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 Images. All rights are reserved to the owner. Copy and use of these pictures is forbidden without written permission. Contact Juan at for permission.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Hays Street Bridge: The Object of our Affection and Discontent

It's been awhile since I've posted on this blog. With all the commotion going on with the proposed apartment project next to the Hays Street Bridge (HSB) I thought I would add my two cents. Ever since the restoration of the (HSB) was completed in 2010 the old bridge has been a source of affection and discontent. It seems that everyone loves the bridge and the discontent comes from what development around the bridge should be allowed. The recent proposal to build a 148-unit apartment building on the privately owned vacant land adjacent to the HSB has once again stirred passionate discussions along with a healthy amount of misinformation. I did some research to get a better understanding of the issues and here is what I learned:

  • HSB is not for sale and the proposed project does not restrict access to the HSB.
  • According to the HDRC application the proposed project, which is on privately owned land, all the work on the project will be separate from the bridge right of way. In other words the project will not physically touch or impact the bridge itself.
  • Because the proposed project location is zoned downtown and is outside the boundaries of the Dignowity Hill historic district, this project was reviewed exclusively under the downtown design guidelines. The city’s Planning Department handles this review.
  • Additionally, because the bridge itself is a locally designated historic landmark it is also protected under city ordinance #68210 which was enacted in 1988. This ordinance gives the HSB Significant Historic Landmark designation.
  • Having a significant historic landmark designation for the bridge does not change the way the proposed apartment project is reviewed. The project was and has been reviewed under the downtown design guidelines.
  • The HSB currently does not have viewshed protection. UDC Section 35-643 <  provides the criteria to create a viewshed district. The code lists 15 historic properties that are eligible for a Viewshed Protection District. The HBS is not included on this list but it could potentially make the list. In order for the HSB to be added to the list a UDC amendment would be required. Getting on the list does not automatically provide viewshed protection. Viewsheds must be established by ordinance to include a survey detail and parameters. Additionally, a zoning district overlay must also be approved for all affected properties. The Alamo is the only property that currently has this type of viewshed in place.

The one thing that has not happened is a wider and balanced community conversation. This project surfaced in January of this year so it’s disappointing that the developers and the current Dignowity Hill NA leadership were not able to put their heads together to gain feedback from residents and other stakeholders prior to going to the HDRC meeting in October 2017.  There is precedence. 
During the run up for the Alamo Brewery proposal two DHNA meetings were held to hear both the opposition and the developers of the brewery project. Shortly after the DHNA voted to support the brewery project 2 additional community meetings were hosted by then D2 council woman Ivy Taylor. At the September 2017 DHNA meeting representatives from the developers presented their plans for the project. Unfortunately no follow up meetings were held prior to the HDRC meeting in October 2017. These types of projects truly deserve a closer look by the affected communities or neighborhoods. A community meeting for the proposed apartment project is in the works but no details have been shared yet. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Art of Being a Neighborhood

I started this blog in April of 2008 a few months after we moved into Dignowity.  It was my attempt to document our experiences of living in an old neighborhood that came with lots of historic character along with some pretty rough edges. I stopped posting to this blog in December of 2014. Since then I would get email messages from folks who found my blog asking about the neighborhood. Apparently my blog still lives on in cyberspace!  But the inquiries were not enough to motivate me to start writing again. That is until Mayor Ivy Taylor asked me recently if I was still writing my blog. I was taken by surprise that the mayor would ask about my somewhat defunct blog. The mayor apparently had followed my blog and encouraged me to start writing again. So here we are again with more ramblings, thoughts and rants from an urban dweller.

The Art of Being a Neighborhood
Dignowity Hill has changed quite a bit since 2008. Most of the changes are good while some changes are still to waiting to happen. The biggest change is that Dignowity is now a very desirable neighborhood. Newcomers have infused some much needed investment and energy into the old neighborhood. Fans of Dignowity roam the neighborhood looking for real estate opportunities. But in spite of all of the attention challenges still remain: many streets and sidewalks are in desperate need of repair, while infill new construction has picked up the neighborhood still has many empty lots, and because the neighborhood is still relatively low income there is concern about displacement and gentrification. Regardless of the challenges Dignowity Hill is a good place.

