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Mexican-American Preservationists Are Saving San Antonio’s Urban Fabric

On a recent Wednesday, more than a dozen members of the Westside Preservation Alliance, a San Antonio-based community group, sat around a long wooden table in the main hall of the Casa de Cuentos, a one-story Folk Victorian house on the eastern rim of the city’s Westside. They were historians, activists, recent college graduates and neighbors. They talked about growing up on the Westside, their memories crafted decades ago amid the crumbling casitas and abandoned taco shops that populate this neighborhood.

They also talked strategy. At issue: a push by the San Antonio Housing Authority to demolish part of the Alazan-Apache Courts, which is one of the city’s first public housing developments and opened in 1941 as segregation-era housing for Mexican-Americans. Home to 1,055 low-income families, the chronically underserviced landmark is in line for a federal grant that would transform it into a mixed-income community, but not necessarily preserve its historic architecture.

A decade ago, the local landmark would have faced little chance of survival. But after years of grassroots activism led by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the preservationists who went on to form the WPA in 2009, the city is starting to use historic preservation as a tool to help revitalize neighborhoods. The community-led WPA has worked with San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation in recent years to designate more than 60 buildings on the Westside as historic properties.

“At issue is the notion that redevelopment is good for the community and it’s a notion of progress,” says historian Antonia Castañeda, a retired professor who led the WPA meeting. “But the idea in San Antonio has been you get rid of old, dilapidated structures that ‘blight’ the community, rather than repurpose or actually redevelop them for reuse.”

San Antonio’s inner Westside has the highest poverty rate not only in the city proper but also of all 78 ZIP codes that make up Bexar County, Texas. Drug use is rampant, needles hide in untended patches of grass, and old pharmacies and tiendas once owned by Mexican-American families in the 1950s sit boarded up along the sidewalk-less streets, their faces caved in by time. Yet it’s also an enclave of unfussy charm, enriched with shotgun houses built by Westside residents in the ’40s, more than 50 colorful murals, herbolarías, panaderías and national Hispanic icons like the Guadalupe Theater.

Cultural geographer Daniel Arreola calls San Antonio the “Mexican-American Cultural Capital” of the United States. But the Westside alone, where 95 percent of the population is Hispanic, stands as a rare condensate of history, unseen elsewhere in the city or in other Chicano epicenters like Los Angeles or east Austin.

Motorcyclists speed past La Popular bakery on the Westside.

The past few decades have seen much of that history erased. A building assessment submitted by a nonprofit to the city in 1986 highlighted 71 buildings around the Villa Guadalupe neighborhood, a row of residential blocks on the Westside that predates the U.S. Constitution, as historic icons. Today, only 20 of those are still standing. Another nearby Westside district, home to 143 buildings in 1952, now hosts only 12 of the original structures.

Historic designations are intended to shield centuries of character built into these barrios just a bridge away from downtown, at a time when the city is redeveloping faster than it has in decades. Part of that growth is driven by a recent UNESCO World Heritage designation of another local Hispanic landmark, the San Antonio Missions.

San Antonio was already among the nation’s fastest-growing cities when the 2015 UNESCO designation raised the city’s international profile, putting it on the map for tourists and the developers that cater to them. As investors began snapping up properties in the working-class, Mexican Southside neighborhoods adjacent to the Missions, local officials started to recognize that to truly maintain the city’s historic flavor, preservation had to go beyond buildings. They began to listen to local groups like Esperanza and the WPA.

“Part of the value of the UNESCO World Heritage designation includes the ‘intangible heritage’ of people. It’s not the restaurant, it’s the chef,” says William Dupont, director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at University of Texas at San Antonio. “So as the city is looking at that, they’re concurrently taking a look at all of their policies citywide, [recognizing] displacement of the people can now cause loss of economic potential.”

