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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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of Year Ramblings

Some of End of Year Ramblings to Close Out 2008:

Had breakfast at Tommy Moore's place this morning. Tommy's is on the Eastside near downtown. Nice place, good food and excellent service. Because of our work schedules it's a little tough for us to visit Tommy's Cafe and Deli on a regular basis. But each time we go there Tommy and his staff always treat us like royalty. Tommy seems to remember who you are even if you haven't been in for awhile. Great customer service but even more important, you feel like friends every time you walk into Tommy's place. That's nice.

One whole year of living in this old house. One year of living in Dignowity Hill. Looking back, the blessings out number the negatives. Saving and restoring our old house has made us realize that community matters. Because of this old house we've made new friends, strengthen old friendships and hopefully brighten our little corner of the world.

Dignowity Hill Watch List for 2009: Ft. Sam Houston and the BRAC impact on our neighborhood, the newly ordained Arts and Entertainment District, city elections and new council person for our district....all of these have great potential or they could be a great bust!

Dignowity Hill Wish List for 2009: better lighting for our streets, repave our streets, a stronger sense of pride in our neighborhood, less trash in yards and streets, stronger code compliance, improve our bike lanes, slow down the traffic on Pine St, get the Hays St bridge project going!

One last thing, someone once wrote that "change is the law of life".....well, 2008 certainly brought many changes not always good ones but change none the less. I think that 2009 will bring even more change to Dignowity Hill and our surrounding neighborhoods. Change by itself is a given. The real challenge is to move from change to renewal and transformation.

Happy 2009!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hope on the Hill

Man, where has 2008 gone! Is it me or is time really accelerating! I have to say that 2008 has been a tough one for many of us. With the economy tanking out, folks losing their jobs, our leaders (read: politicians!) letting us's no wonder there seems to be a general gloominess about the future. But I feel hopeful. I know, I know....I may be going against the grain with this but I really do feel hopeful. We have a new president, the Bush era is finally ending and expectations are running high that things will get better....I have to believe that things will get better. But it won't be easy.....nothing worth fighting for making life better is ever easy. There an old Mexican "dicho" (saying) that goes like this: " La lucha es vida" (The struggle is life). How true is that! Its hard work making things better! Hope and struggle go hand in hand. It happens everyday and sometimes so close and in front of us that we can easily miss the good the comes from hard work, a little vision and hope.

Across the street from our house, on a little strip of property that belongs to the elementary school, is a little garden area. I see it everyday from my back porch. When we first moved into the neighborhood, the little plots of what once were apparently thriving gardens were neglected and overgrown with weeds and grass. Sometime last spring as the school year was winding down I approached the Principal with the idea of letting me work the gardens over the summer. She was gracious and agreed but because of my work schedule it was little tough to get to the gardens and work in them. So the summer past and it looked like the gardens were to be neglected for another year. Then one day shortly after the school year began my wife and I noticed someone working the gardens plots. It turns out that the Principal had contacted a local community volunteer group to work the gardens and was able to secure some grant funding to offset the cost of restoring the gardens. WOW! Since then the gardens have come back to life. It amazing what a little elbow grease, compost and manure can do to renew tired soil! So here we are, almost the end of December and winter veggies and flowers are growing and thriving in soil that was terribly neglected for who knows how long. The school kids love it and so do I!

So am I hopeful? Will 2009 be a good year? Yes....if this little bitty garden can make a comeback with a little bit of hard work, a little vision and hope....then think of what we can do together as neighbors and friends to transform our neighborhood!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Short Takes

It's been awhile since I posted anything....been a little busy. Some short takes from the Hill:

The other day I came across a web site called, it ranks the 40 walkable cities in the USA and calculates the walkability of an address or neighborhood or city by locating nearby stores, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. Walk Score measures how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle—not how pretty the area is for walking. Not sure how old this data is but San Antonio ranked 32 out 40. We were right behind El Paso of all places! Austin, Houston and Dallas all ranked ahead of SA in walkability. On the web site you can drill down to specific neighborhoods in a city. The downtown area of SA had the highest walkability score at 94 out of 100 and was ranked # 1 out of 197 SA neighborhoods surprise there. Dignowity Hill came in at #14 out of 197 with a score of 65....not bad....which makes Dignowity Hill one of SA's most walkable neighborhoods in a city that is very car dependent. Time to put on your walking shoes!

