Photo Credit and Photo Copyright

The photographs of San Antonio and Dignowity Hill used within this blog are the property of Juan A Garcia East Light Photography. All rights are reserved to the owner. Copy and use of these pictures is forbidden without written permission. Contact Juan at jagarciatx@gmail.com for permission.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gentrification or Progress?

Ever since moving into the neighborhood in 2007 I have been hearing noise from journalists, academics and anyone who thinks is an expert raise the issue of gentrification.  Over the last couple of years our neighborhood has garnered its fair share of attention through the media and other informational sources namely because of the active revival and renewal of the neighborhood.  In September of 2012 the Rivard Report, a widely read local blog that focuses on urban renaissance issues published wrote an article on the G word and Dignowity Hill: http://therivardreport.com/the-g-card-defining-gentrification-in-dignowity-hill/.  Just recently an article appeared in the local newspaper in which the columnist describes the progress in Dignowity Hill as gentrification. You can read his article at:  http://blog.mysanantonio.com/downtown/2014/02/the-g-word-and-the-near-east-side/.

The Friedrich House

724 Olive St

Some people are quick to draw and voice conclusions that Dignowity is undergoing pronounced gentrification without looking deeper into what is really happening in the neighborhood.  Undoubtedly the neighborhood is making progress in becoming an attractive place to live. The proximity to downtown, older but relative good housing stock, the historical character of the neighborhood, an active neighborhood association and the fact that it is still a neighborhood with a solid sense of community all have combine to create demand for Dignowity as a desirable urban core  neighborhood. Add the Alamo Brewery project that is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2014 and a new market rate housing project on Cherry St and suddenly the buzz on the street is that Dignowity is the place to be.
Alamo Brewery Ground Breaking
Alamo Brewery Construction Site
Cherry Modern Housing


Is this demand for the neighborhood a symptom of gentrification? The answer is maybe, maybe not.  Gentrification is a complex process of revitalization and change that has been around for generations. On one hand it can be a way to bring back a distressed neighborhood and bring much needed improvement to the quality of life in a struggling neighborhood. So gentrification to a degree can be a good thing. On the other hand, gentrification has justifiably developed a negative connotation because one of its effects is the displacement of poorer residents when newcomers come in. This tends to drive away long time and mostly poorer residents through higher rents or the buying up of distressed properties. In some cases gentrification is the result of intentional zoning changes that literally forces gentrification to be accelerated.

In Dignowity there is no evidence of the classic definition of gentrification that is generally characterized by wholesale displacement of residents by newcomers. The private investment occurring in the neighborhood has focused on vacant or abandoned houses or lots. As far as I know no one has complained about being displaced because newcomers pushed them out. Folks either sell their properties willingly or folks buy properties that are in various stages of disrepair. This trend has brought improvements to the neighborhood but the movement has been glacially slow which is a good thing. This has allowed the neighborhood and residents time to be sensitive to the changes that are occurring.  What is interesting is that some of the long time residents are these improvements and welcome the progress. Some of these long time residents are calling this process "re-gentrification" of the neighborhood. At the same time the new comers are bringing in much needed energy and resources and so far these folks are being sensitive and respectful of the neighborhood's character and fabric.
Restoration in progress - Hays St

Restored 1912 house - Burnet St

Restored house - Burnet St

To put things in another perspective, the neighborhood still has a number of challenges that need to be addressed. For example, infrastructure improvements are badly needed. In some parts of the neighborhood there are streets with no sidewalks or curbs and bad drainage. Many parts of the neighborhood could use improved street lighting. The demographics of the neighborhood indicate a large Hispanic population with many families and individual living near poverty levels. We have a critical need for infill housing.  Walk any part of Dignowity and chances are you will see one of the many empty lots that litter the neighborhood landscape.  Another challenge are absentee property owners who do not care about maintaining their properties.  For many of us that chose to move into Dignowity we have accepted those challenges and are working to make the necessary improvements to raise the quality of life of the neighborhood and for residents. 
St Charles St after a rain. No curbs, no sidewalks, no drainage

One of the many empty lots in the neighborhood.

