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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Auditorium at Ella Austin

The Ella Austin Community Center occupies an entire city block in Dignowity Hill. The center is named after Ella Austin an African American who founded an orphanage in 1897 and cared for homeless children until 1940. In 1968 the children's home was converted to a multi purpose community center and continues to serve as a neighborhood based social service agency for the Eastside and beyond.

Ella, as the community center is affectionately called, is housed in what used to be Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School, which was closed as a school in the mid 1960's.  The main building dates back to 1921 and is located in the middle of the Dignowity Hill Historic District.  The building is a historic preservation project waiting to happen. The structure, while in relative good shape, is in need of on going maintenance.  The exterior of the main building still retains much of it's architectural interest with it's oversize windows and doors.  Over the years much of the interior space and old classrooms have been carved out for office space, conference rooms and space for programs such as the day care and after school program.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Inscription
Gated Entrance to Ella

The one interior space that has remained relatively untouched be remodeling efforts is the old school auditorium.  This is a beautiful space with old hardwood flooring, a large stage, high ceilings and amphitheater type seating that slopes down towards the stage. The windows are floor to ceiling with multi pane glass or lites. The seats appear to be the original wooded fold up types no longer seen in schools.   


Entrance to Auditorium off of Pine Street
Auditorium Seating and Windows
Stairway to Balcony

Stage

Old Wooded Seats
Ella is seeing a resurgence in utilization as staff from the Eastside Promise Neighborhood and Choice Grants along with the Urban Strategies Group have recently moved into office space at Ella giving the community center higher visibility.  With this newly generated visibility discussion has turned to the possibility of updating and enhancing the auditorium for use the community for events like movies stage plays and gatherings. New lighting, new seating and audio visual equipment could help bring this beautiful space back to life.  However, funding is needed to rehab the auditorium space for community events. Keep Ella in mind, it could use your generosity. 

Antique Piano 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Near Eastside Photo Glallery: Doors and Other Things

Images were taken along or near E Commerce and Hackberry Streets























Thursday, June 5, 2014

A New Old House

A new old house has arrived in the neighborhood. The house located at 219 4th Street was moved to a lot on Nolan Street in Dignowity Hill. This project had been in the planning stages since last summer when our friend Ruby Casteel and her husband Bruce acquired the house from the First Baptist Church.

The house was originally built in 1885. The lot was sold to Olive Coulson in 1885 with a mechanics lien issued that same year. In 1892 the property was sold to Francis Smith.  It was then sold Mary A Rigsby in 1899 who lived in the house until 1915. Mary Rigsby was the mother of William C Rigsby and Nellie Rigsby (Mrs Ben Hammond). William Rigsby and Ben Hammond were major investors in the development of Highland Park. If you drive around the Highland Park area you will see the streets named after Rigsby and Hammond. The property was owned by the Rigsby family until 1944. Eventually the house was bought by the church. The house features great architectural details.  The original wood clad siding was covered in covered in asbestos cladding.  The original wooden windows are intact along with the wooden screens. Inside the house has high ceilings, transoms and wood floors.

The house before the move.

219 4th Street


Front Porch







Beautiful Window









Window Detail




It took the house moving crew several days to prep the house for the move. The house was lifted off its foundation and then fitted with heavy duty tires to move the structure down the road. In order to make the move through downtown and neighborhood streets the roof was taken off and the house was cut into two large sections.

Prepping for the move
On Wheels

Half a House

Roof Sliced off

Gable

The actual move was made in two trips as the two sections of the house were moved from its original site to its new home in Dignowity Hill. It was amazing seeing this 129 year old house hoisted on large steel mobile girders rolling through parts of the downtown area.

Getting Ready to Move

Pulling off the lot

Squeezing through Nolan Street

Making the turn onto its new site

Made it!














The second section of the house followed about an hour later. The two sections were eventually "married" to make the house whole again. Next steps will take care of getting the foundation in place and replacing the roof.  Eventually the entire house will be restored and rehabbed. At this point we are all happy the the project went off without a hitch, a testament to the expertise of Dodson House Moving crew.  It safe to say that Ruby and her husband Bruce have become instant celebrities in the neighborhood for saving such a grand old dame and bringing her to Dignowity Hill!
Second section of the house is joined to the first section

Working on the foundation

Ruby and Bruce with the Dodson's

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Vision Thing

One of my neighbors recently posed a great question. He wanted to know what is the vision for the neighborhood moving forward. The question seems straightforward but perhaps not as easy to answer as you may think. It's a good question to ask at this juncture in the life of the neighborhood. The vision question indicates that folks are sensing an emerging healthy tension as the neighborhood continues to progress and are beginning to wonder which way to go next.  So how is vision for a changing neighborhood like Dignowity created?