Speaking of downtown, if you haven't had a chance, I highly recommend taking a walk, drive or bike ride up or down E. Commerce Street between the old cemeteries and Sunset Station. The city did a nice job of sprucing up the street with new lighting, cobble stone intersections and some nice artful benches. If you come down from the east you get a great view of SA's skyline.

The presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and entertaining if not historic in quite a long time. I'm not affiliated with any political party...yes, I'm fiercely independent.....but I must say that a new national direction is sorely needed. Is that Russia I see across the street?

Locally, term limits are a big issue. Read an article in the paper recently proposing that extending terms for our council reps would result in better government.....seems to me that good leadership would result in better government.

The state of the economy is THE topic lately with Wall Street having a meltdown, Congress members and the President bickering, and credit drying up. What a mess! Guess I'll be working past 65!

Meanwhile, Dignowity Hill continues to revitalize and life goes on in spite of what the gloom and doom headlines are telling us. The ice cream van still passes by our house every day, the old house across the street from us is being restored back to life, and the old pharmacy building on the corner of Nolan and Pine is getting a face lift. Most importantly, neighbors and folks just passing through the neighborhood wave hello or stop to chat when I'm in out working in the gardens. That's nice.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Graveyards and History

The other morning I went for a walk among the dead. Within walking distance from our house is a complex of cemeteries that date back to the 1850's. The cemetaries are on the National Register of Historic Places and cover over 100 acres on the city’s near Eastside. In the early 1850's San Antonio was running out of burial space and needed to find land to bury folks. In 1852 the city designated a plot of land known as Powder House Hill as a city cemetery. This land was a part of San Antonio’s original town tract granted to the municipality in the 18th century by the King of Spain and was named for the ruins of buildings apparently used as weapon and gunpowder storage by the Spanish. The land overlooks the city on some relatively high ground, which provides some great views of downtown San Antonio and I suppose makes one closer to the heavens if you're buried up here. Over time, plots of land were sold to families, fraternal groups, ethnic groups and religious organizations for burials.

Cemeteries fascinate me, not in a morbid way but because of the rich history that is in them. It's amazing what you can learn from these old graveyards. For instance, there is a National Cemetery for veterans of frontier campaigns, Indian war battles and WWI. It includes the remains of 300 Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were African-American soldiers that served during the Indian war campaigns of the 1870's and 1880's. There is a memorial dedicated to these soldiers else where in the cemetery complex.

There's even a Confederate soldiers cemetery, which I found a little ironic given that it's not far from the National Cemetery. What was even more surprising was the Confederate flag flying over the burial plots.

How about some Texas history. Clara Driscoll is buried here among the ancient oaks trees that dot the landscape. She's known as the Savior of the Alamo for putting up several thousand dollars of her own money to rescue the Alamo convent from being sold back in the early 1900's. She rests in a family mausoleum in the old San Antonio Masonic Cemetery.

I found Dignowity Cemetery. It took me a while but I was able to locate Dr. Michael Dignowity's final resting place. Actually, just about all his relatives are buried in this small cemetery, which isn't very far from the good doctor's old homestead on Dignowity Hill and it comes with wonderful views of downtown.

If you take the time to explore around the cemeteries you'll find some interesting grave markers. The one's I like are the markers telling us that the person buried was a member of the Woodsmen of America. They're the ones that look like tree stumps.....yes, tree stumps. Other markers are, well, just interesting.