Neglected house on Pine Street


Is gentrification happening in Dignowity Hill? May be, may be not. There is no question that newcomers have been moving into the neighborhood bringing with them a new energy. Many but not all long time residents have been accepting of the changes that are occurring.  At the same time the neighborhood is still dealing with the general affects of disinvestment that has plague the eastside for the last three or more generations. The good thing is that neighborhood residents are beginning to engage in a conversation around gentrification. The reality, however,  is that neighborhood revitalization does not occur without a degree of gentrification. The trick is to ensure that sustainable community building is occurring along with gentrification. That means improving the infrastructure, involving residents in creating a vision for the neighborhood, and strengthening the social fabric of the neighborhood. A key component to good neighborhood health are the schools. Great neighborhoods have great schools. we're not there yet, at least not in the public school arena.  It has been suggested that policies be put in place to protected and incentivize long time and poorer residents from moving away. That would help mitigate some of the negative affects associated with gentrification. Ultimately we in the neighborhood must work for change to happen if we expect the neighborhood to move forward.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Buyer Beware!

The recent attention that our neighborhood has gotten is all well and good. In the last few weeks several articles have appeared in the local media that underscore how much Dignowity Hill has progressed in the minds and hearts of those that pay attention to these things. The interest in our neighborhood comes from its historical character, the architectural characteristics of the housing stock, the close proximity to downtown and the great sense of community that the neighborhood has been able to sustain over time. This has led to a high demand for houses in our neighborhood which is a good thing. That in turn has brought in investors that are buying these old homes who are then are selling them as completely restored or rehabbed houses. Here is where caution needs to be exercised!

For those who have their eyes on one of the recently restored house or a fixer upper in the neighborhood, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • As a buyer the real estate agent is not your friend! Realtors are sales people working for the seller not the buyer. They are motivated to get the highest price possible to maximize their commissions.  I'm not saying that realtors are not useful, they can provide great information regarding a property, but keep in mind that they are trying to sell you a house and their interests lies with the seller not the buyer. 
  • Do your homework! There is no excuse to not be well informed about a neighborhood or a property. There are a number of on line services that can provide basic information about a property. Services like Zillow or Realtor.com are good starting points. You can also research property records through the county's tax appraisal web site. For San Antonio properties you can go to http://www.bcad.org/ for the Bexar County Appraisal web site to search for property information by owner, address or account number or DBA.
  • Older houses present a unique set of issues that need to be carefully assessed. If you're interested in a fixer upper then you need to understand that you will be assuming all of the risk and costs associated in buying/fixing up a distressed property.  If you're buying a restored or rehabbed house then always get a house inspection done! Never take the word of the realtor or the contractor on the condition of an older house no matter how good the finish may look on the surface.  A house inspection prior to finalizing a sale should assess the major structural and functional systems of a house. Structural assessments should always include the foundation especially if the house is built on a pier and beam foundation which is typical of older houses. The drainage around an older house should be assessed along with the foundation. Often times a foundation will fail because of poor drainage that allows water to seep underneath a house. The roof should always be checked for leaks, the age of the roof and assess the integrity of the rafter and trusses. The inspections should also include an assessment of the attic insulation. Make sure it is up to code!
  • Get a survey done. While a survey is always done as part of the closing on a property make sure you that you review the survey before you sign off on the a property. This is especially critical in an older neighborhood where property lines make become compromised by encroaching fence lines or in some cases houses that have shifted onto the neighbors property line. 
  • Assessment of the functional systems such electrical, plumbing and HVAC in an older house is a must. Ideally it is optimal to upgrade these systems in older houses as often times the wiring and plumbing is outdated and/or does not meet current code. Ask if permits were pulled for any of construction work done on the house. By code any work done on electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems should be performed by a licensed individual or company. As a consumer you have the right to know if the quality of the work performed met current standards and codes. A permit ensures that any work performed on house systems meets code and requires an inspection by the city for approval.  In San Antonio you can check the city's Planning and Development website to research if permits were pulled for any property undergoing construction. Go to http://www.sanantonio.gov/dsd/index.asp to access permit information. 
The bottom line: Be prudent, do your homework and ask lots of questions! 


   


Monday, January 13, 2014

Slum Watch in Dignowity


Lets face it, we have a slum lord problem in our neighborhood. We have abandoned and neglected properties and in some cases dangerous structures that create unsightly blight.  In the midst of what is becoming a tangible revitalization effort in our part of the world we are still saddled with properties that are owned by individuals or investors that for whatever reason do not take care of their properties. Neglected and distressed properties are a huge problem for neighborhoods and the city. Studies have shown that vacant and distressed properties have an adverse affect on a neighborhood's quality of life, property values and the overall sense of community. Vacant and neglected buildings raise the probability of increased crime as they become havens for petty burglars or drug dealers/users. Despite the fact that residents and the neighborhood association over the last several years have loudly complained about these properties there seems to be little or no progress made on this front. Something needs to done.