Looking back to what drew us into Dignowity I can say with all honesty that it was an emotional pull that we felt from the neighborhood.  There was and still is a feeling that it's a place with a great sense of retained memory of its past and that elusive sense of community that we crave as humans. Even today the neighborhood invokes that emotional pull even if the neighborhood is not done with its current revival. We especially sense that feeling from long time residents who have nurtured for us the feeling that Dignowity is unique. The old houses certainly add to the charm of the neighborhood but that is only part of the story. Over and over we hear that it's the people that make Dignowity a good place. Interactions in the form of small gestures of kindness between people matter. We are humbled when an elderly neighbor stops by to drop off oranges from her backyard tree. It happens when another neighbor shares a plate of home made cake. Or when the ice cream man on his bike stops to say hello. Or when we hear about a neighbor that convert their porch into a classroom to help their own neighbors with GED classwork.  Stories like these do not make the newspapers or the late night news but are at the core in the art of being a neighborhood.  In essence the art of being neighborhood is about people and place.

The Art of Neighborhood Placemaking
I recently came across an article on placemaking titled Streets as Places. According to the authors of the article, placemaking is about turning physical public spaces into spaces that support human interaction, economic exchange and well-being. It is a continuous dynamic process not a static set of amenities, objects or activities. The article defines placemakers as instruments that mobilize the community. It's not about design but about personalities, destination, activities, and connections between people. What I found most interesting is that the authors emphasize that the community not designers or architects should be at the core of the placemaking process. In other words, the realm of placemaking belongs to the community. As Dignowity continues to transform the conversation needs to be as broad as possible. Of course architects and designers are welcomed in the conversation. We need their technical abilities to help us visualize good development but if we want to see good neighborhood placemaking then as many voices as possible need to be heard that goes beyond the technical and often times foreign language of architecture and design. 

In a changing neighborhood like Dignowity Hill placemaking needs to be embraced. The inclusive nature of the process can lead to some interesting and creative ideas. Dignowity Hill as a neighborhood and its historic district now face some interesting cross points. Some questions to think about: in a changing neighborhood how do we effectively preserve and protect not only the historical character of the neighborhood but also the strong sense of community fabric?  Who speaks for the neighborhood as a whole and decides on how this place should look like and be as a place moving forward? What should economic and business development look like for the neighborhood? Do we want to see corner stores in residential areas of the neighborhood? Can the conversation be inclusive enough to engage as many residents as possible in the neighborhood? Are you a placemaker?  You can find this interesting article at

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back, Looking Forward

It seems that 2014 was the year of gentrification for Dignowity Hill. In the past year much has been written in the media about Dignowity Hill, gentrification and the continued rise of the neighborhood as urban renaissance. Pundits, elected officials, academics and anti-gentrifiers have all offered opinions on how to deal with gentrification, which essentially is an issue of change. Well, depending on whom you talk to the Dignowity Hill gentrification train is either coming around the bend or left the station a long time ago.

In the last almost 7 years the neighborhood has experienced a good amount of change or dare I say progress. In 2008 Dignowity was beginning to feel the first waves of noticeable revitalization, even as a deep recession was taking hold. A kind of coolness was setting in as Dignowity was being “discovered”. Brave urban pioneers were beginning to invest in the neighborhood. Dignowity was getting known for its Pushcart Derby. Gentrification was but a whisper in 2008. By 2014 a number of significant projects and events had taken place that set both the neighborhood and the Eastside on a seemingly upward trajectory of revitalization.

Some of those key events include:
    • The BRAC at Ft. Sam Houston, which brings the first noticeable attention to Dignowity and the Eastside. (2007-2010)
    • The development and approval of the neighborhood and re-investment plans (2009) 
    • The first of the Eastside Economic summits is held. (2010) 
    • The opening of the Hays Street Bridge (2010) 
    • The first STAR event is held in Dignowity (2010) 
    • Dignowity Historic District gets historic street signs (2011) 
    • Alamo Brewery project surfaces as a concept (2011) 
    • The city is awarded the $24 million Eastside Promise Neighborhood Grant (2012) 
    • City council with support from the DHNA approves the Alamo Brewery project (2012) 
    • The Choice Grant is awarded to the city (2012) 
    • Cherry Modern gets approval to build new housing near the Hays St Bridge (2013) 
    • Alamo Brewery breaks ground (2013) 
    • Alamo Brewery ribbon cutting (2014)

      Siclovia 2014 is routed through Dignowity Hill.