It's nice being able to walk or bike from our house in Dignowity Hill to these historic burial grounds. What's really great is that they are very close to the eastern edge of downtown. From Sunset Station or the Vidorra you can walk or bike or take a short bus ride up Commerce Street to these old cemeteries and take a walk through history.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Derby Day

The annual neighborhood gathering known as the Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby took place the other day. Only in San Antonio and definitely only on The Eastside! Local artist and Dignowity Hill resident, Cruz Ortiz, came up with the idea of bringing together artists and other creative minds for a day at the races on Dignowity Hill Park. This was the fourth year that the Pushcart Derby has been held and it was bigger than last year's pachanga. In case you haven't attended this great's not exactly NASCAR but more like PUSHCAR. You see, if you want to compete in this race you have to design and build your own "pushcart, which is powered by two team members pushing the cart down the course. Oh yeah, some one has to steer. Entries are also judge on artistic and creative appearance of the pushcart with engineering pretty much kept to a minimum. My favorite entry was the Mad Cows. Nice set of horns but not very aero dynamic!
Apparently, the the team that won this year's race has also won it for the past 3 years! Might have to check what's under the hood of that cart at next year's derby, which, by the way will be held in March.

Cruz likes to say that this kind of event is "art intervention" to save the neighborhood from hungry developers and drug dealers. I haven't run into any hungry developers but I have seen some of the drug activity and the prostitution that surrounds our neighborhood. I like the notion that art can play a part in saving communities or at least that art can make us aware that we all have a part in making a community safer, better, and good. It was nice to see more folks attend the derby this year because it means that walls are beginning to come's OK to come to the Eastside...the people here are good. The derby also helps build a sense of pride and hope for the residents of Dignowity Hill and the Eastside. In spite of all the challenges, it can only get better! See you in March 2009!

Friday, June 27, 2008

An Old Bridge

There's an old bridge in our neighborhood. Looking down Hays Street from Dignowity Hill one can glimpse at the trusses of iron of the old Hays Street Bridge. If you're into bridge engineering and history, the bridge is actually two different iron truss bridges linked together, a “whipple” and a “phoenix” style trusses. Records of the Phoenix Bridge Company show that the Whipple truss dates from 1881 and was reconstructed from one or more salvaged spans over the Nueces River west of San Antonio. Sometime between 1908 and 1910 the bridge was moved and reconstructed as a viaduct over the railroad tracks to allow residents of the Eastside to cross over the railroad tracks safely into downtown San Antonio. As a kid growing up in San Antonio I remember riding across the old bridge in Pop's '55 Chevy station wagon. Time and neglect took their toll on the old bridge and in 1982 the bridge was permanently barricaded and closed to vehicular traffic. In 1983 the city came up with a plan to replace the structure with another bridge, fortunately for the bridge and us, the plan fell through. In the late 1990's Nettie Hinton, a long time Dignowity Hill resident, circulated a petition to help save the old Bridge from being dismantled. The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group has worked diligently to help save the old bridge and find funding for the project.

Today the old bridge proudly stands ready for its next life as a restored link between downtown and the Eastside. In 2001 $2.89 million federal funds were committed to rehabilitate the bridge as part of a hike and bike trail and restore the bridge as a key link to our neighborhood and downtown. In late 2007 the city and Union Pacific reached an agreement allowing the city to take control of the historic bidge. Well, here we are July 2008 and the old bridge still sits waiting, waiting and waiting for restoration to begin. What's the hold up? I'm sure there are legitimate reasons why this project hasn't moved but come on.....lets get serious. With all the hotel and condo construction going on a few blocks south of the bridge as well as increased revitalization activity in the Dignowity Hill area, I think its time that this project show some visible life. So if anyone in charge of this project should read this posting please shoot me an email or post a comment it would be nice to hear from you. I really would like be able to walk or ride my bike across the restored old bridge in my lifetime.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Our Front Porch

We live on a corner lot and because of our location we are literally at a crossroads of neighborhood life. Across street from our house is Bowden Elementary School. Kitty corner from us is the Ella Austin Community Center which has been serving Eastside neighborhoods for over 100 years. A block away is Childress Memorial Church. A plaque on the building tells us it was built in 1908 by a Baptist congregation. The current congregation provides a wonderful community anchor. From our front porch we have a wrap-around view of community life. We can sit on our front porch and see all three of these community service and gathering places. On Sunday mornings and often times during the week we can sit on our front porch and listen to the lively spirit filled worship services coming from the church. During the school year we can view and listen to the daily start of school day activity....the sounds of children talking and laughing, the school guard whistle, the school horn signaling the start of classes or recess. The community center is busy all day with their activities....there are always people and cars coming and going.