Preserving Culture and Buildings

San Antonio isn’t the only U.S. city weighing how to preserve its Hispanic, immigrant-built culture in the face of new economic pressures. Confronting development threats brought on by millions of annual tourists, Miami’s Little Havana was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S. in 2015 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There too, local officials are working with community advocates to protect cultural landmarks and the residents who have long maintained them.

This week, preservation experts will gather in San Antonio to take on some of these questions during a three-day Living Heritage Symposium hosted by the city’s Office of Historic Preservation as part of the 2017 San Antonio World Heritage Festival. Cultural and preservation officers from cities like San Francisco and Istanbul will share best practices on how to maintain the cultural heritage that makes San Antonio historic in ways far beyond the legacy of the Alamo.

“We’ve figured out how to deal with structures that are architecturally significant,” says Claudia Guerra, a San Antonio resident whose family hails from the Westside. In 2014, she was hired by the Office of Historic Preservation as a cultural historian. She solicits community feedback to mold the city’s definition of “historic” into one that’s specific to San Antonio. “But it’s more difficult when you have a place whose significance comes not from the architecture but the people or the culture that’s associated with it.”

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center renovated Casa de Cuentos into a cultural center with Community Development Block Grant funds. Today, the Esperanza-owned building stands as a testament to the neighborhood revitalization benefits of preservation, says Executive Director Graciela Sánchez, a founding member of the WPA.

WPA members in front of Casa de Cuentos hold "This Place Matters" signs, connected to a National Trust for Historic Preservation campaign. (Photo by Rachel Delgado/WPA)

“It’s not just buildings — it’s a way of life,” she says. “It’s how [Mexican-Americans] interact with each other, how we talk with each other, and that’s because of the way these buildings were built.”

Beyond architecture, cultural heritage provides an economic pull for the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs. A mariachi emporium housed in a historically designated Classical Revival residence sells ballet folklorico dresses and mariachi gear to customers across the U.S. A bright yellow single-story house on El Paso Street was recently home to the MujerArtes collective, which provides stipends for low-income women, predominantly Latinas, to practice and sell pottery wares for upward of $300 apiece. They’ve hosted international buyers from Europe and Africa, and recently moved into a new adobe structure owned by Esperanza.

Public art is another draw. Across the Westside, large black-and-white “fotohistorias” of the neighborhood span fences and the pastel exteriors of single-family homes. This districtwide public art show, led by Esperanza, is the result of a yearslong process of gathering testimony and photos from Westside residents whose families trace their lineages back hundreds of years in the 72807 ZIP code. Esperanza’s daylong annual neighborhood festival, Paseo por el Westside, spotlit the exhibit this year and drew its largest crowd ever: 400 visitors.

“If the people get displaced then the heritage goes with them, and people who visit won’t have that same connection to the city,” says Dupont. “You can’t stop an economy, but perhaps you can engineer it a little bit so the local population can ride the tide, and have access to good jobs and the potential to open small businesses.”

By all indicators, that tide could be a big one. The city is anticipating an economic crescendo that would place it among the six fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan regions between now and 2040. This May, San Antonio approved its largest bond package in history, offering up $20 million for restoration and neighborhood improvement projects throughout the city. On the Eastside, an incoming $150 million modern office and mixed-use project will align with the neighborhood’s designation as a national Promise Zone, which gives the city access to federal support as it ushers in new development.

This year, San Antonio voters elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg on a platform that emphasized a fair approach to growth. His 2018 budget foregoes property tax increases and sends more city money to districts with greater economic needs in what he calls the city’s first “equity budget.” To residents like Sánchez, the mayor’s election signaled that many residents don’t want San Antonio neighborhoods like the Westside to end up like east Austin, where skyrocketing property taxes and new development are displacing historic black and Hispanic communities.

When asked about the WPA and Esperanza, Nirenberg has only positive things to say. “They do amazing work,” he told me in an interview. Days after we spoke, Nirenberg announced a new task force for affordable housing that will “directly address gentrification and displacement as a priority.” I asked him if Esperanza’s work, and the UNESCO-inspired momentum behind preservation as a cultural incubator, influenced his stance on the issue. “As the city government we can help facilitate their work, but should also be taking some cues from it,” he said.