      For Dignowity these projects and events have certainly contributed to the ongoing revitalization or as some would say, gentrification, of the neighborhood. In the background of these relatively high profile projects an ongoing almost quiet activity of private investment in the neighborhood has been occurring. This is most evident in the real estate market for Dignowity. In 2008 you could buy a near tear down for $40,000. In some cases in the midst of the recession foreclosed properties could be had for less than $30,000. By 2014 well-restored houses were selling between $200,000 and $400,000. Empty lots are now being listed for over $40,000. Developers and flippers have discovered Dignowity. A new housing development, Cherry Modern, sold units starting at around $178, 000. The brewery project's $7 million investment, while generating controversy, is being seen as a catalyst for additional business development. This activity by both major and small investors is what is driving most of the conversation around gentrification. Questions with no clear answers are being asked. Will this activity displace any of our lower income neighbors? Will these development projects change the character of the neighborhood? Will the historic nature of the neighborhood be affected?

      Moving forward it seems that change/gentrification/revitalization issues as they affect Dignowity will be discussed and dissected for a while. The problem when discussing and analyzing gentrification, as many have discovered, is that it is difficult to define it in general as it applies to a particular context. The affects of this type of change certainly impacts the built environment in a neighborhood as properties are fixed up but can be difficult to measure on a human scale. The current gentrification conversation in San Antonio tends to get twisted and rendered inert around topics of displacement, rising property values and rising property taxes. Assertions are made that displacement is occurring in the neighborhood but no quantifiable evidence can be produced. Displacement can be an issue if it’s done in incorrectly without regard to the consequences. On the other hand, there is some validity to the rise in prices and taxes but those are natural outcomes of both market driven change and taxing entities assessments based on market conditions. Is any of this a good thing? The trends we’re now seeing in Dignowity were set in motion over the last few years through a combination of city government policies/incentives, public investment and private dollars flowing into the neighborhood. Those trends have gathered traction and will most likely continue into the next few years.

      Looking ahead some things are certain as we move into 2015:
      • The real estate market in Dignowity will remain active and to some degree speculative that will continue to drive property prices upwards.
      • Developers are eyeing empty tracts in the neighborhood for multi-housing and infill housing projects. 
      • Business development activity will continue and needs to be encouraged. 
      • Incentives offered by the city have been in place for sometime to attract private investment into neighborhood and will continue to help make investment in Dignowity attractive. 
      • Historic preservation issues vs development issues will need to be thoughtfully navigated.
      • Millennials will continue to be attracted to the neighborhood.
      To temper things a bit and for a reality check:
      • Dignowity Hill is a relative poor neighborhood. Poverty is a growing problem in the city as wealth segregation increases. According to recent published data the zip code 78202, which covers all of Dignowity, has the highest percentage of poverty in the city. The median income for a family of 4 hovers around $27,000, below the city average of $45,000.
      • Educational attainment is a huge issue. Recent data indicate that only 38% of residents in the neighborhood finished high school. 
      • Crime is still perceived as being an issue. 
      • Basic infrastructure needs such as street repairs, sidewalks, etc, are still being deferred by the city. 
      • City council is in a state of flux and representation on city council for our district may change again in May 2015.
      Neighborhood street after a rain. No sidewalks or curbs

      Change is needed and welcomed but we need to be mindful of not pushing our more needy neighbors out. Mitigating the adverse affects of gentrification will be key. The mayor's appointed panel to look at changing neighborhoods is struggling to define gentrification as it applies to the city. Workable solutions are still a ways in coming. In the meantime, community building that can restore the frayed edges of the neighborhood still has a place in the neighborhood. Transformational leadership at the grassroots will be required. The neighborhood association can certainly be an advocate for improving the quality of life and should continue to work with elected officials and city staff to address structural issues. However, transformational leadership is needed to change lives and often occurs when individuals or small groups take the lead to tackle a challenge or solve a problem. For example, a neighbor recently took on the issue of monitoring the trains that block traffic in and out of the neighborhood. Another neighbor is tutoring her neighbors with GED assistance on her front porch. A group of neighbors are discussing the idea of developing a farmer’s market model that is affordable for our community. We need more individuals to help mentor and tutor our neighborhood kids. I’m encouraged by the millenials that are moving into the neighborhood for they bring not only new energy but new ideas as well that will lead to transformational change. Finally, I'm also encouraged by long time residents that welcome the revitalization of the neighborhood.

      So my wish for the neighborhood for 2015 is to continue working for progress in a balanced manner. I challenge those in the neighborhood that are willing to be transformational leaders to get after it. Don’t be discouraged by the naysayers or by institutional barriers. There’s lots of work still to be done.


      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 woman 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 by 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


      Old Wooden 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 by 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 asbestos cladding.  The original wooden windows are intact along with the wooden screens. 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


      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: 

      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