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a blog called Baltimore Slumlord Watch, you can find the blog at http://slumlordwatch.wordpress.com/about-us/  The blog began in 2009 as a way for Baltimore residents to share information about the city's many slumlords. Started by a resident who was tired of watching out of town “investors” and others who can negatively impact neighborhoods as a result of their negligence.  The blog has become a way of publicly calling out property owners who let their properties become an eyesore.

Last year one my neighbors, Tyler Tully, wrote an excellent article in the Rivard Report (http://therivardreport.com/attacking-urban-decay-take-back-neglected-property/) that addressed the urban decay that affects San Antonio's inner city neighborhoods. The article referenced Baltimore as a model of how urban decay can be addressed. Unfortunately San Antonio is not Baltimore. As Tyler points out in his article, code compliance in San Antonio is like a pit bull with out teeth. There are city ordinances in the books that specifically spell out steps to be taken to address vacant structures and vacant lots. You can find those ordinances at http://www.sanantonio.gov/ces/responsibilites.aspx  Yet it is a slow and excruciating process to hold these slum property owners accountable.

I personally know some of the good folks that work for the city's code enforcement department and as residents we tend to beat up on our code enforcement officers for the lack of visible progress on those neglected and abandoned properties that litter our own neighborhood. These code enforcement officers are doing their jobs within the confines of the ordinances. The real problem as Tyler pointed out in his article is the lack of an incentive for owners to fix up their properties because they do not want higher property taxes and current laws designed to protect responsible property owners in essence also protect irresponsible property owners.  In his article, which was published in July of 2013, Tyler provided some great ideas and solutions that could be implemented to attack the urban decay that is visible in our inner city neighborhoods. So here we are six months later and the only thing that I know of that has occurred is the reorganization of the city's code compliance department. We still have many of the same neglected properties that were present when we first moved into the neighborhood in 2007! 

So in the spirit of the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog I will periodically be posting an image of a neglected property in the Dignowity Hill area that has been deemed unsafe, abandoned or has been neglected beyond a reasonable amount of time. The information for these properties comes from public records that are easily accessible by anyone on the Bexar County Appraisal District web site: http://www.bcad.org/  The intention is to highlight these properties publicly and perhaps motivate both the city, county and these property owners to do something positive about their properties. We need to do something about this pernicious slum lord mentality. If you own property in Dignowity Hill then keep it clean or clean it up!



 819 Lamar
Property Owner: Patel Balubhai
Legal Description:NCB 1368 BLK 5 LOT 19
This property has been declared a dangerous premise by the city.
A notice on the structure indicates that the property went before the city's Building Standards Board on November 14, 2013 




Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year and New Starts!

The start of a new year is traditionally when we make resolutions to better our selves, our community, our world. I've never been big on New Year resolutions since I feel new starts can be made at any time in our lives but in the spirit new beginnings for a new year here some thoughts.
My only resolution is kick start this blog! I haven't posted since June of 2013 and lots has happened in the last 6 months!  To catch up and on a personal note, I left the corporate world of health care in April of 2013.  Some may call it a retirement, after all I'm past 60 but I call it a transition. I'm busy with various projects such starting a guest house business, serving on several non profit boards and working for a local credit union as their community/business liaison on a part time basis.  We're keeping our eyes out for another old house restoration/rehab project.  I'm still serving as the president of our neighborhood association but that gig is coming to a close in April of this year. That's a good thing. Change is always good and its time for someone else to pull the cart.  I have to say, however, that being the prez of our neighborhood association has been a great experience for me. I've learned lot about neighborhood and city politics, I have met some great folks as well as some folks I rather have not ever met. But most importantly it's a privilege to be involved in the process of community building.
Dignowity Hill has come a long ways in the time since we moved into the community in 2007. We continue to see private investment in the restoration or rehab of our older houses. A steady stream of new comers continues to either move in or raise the awareness of the neighborhood as a desirable place to live. On the other hand, the big disappointment is the lack of public investment in basic infrastructure improvements not just in our neighborhood but in the general area of the eastside.  The economic summits that were organized in 2010 to chart a path for revitalization in the eastside have been a disappointment as well because neighborhood needs have not been addressed properly.  Investors and potential businesses seeking to relocate to the eastside have sent a message to our elected officials and paid city staff that the basic infrastructure needs of the neighborhoods to be fixed first before consistent investment will take hold on the eastside. My hope in 2014 is that someone in city government can find a way to allocate more dollars for basic needs in the neighborhoods otherwise the already slow pace of revitalization could be slow down even further.