Perhaps we can start by re-visiting the neighborhood plan that was developed by neighborhood residents and approved by city council in 2009. You can find the complete Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Plan at:
http://www.sanantonio.gov/planning/neighborhoods/dignowityHillNP_dec2009.asp 

The stated purpose of the neighborhood plan is to provide a guide for future action, growth and development. The plan provides a ready made list of improvements and steps that residents want to see in the neighborhood. In turn city staff can use the plan to prioritize capital improvement projects and most importantly identify and prioritize funding mechanisms for those projects. 

There are 22 goals under four major headings that are part of neighborhood plan. The headings and their descriptions are listed below: 

Community Facilities and Public Health
Maintain and enhance the neighborhood parks, community centers, and cultural events that promote healthy lifestyles and highlight the historic character of the Dignowity Hill neighborhood

Crime and Public Safety
Improve the well being of the community by eliminating criminal activity through improved public safety measures to ensure that all community members especially children are able to work and play without fear in a safe environment

Housing and Economic Development
Coordinate and integrate development of a mix of neighborhood businesses that serve the immediate residents in the vicinity and establish housing options with diverse age and density that are walkable and secure  

Transportation, Infrastructure and Drainage
Work with partners and neighbors to enhance the aesthetics of the area by improving sidewalks and road infrastructure to create a safe and friendly environment for pedes­trians, motorists, and bicyclists

Taking Action
Work toward achieving the goals and objectives that are laid out in the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Plan



In the past five years the neighborhood in partnership with city and elected officials has made significant strides in addressing some of the goals of the neighborhood plan with some success in pushing crime out and improving public safety. The economic piece is starting to gain some traction with the coming of Alamo Brewery and other business ventures in and around the neighborhood. Housing, especially large infill housing has yet to get any significant footing in the neighborhood although that may be changing soon as demand for housing close to downtown is gaining momentum and developers are eyeing larger tracts within the neighborhood.  The one area where there is dire need of improvement is infrastructure and drainage improvements.


View from Lockwood Park

It's also helpful to understand that the Dignowity Hill neighborhood plan was developed and approved before there was an Easpoint, before the Promise Zone, before there was the Eastside Promise Neighborhood Grant, and before there was the Choice Grant, which by the way does not include or affect Dignowity Hill. The grant initiatives are all good in and of themselves because they address specific challenges associated with improving educational outcomes, addressing an extremely economically distressed area of the Eastside and bring much needed public investment.  The reality, however, is that Dignowity as a neighborhood has been working on the vision thing way before any of these initiatives existed. 

The interesting thing about the vision question is that all of us in the neighborhood most likely have an image of what the neighborhood can become or even what it should become. That is why visioning ought to be an exercise in collective thoughtful expression. I also believe that the neighborhood is reaching a tipping point that was set in motion in the mid 2000's by private investors who saw the potential of the neighborhood. They were willing to take a financial risk on the Eastside and in Dignowity. That wave of newcomers also brought along the notion of building community and finding ways to sustain the character and social fabric of the neighborhood.  The question now is where do we want to go from here?
Ella Austin Community Center-Auditorium Entrance


The elements found in the neighborhood plan are good starting points to jump start a conversation about the neighborhood vision question. As I mentioned previously some healthy tensions are developing as the neighborhood continues to progress and they are not clearly addressed by the neighborhood plan. Some examples: the neighborhood is attracting young professionals that are investing in the neighborhood but we are also attracting investors and developers who do not necessarily care about building community. We find our selves layered by federal grants that for a number of reasons, neither good or bad, are not part of the vision of the neighborhood because of the prescriptive and focused nature of the grants. The question of gentrification has popped up as newcomers accelerate investment in the neighborhood yet I also feel a strong sense of community of making sure we do not displace our long time residents.  Our historic district puts the neighborhood in the middle of historic preservation issues but often times those issues collide with economic development initiatives or public safety concerns around older or abandoned structures. Do we envision better schools? Do we want streets with sidewalks and curbs that actually drain off after a rain? Do we allow developers do in fill housing without regard to historic architectural guidelines? Do we allow concerns regarding density for the sake of having a new housing development in the neighborhood be discounted or worse yet disregarded?

The vision question is important. It's time that we as a neighborhood pause a bit and do some reflecting on what next.  
Cherry Modern On Cherry Street




Sunday, May 4, 2014

Reflections: Being a Community Leader

I recently stepped down as the president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. After five years of serving in that role I welcome the change. It's time for some else to pull this cart! Don't get me wrong I have truly enjoyed being in that role. During my stint I met many wonderful people, dealt with interesting and challenging issues and hopefully gained some wisdom of how to be a leader in a changing community.  When I stepped into the president's role in April 2009 it was with a great deal of naivete and plenty of apprehension. Being relatively new to the Eastside I wasn't sure how I would fit into the dynamics of the Eastside and our neighborhood. Little that I realized at the time that Dignowity Hill was at the cusp of a sea change that would go beyond our neighborhood.

