their dogs (or themselves!), or just taking a stroll through the 'hood combine to create a vibrant urban pulse.

The Lavaca Neighborhood Association promotes interaction between neighbors with regular meetings and neighborhood gatherings like its Annual General Meeting/Pot Luck Supper, bi-monthly membership meetings, a summer Watermelon Social and October's National Night Out Block Party. Online, neighbors interact via NextDoor Lavaca.

National Night Out Lavaca 2011

National Night Out Lavaca 2011

Various groups of neighbors have created hyper-local recurring events like the First Thursday round-robin dinners and the Southtown Wineaux wine tasting meetup. A nationally award-winning master home brewer is known to share his creations at neighborhood events and another neighbor hosts an annual art show in her backyard. Fourth of July is marked by a Reds, Whites and Brews party, and pop-up restaurants exist in the forms of the Special Projects Social and the Southtown Supper Club.

Many neighbors give selflessly of their time, talents and treasury to foster various civic and charitable causes. The Southtown Lions Club, the Friends of Bonham, and the Cannoli Fund for Dogs and Cats are just a few causes near and dear to the locals.

Other folks may come to Southtown to party and play, including the thousands who flock here every First Friday of the month. We, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to live smack dab in the middle of it all. And we just love it.

Oh, and those concerns about moving to Texas as a gay couple? Blown away.

Hugh Donagher builds web sites and consults on social media strategy for small businesses and nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood and beyond. He occasionally blogs at Texas Yankee and Alamo City Cocktails. He and his partner are charter members of the Southtown Lions Club and they can be found out and about at many of the establishments and events going on in Southtown.

17 thoughts on “Where I Live: Southtown

  1. Love hearing your story. It has amazed me how quickly you both were welcomed and have become mainstays in the neighborhood. I enjoy the residual effects as your friend — your neighbors are also kind and welcoming to me even though I don’t live in your neighborhood — you know some really great people!

  2. Hugh & Brian Rountree, A great addition! Something you may not know about Hugh Donagher. He provides flawless advice to the businesses in Southtown. Hugh is always the first to help and is a huge advocate for small business in Southtown. Thanks for everything you do!!!

  3. How times have changed. Feelings of nostalgia ran through me as I heard you describe the old “hood”. I used to live down the street on the corner of Labor and walked by your house hundreds of times on my way to PikNik, the Laundromat, school (Bonham) or to the Handy-Andy (now AceMart). I remember your area mostly on the days after a hard rain; I used to strike gold on my search for tadpoles on a part of the street that collected water, behind Mario’s by the fire hydrant. I still remember the hot air escaping the Cintas (now MIssion) and the Pig Stand where I hit my head on a fuse box as I walked out of the restroom; I bet the red tape is still on the bottom side of that fuse box…. too bad it wasn’t there before, I might have enjoyed my meal instead of heading off to get stitches. I remember the horse carriages parked at the corner of Presa & Camargo; funny how the buildings are all the same, and only the signs have changed. Presa was our route to our “park” Alamo Plaza or to the playground we helped build at Hemisfair, we rarely (if ever) took the straight shot up Labor; it might have been closer to get to the Tower, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
    I have so many memories of Lavaca, and now you can make your own. Welcome to the neighborhood (and SA). Now you are a part of what makes this city great.

  4. Nehemiah– YOU are amazing. Your remembrance is elegant, poetic and bittersweet. Real. I stumbled across all of this by accident when the initial “Where I Live: Southtown” flashed across my feed posted by a mutual friend on FB. Initially intrigued, I read the article and became increasingly dismayed and inexplicably annoyed. There was one crucial thing lacking from the article, that your reply seems to have in spades and that is — a soul. This just may be the crux of the whole King William/Lavaca dilemma…SOUL. I love that you knew (and still know) where to find the tadpoles rather than just the couple of (obvious-and already well known) “big fish” haute-cuisine restaurant owners flocking in with family money from Alamo Heights. I love that you remember the hot air coming out of Cintas instead of peoples mouths. I wonder if the “author” knows that the term “Southtown” didn’t even exist until most recently and that it was invented as a business marketing strategy (watch out what you wish for…) or even WHAT or where the Pig Stands were? Does he even know the name of the disabled tricycle rider and/or any names of the “even less fortunate” people he runs errands for in the neighborhood are? After reading the article, I was left wondering even more than before: who are these people, and more mystifyingly, who are they writing for? I want to THANK YOU again Neremiah, for your amazing reply which brought tears to my eyes and made me remember why I enjoyed living in that neighborhood (as a homeowner) for over a decade and why I still enjoy going to visit my friends and family that have lived there for decades and will continue to. I honestly think YOU–Neremiah–should write for the Rivard Report…or better yet, pen a book with your amazing skills. To the newcomers, on the other hand, who stand on the shoulders of the giants who built and inhabited the “hood” before you arrived including all of those “thousands that flock” every first friday making it the trendy neighborhood of the moment that you’ve just recently fallen in love with: We’ve BEEN here, we’ve BEEN queer for YEARS and we’re proud of it — get used to it. Welcome to Texas!