Our front porch perch gives us great front row seats to what goes on in our corner of the world. However, lest you think that sitting on our front porch is this romatic experience of a by gone era, the reality is that from our porch we also see the gritty side of life in our neighborhood. Which is not a bad's good to have a balanced view of the world. Keeps you grounded. For us, seeing the needs and challenges of this old neighborhood has produced this interesting motivation to make this place better. We have been inspired by many of the long time residents such as Nettie Hinton, Betty and Diane Green, Hector Gonzalez, Evelyn Brown and others who love and believe in this community passionately....and I do mean passionately! They are always lifting up our neighborhood to the powers that be to bring recognition and improving the quality of life. Come to one of our nieghborhood association meetings and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about!
The point of this little ramble is that if you want to change the world you need to act, you need to raise your voice, you need to get involved, you need to hang out out with people who have courage and vision. And.... it helps to have a front porch.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Changing Times

From the top of Dignowity Park looking west you can see just about all of downtown San Antonio. Our neigborhood is so close to the city that we can walk into town in less than 20 minutes. Within walking distance of our house, a downtown transformation is occurring. Streets are being fixed up, new lighting has been installed and a general clean up of the Eastside has begun to take place. All in an efort to attract more tourist to the area....which is a good thing. To the northeast of our neighborhood and less than a 10 minute drive is Ft. Sam Houston, an Army post with a long and colorful history with San Antonio. The post is undergoing a huge transformation as it readies for the arrival of close to 12,000 military and civilian staff that are being moved to Ft. Sam beginning in 2009 as part of the BRAC 2005 realignment. Since the military is not buiding any new housing for these folks many of them will be looking for affordable housing outside of the post. Our neighborhood is surrounded by ongoing change and transformation. The big question for me and my neighbors is how will our neighborhood be impacted by all of this change and impending transformation? Will newcomers to San Antonio look to Dignowity Hill as a place to live? Will it change the character of the neigborhood? Is this good or bad? Will gentrification take over and force some of our residents out? So many unanswered questions. One thing I believe is that no matter how this change will affect us we must begin to collectively take ownership of the way we think about ourselves and our neighborhood. Good or bad, image is everything and what we present to the world makes a lasting impression. For example, when my wife and I go for our walks around the neighborhood I'm dismayed by the litter and trash that we often see in the streets and in some of my neighbors yards. Before anyone thinks about moving into our neighborhood we must begin to be good stewards of what we own and where we live. Ok, I really don't to want to be preaching here but think about it this way: if we don't care enough to keep our streets and yards clean then why would anyone care enough to consider our neighborhood as a place to visit or move to and live?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Two Daughters

My wife and I have two grown daughters, Monica and Jennifer. They grew up as sisters but not in the traditional sense. You see, we're a blended family, which all that means is that our kids are from previous marriages. Both girls grew up visiting their dads and living with their moms and step dads. We somehow managed to get through the challenges that comes with visitation, step-parents and getting kids launched into the real world. They both graduated from college and have done well since then. It's easy for a father to be proud of their kids and I'm certainly no exception. Both of the girls are successful in their own right and from what I've seen so far, they have figured out that service to others is what matters. One daughter is an elementary school teacher, she's married and has blessed us with a beautiful grand daughter. The other daughter is a police officer and still looking for the right guy. I worry about both of them as most parents do but mostly I have faith in them that they will figure out whatever challenges that may come their way. For the most part, I'm in awe of them at what they've accomplished and how they touch other people's lives by their work, their independence and their dedication to making the world a better place. I often wonder how we managed to produce such good and interesting kids. My hope and wish for both of them is that they continue to grow by taking some risks, always looking to better themselves and the world around them. Be strong, have faith and be safe.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Good and Ugly Deeds

