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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.


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