    • Garrett:

      I, too, enjoy Nehemiah’s posts — all of them — and particularly appreciated reading his eloquent recollections of the neighborhood. Sorry I haven’t lived here long enough to have Nehemiah’s and your memories of Lavaca, but I sure do enjoy hearing about them.

      Yes, we know about the Pig Stands and that the local one stood where China Garden now does.

      Yes, we know that the gentleman whose tricycle we replaced is named Rudy — I see him and say hello to him almost daily. Yes, we know some of the people he helps — and I never said they were “less fortunate,” I said they were “less mobile than he.”

      We know the folks who hang out in the parking lot across the street at the PikNik and chat with them and learn their stories rather than trying to run them out of the ‘hood, like some folks do — folks who’ve lived here much longer than we.

      Yes, we know that Southtown is a recent moniker, created as part of a CDBG and intended to promote businesses along S. Alamo, S. St Mary’s and S. Presa. However, like it or not, it is increasingly becoming an identity that many people and businesses in the neighborhood are adopting, us included.

      We do appreciate the work of those who came before and those who are currently working hard to preserve that history. We simply wish to pitch in and be part of the story as it continues to be written here in Southtown. We feel very fortunate that our neighbors have welcomed us so warmly.

    • I’ve approved this comment, but respectfully challenge some if the writer’s assertions. I think I know everyone who has opened restaurants in Southtown and none of them, as far as I know, have “Alamo Heights” money. That said, are those who had money to buy up King William homes in the 70s and 80s do so with money somehow more noble?

      I was at the first medting on which architect Louis Fisher and others presented the concept of Southtown in the early 90s to to the Express-News. It was a decidedly un-business proposition. Much more focused on place making than commerce.

      As for those who claim to be the true neighborhood pioneers, I’m afraid that claim belongs to late 19th, early 20th century migrants. Everyone else is a gentrifier, gay or straight, 70s-80s, or 90s-00s. Only the timing (and price) differentiate one generation from the next.

    • I think what Hugh described was very much indeed the SOUL of Lavaca. It’s not about how long anyone’s been here, it’s about how much we make it home. Lavaca is about its people – and it’s the people that make the places so inviting and worthwhile. Newcomers and oldtimers alike.

    • When I think of the defining characteristics of a true Texan, I think of an adventurous spirit and, above all else, amazing hospitality. Hugh and Brian seem to embody both, but you comment displays neither. It’s my hope that Californians like these will drive that sort of stubborn ‘not born on this soil’ xenophobia out of our growing population. A real Texan (originally translated as “friend” or “ally”) acts like one.

      • I understand what Nbg2 is saying, everybody I have ever met from California had an attitude and they’re egotistical. California was always the best, and better than everywhere else, in their mind.

        One Californian I met a few years back wanted to buy a property I owned next door. He was so rude that I turned him down, and he told me that he could buy my house and the lot next to me for a quarter of what he paid over in California. My experience with them has been pretty bad.

        It’s isn’t so much xenophobia as is it the desire to keep the culture of the area. The small town feeling is important, and it seems as though that feeling will be lost with the addition of outsiders, not only Californians.

  5. Nehemiah: thanks for sharing your memories of the neighborhood — we love hearing personal histories like yours. Helps deepen our connection to our hew hometown! Do you still spend time in the neighborhood? It would be fun to run into each other out and about!

    Everyone else: thanks for the kind words.

  6. Who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood that has free homebrewed beer… Keep the piece, drink a homebrew. “; )

    dW!GhT

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