I can list a number of significant events that happened during my turn as as president.  For example the re-opening of the historic Hays Street Bridge, Alamo Brewery getting the nod to build next to the Hays Street Bridge, the Eastside Economic Summits, Historic Street signs were installed,  the Eastside Promise Neighborhood and Choice grants were awarded to the city, and the progression in the re-vitalization of Dignowity Hill accelerated.  During this time we also adopted a neighborhood and reinvestment plan.  Many if not all of these initiatives were all ready in the works or were a result of political decisions to make things happen. I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time.
Hays Street Bridge

Being president of a community organization such as a neighborhood association is a rewarding, humbling and frustrating experience all rolled up into one package.   Neighborhood associations are the rawest form of democracy where folks can voice an opinion as part of the civic process that can shape a neighborhood and influence elected officials.  Being in a leadership role of a neighborhood association role requires patience, perseverance, a thick skin, good organizational and leadership skills. Mostly, you need a willingness to serve, be accessible, responsive and have the ability to connect with people.  For those of you out there that aspire to serve as president of your neighborhood association here are some insights that I gained over the last 5 years:

Relationships Matter
Never underestimate the power of relationships and good will. Always keep in mind that people matter and so do their concerns.You may have the title of president and have multiple degrees or certificates but they don't mean a thing if can't connect with people. That means following up when someone calls you about a concern or a complaint. The little things matter. Common sense matters.   Credibility is the bottom line and you earn that by treating people with respect and dignity.

Community Fair in Dignowity Park-2009

Be Flexible
All organizations need structure and neighborhood associations are typically govern by a set of by laws. Learn the by laws and follow them without becoming rigid in your thinking. You need to find a balance between structure and letting things happen organically. In a changing neighborhood like Dignowity people need to feel that they are part of a movement and that their voice matters. It's good to have structured agendas for meetings and committees that do specific tasks but you also need to feel comfortable with the ambiguity that comes when people are allowed to be creative. Not all neighborhoods are alike and Dignowity stands out, at least for now, as a neighborhood where diversity and eclectic notions blend nicely as residents still feel the need to build community.

Learn the Regs
Serving as president of a neighborhood association is an education in zoning ordinances, code compliance, city and county government policies and bureaucratic acronyms. If you happen to live in a historic district then you need to gain some understanding of design guidelines and become familiar with preservation issues. Never stop learning!   

Dig into the Issues
Learn as much as you can about whatever issue is affecting your neighborhood. For example, gentrification has become a hot topic for urban core neighborhoods such as Dignowity as revitalization efforts or zoning changes are starting to change the face of the neighborhood.  In fill housing, the quality of our schools, public safety, and quality of life issues are topics that are neighborhood agenda issues especially in an urban core neighborhood.  In a historic district like Dignowity you need to evaluate how historic preservation issues and design guidelines can impact a neighborhood economically.  Layer that with developers looking to build new construction in your historic district and immediately a tension forms. Your life just got more interesting! 

Advocate or Activist
Will you be an advocate or activist when comes to your neighborhood association? These two terms are often used interchangeably but there is a difference in their definitions.  An advocate is typically one who speaks on behalf of a group or another person.  An activist is an individual who makes an intentional action to bring about social or political change.  I saw myself more of an advocate than an activist especially in the role of representing the neighborhood association's interests either in the media or in forums where public relations are important. On the flip side, you will more than likely have to deal with the activists in your group. Not a bad thing, it tends to keep things real!

It's Not Personal
Neighborhood politics tend to be raw and at times unfiltered.  In the time I served as president I was harangued, demonized, and generally disliked by folks that were on opposite sides of an issue. This was especially true during the period when the brewery project became such a hot topic.  I had to acknowledge that the criticism directed towards me was not personal. It comes with the territory of being the face of the neighborhood and supporting the positions that the association takes. It's not personal!

Leadership Style
The thoughts I mention above are rooted in emergent leadership. I think that approach can serve any aspiring community leader.  Emergent leaders are comfortable with not knowing all the answers. They typically seek consensus and behave more like a coach than a general. They share information freely and communicate clearly. They are energetic and tend to inspire others into action. They tend to be empathetic and compassionate. Collaboration is usually a favorite approach to getting things done because they see the value of multiple perspectives.
Does this style fit everyone? It depends on an individual's temperament, skill set and the lens through which one sees the world. In end what may matter most is to be comfortable with yourself, try not to step on any cow patties and have fun! When it's time to step aside you do so with grace.

As I mentioned, I really do welcome the chance to sit back a bit. I was fortunate to be a part of the initial wave of revitalization of the Eastside and my stint was truly a great ride. My hope is that things will continue to move forward, especially for the neighborhoods.  I feel that perceptions are beginning to turn positive for the Eastside and our neighborhood.
I'll still be involved as I serve on other boards related to Eastside activities.....but..... in the meantime, perhaps I can convince my wife to buy that Teardrop trailer and hit the road for a spell!



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 some 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 say there are ok with 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.