There are of course other bright spots even shining stars in the midst of the slow pace of revitalization. The Choice Housing Grant is starting make an impact in area of the eastside with persistent poverty. The Eastside Promise Neighborhood Education Grant is making some headway although its been slowed down by the bureaucracy of its administrative agency. These two grants represent close to $60 million in federal dollars. That's a lot taxpayer money going directly into the community. The best news to hit our neighborhood was the ground breaking for the Alamo Brewery to be built next to the historic Hays Street Bridge.  Despite the controversy that this brewery generated,  the construction of the brewery means private investment in the eastside, city support in the form of incentives and most importantly the opportunity to potentially create an environment to attract additional investment in area. It's all good at this point!

In August of 2013 a large scale mural was installed on the underpass of Nolan Street...see the image below. In many ways the mural with its dynamic use of color and free flowing graphic design represents the energy that has developed in our part of the world.  This blog has always been about the happenings in and around Dignowity Hill and it will continue to be that way as we move forward into 2014 but look for an expanded view as well and like the mural my intent is to capture that energy as we move forward into making the world a better place. Peace in 2014! 

Dedication of the Mural on the Nolan Street Underpass.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Run Through the Neighborhood

The 2nd Annual Bowden Fun Run/Walk was held today. What a turn out! Last year's inaugural event drew over 300 participants. This time around the event with 3 other schools invited to participate the event more than doubled in participant size.  Over 800 folks joined in the event staged to promote wellness and fitness. The amazing thing about this event is that is free. The brain child of Bowden Elementary School assistant principal Greg Velasquez the run is designed to bring the community together while educating community members about the benefits of being physically active. The real pay off is in creating pride in our Eastside communities and breaking down old perceptions about the Eastside.  Good health goes beyond the individuals, it applies to communities too!








 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Moving Forward

It was recently announced that the owner of proposed micro- brewery to be built next to the Hays Street Bridge has changed the location where it will be built. The plans still call for the brewery to built next to the historic old bridge but it will be built on property owned by the brewery's owner, on the southside of the bridge.  This is good news for the neighborhood and the Eastside. The project has been stalled since August 2012 when city council approved the sale of city owned land to the developer. The project has created controversy from the start. The bridge restoration group cried foul when the city moved to sell the land that the restoration group has insisted was to be used as a park.

The neighborhood has supported the project from the start. Much of the organized opposition has come from outside the neighborhood. The opposition has demonized the neighborhood association making accusations that the association is infiltrated by newcomers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the folks that have organized the opposition do not live in the neighborhood and therefore do not really have a good understanding of what is behind the support by the neighborhood. None of these folks have ever sat down with me or others in the neighborhood to talk about why we don't need another park and would rather see a project that can generate jobs.

The basic truth to all of this is that our neighborhood has supported the project because of the potential of being able of kick starting sorely needed economic development in and around the neighborhood.  More importantly, getting the brewery project off the ground will be a first step in tearing down some of the negative perceptions about the Eastside.

For my part I'm glad to hear that the brewery will be moving forward.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Next Phase

As I write this it's been over a month sine that I left my corporate job in healthcare.  I had been mulling about making a change since the end of 2011 but for a number of reasons I had put off taking step in into "retirement".  In November of last year I hit the big Six O. That milestone got me thinking that perhaps the time was right to start transitioning to the next phase. I have worked in some capacity in healthcare for close to 40 years. I felt ready to move on but not necessarily ready to retire. You see I'm not a retirement kind of guy. I have always resisted the notion that I would someday just stop working and live my days out in relative leisure.  So part of my inner struggle was answering the question: what will the next act to look like?
One thing is for sure whatever the next phase looks like it will not include working for a large corporation. The next act will be directed by me as much as possible, it will be community minded,
it will include pursuing and exploring the creative/artistic element that's in all of us, it will include being entrepreneurial, it will include more time with family,friends and our dogs, and most importantly it will not be "retirement"!

Our Family


 Jennifer, Barb and Me


Monica,Ronnie, Ryan and Alyssa