Maintaining a Thriving Tejano Culture

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s move into preservation work began with a campaign to save La Gloria, a 1920s dance hall and gas station on the Westside in 2002. The owner ultimately demolished the neighborhood landmark after the city failed to advocate for its preservation. It was replaced by a diesel station run by Valero Energy. “Nothing that improved the neighborhood at all,” says Sánchez.

Since then, Esperanza and the WPA have helped embed preservation into the city’s public conscience. To do that, they’ve spent countless hours organizing neighborhood rallies, working with national groups like the National Trust and keeping residents abreast of City Council issues. After years of fighting to save Lerma’s Nite Club, one of the oldest conjunto music halls in the country, from callous redevelopment, the community-based group won a $500,000 contract from the city in 2016 to begin renovating the property for reuse.

Lerma’s was celebrated as a success amid a history peppered with losses. In 2013, after the city allowed developers to demolish the United States’ first Spanish-speaking television station against the recommendations of the WPA and allies at the Trust, WPA members critiqued local government as having a “long way to go to fully appreciate, protect, and preserve the history, culture, and structures of Mexican-American communities.”

But the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, the WPA, and City Council members like Shirley Gonzalez and Roberto Treviño, whose districts merge on the Westside, are starting to overlap in their interest to maintain the region’s identity while also keeping property taxes affordable for working-class homeowners. Just a year after demolishing the Spanish TV station, nine out of 10 City Council members backed a rezoning resolution that opened up 25 properties in the Westside to historic designation.

“With a city that has a population of 55 percent Latino, preservation is almost inevitable,” says Richard Martinez, a retired public housing officer who was once COO of the San Antonio Housing Authority. “Fifty-five percent of the population isn’t going to let their history and culture die.”

“The key is, do you have the elected officials and the appointed officials who are willing to support the effort to preserve that cultural identity and that cultural heritage? In San Antonio, I think we’re there,” he adds.

City Council’s Treviño is seen by some local activists as a partner in preservation; he fought to change the city’s definition of “dangerous building” because the original criteria endangered decades-old properties suffering from disinvestment.

“The most affordable housing is the one people are in now, and we want to protect that,” says Treviño. “A lot of folks feel these areas are becoming more and more desirable for people to come and live in, so there’s pressure from developers to demolish homes so they can rebuild something in their places. The minute those houses get passed down to their children, it becomes almost an immediate burden because valuation is now at a full taxation rate, so people are then forced to move out of the area.” To start combatting this, he’s working on a council resolution that could sanction land trusts in the Westside to prevent property taxes from rising on plots of land.

The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation wants to increase the number of “historic districts” on the Westside. Director Shanon Shea Miller says that, with property tax policies led by the city, these designations could help sustain character while also creating economic opportunity.

According to her office’s research, neighborhoods with high numbers of historic designations are characterized by ethnic and economic diversity that closely parallel the city’s total demographic. Sixty-three percent of San Antonio residents, and 60 percent of the population living in historic districts, are Hispanic. Whereas 6.9 percent of San Antonio identifies as black, 6.8 percent of the city’s population living in historic districts are black.

When you compare the income distribution of historic neighborhoods with the income distribution throughout San Antonio, the trends align. Part of that is because in San Antonio, houses that receive historic designation have their pre-designation property tax rates frozen for the following 10 years if homeowners invest in rehabilitating the structure — a medium-term approach to slowing tax hikes if nearby real estate markets turn hot.

“What we hope is that historic preservation and heritage can be a tool to deal with issues of displacement and gentrification, and not a cause,” says Miller. “The reality is our older historic districts are diverse, and dynamic, and they provide the things that make for a neighborhood people can live their whole lives in.”