There is a gentleman that roams our neigborhood who apparenty has no home. I see him just about every day carrying a back pack with presumably with all his possesions. He walks by our house sometimes talking to himself, other times just walking with his head down, focused on whatever plans he may have for the day or night. I'm not sure where he sleeps at night, he just seems to melt away into the evening and he reappears the next day. I suspect that he has some mental issues going on because besides hearing him talk to himself, there are times when I hear him either crying or laughing out loud. According to stats collected by the city in 2007, about 17% of the homeless are severly mentally ill. San Antonio, like most major cities in the U.S., has a substantial homeless population and most of them tend to "live" in and around downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Over 2200 people in San Antonio were counted as homeless in 2007. And some of these folks wind up in our neighborhood. There are several ministries that care, feed and tend to these people in and around our neighborhood. Nothing wrong with that, all religions say we should minister to the poor and less fortunate. Even if you don't profess any religious beliefs your compassion for these folks will come through....most of the time. As I said, some of these well intentioned ministries have found their way to our neighborhood parks where every Saturday morning they feed a large group of homeless people. Which brings me to the point of this little ramble. Like most people, I have nothing against feeding the poor and homeless but if the well intentioned people that come into my neighborhood to do their good deeds would be just clean up after themselves, me and my neighbors would not get so irritated with them. You see, after each feeding session these nice folks who, by the way don't live in the community, leave their trash in the park to be pick over by dogs, cats and sometimes people. The trash sits there over the weekend not be picked up until Monday or Tuesday. Not good and not very christian either to trash some else's park and neigborhood.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dignowity Hill, Part 2

The neighborhood has a feel of oldness, new beginnings along with some pretty rough edges. Make no mistake; this is an inner city neighborhood with some quality of life issues such as vacant houses, absentee landlords, and some interesting activity such as prostitution, drugs and the homeless…..But we are in the beginning stages of renewal.....and I think it will happen sooner than we realize.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dignowity Hill, Part 1

For those who like history: Dignowity Hill is designated and recognized as a historical district and it certainly deserves that distinction. The area was first settled in the early 1850’s by a Czech physician named Michael Dignowity. He and his wife Amanda bought about 27 acres on a hill overlooking San Antonio from the east side of town. He sold estate size lots to his wealthy friends and the area became the first exclusive upper middle class neighborhood of San Antonio with its own water system. He built his home on this hill and called his estate Harmony House. Dr. Dignowity soon had a well established medical practice and became well known in the area for his anti-slavery views. So well known in fact that he was almost hanged for his views and had to flee San Antonio during the Civil War. He returned in 1869 to find most of his property had been taken from him. Dr. Dignowity died in 1875 in Harmony House and is buried in the family cemetery not far from Dignowity Hill. In 1877 Southern Pacific laid tracks which skirted the Hill on the north and west. As the trains became larger and noisier and more tracks were laid, substandard housing along with other industry began settling around the neighborhood. By 1900 this industrial belt began to change the face of the neighborhood. The original families either moved away or died. By the 1930’s many of the original houses were gone. Dr. Dignowity’s home, Harmony House, eventually was torn down and his property was converted to a park. Through the 1940 and 50's the neighborhood tried to retain some its character and some of the big homes built in the early 1900's have survived till today.

For most of its early history the Hill was exclusively made up of white property owners. When I was researching the history of our house I came across a covenant signed in 1947 by many of the white property owners that created restrictions “not to sell or lease to anyone of the black race for 21 years”. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled to end racial deed restrictions that began allowing non-white residents to move into Dignowity Hill. I suspect that this practice of discrimination continued for many years after that decision. Through the last 50 years the neighborhood continued to experience some decline as houses were abandoned or burnt down, drugs and prostitution moved into some parts of the area. But something interesting has happened in the last 4 or 5 years. Dignowity Hill has been "re-discovered". Because Dignowity Hill is so close to downtown and has relatively good housing stock, adventuresome investors have begun buying, restoring and in many cases moving into the neighborhood. All this activity has been good for the most part. The biggest fear among long time residents is the gentrification that may follow and change the character of the neighborhood. I hope not....but it's one of those double edge kind of things. We can't move forward unless there is investment in the neighborhood yet some of us want to see the neighborhood retain some of its character. I guess we'll all have to wait and see how this turns out.