Earlier this month, Castañeda and Sánchez, along with representatives of other Westside groups, were invited to a meeting about the area’s rezoning helmed by the San Antonio Department of City & Regional Planning. Chris Ryerson, a planning administrator overseeing the Westside, worked with the two Westside preservationists beforehand to make sure district maps were accurate. With concerns about cultural heritage and displacement thick in the air, the city has made the rezoning of the neighborhood a priority.

It’s the type of city coordination that Sánchez says was never there before. “I’m here because I never get invited to these things,” she joked, when asked to introduce herself in front of her peers.

Ryerson and his colleagues told the group, which included more than 20 Westside residents, that the zoning changes being ushered in will “not concentrate on growth, but rather focus on culture and community.”

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and its mural are Westside landmarks.

“We’ve heard about gentrification concerns from the beginning of our outreach over the past four months,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to stop the market, but we’ll be finding ways the community as a whole can help educate residents, business owners, property owners, about the value of their property, how to leverage its value, and how to use that to be able to stay in place and support different generations of their family.”

A visit to the two-room house of Janie Delgado, 102 years old, typifies how that transition could occur. We sat at the table in her 70-year-old building drinking cans of orange Fanta, moments before a half dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren came in her front door with takeaway bags of tacos purchased nearby.

The house, which received historic designation by the OHP, was built in the 1940s by her now-deceased husband. Delgado says she’ll be passing it on to one of her daughters, both of whom are interested in living there after she passes away. “We chose this spot because of the school, the tiendas, everything was close,” she says in Spanish. “Everything was really special.”

A Right to History and to Housing

Castañeda, who moved to San Antonio 20 years ago, says part of the WPA’s mission is to shift the old guard of thought surrounding historic preservation in the United States. When WPA members walk the streets searching for unrecognized historic gems, the Westside residents they interview hear “preservation” and think of presidential homes or national monuments. They’re not thinking of the house on the corner where someone’s tia used to cook up tortillas for the neighbor kids.

Progress has been incremental. Buildings are being saved on the Westside and resident support is adding to that momentum. East of the neighborhood, the city is working to redevelop the plaza that surrounds the Alamo, and build in more of the Mexican-American perspective.

“We are rethinking the contested histories. The history of people of color has not been a priority for the preservation movement. We need to change that,” she says.

For their campaign to designate the Alazan-Apache Courts, the WPA plans to use photos and oral testimonies to relay the story of the public housing project, which was a Mexican-only community until segregation ended in the 1960s.

A father plays with his son on the Alazan-Apache Courts playground.

The Courts merit the same recognition as Greenwich Village in New York, or writer John Steinbeck’s house in Salinas, California, they argue. To achieve that end, they’re working to get city support, and may request a landmark designation by the National Register of Historic Places, something the San Antonio Housing Authority says it is open to considering. Unknown is what that could look like if the city decides to go forward with its own plans to apply for federal dollars to tear down 501 aging units and transform the complex into a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Alazan-Apache Courts was San Antonio's first public housing community, built in 1939 as a Segregation-era development for Mexican-American families.

The Authority says all 501 units will be replaced, and current tenants are guaranteed the option of return once the project is done. But some residents fear that the exile could kick-start an outflow of the low-income families, predominantly Mexican-American, who call this community home.

“If it wasn’t for this place I’d probably be in a shelter,” says Desiree Alaniz, as she watches her 5-year-old son play with toys across the community hall. “The city could always change their minds about the residents here, and that’s what really scares me.”

Two years ago, another Hispanic region south of the city center was the epicenter of controversy when the city let a developer demolish a severely underserviced trailer park. The move displaced 300 low-income residents to make way for 600 apartment units, whose rents will start at $1,000 a month when finished in 2018.

A recent investigation by local nonprofit Vecinos de Mission Trails claims residents, despite having received payouts of $2,500 or more, are still suffering from the trauma of losing their community. Payout or not, the WPA and its allies think renovating the Alazan-Apache Courts would spur a major disruption of residents, some of whom have lived in the Courts for decades. The intangible culture would be broken.

“The Courts are still in high use, and there’s a wait to get in,” says Castañeda. “That’s why we’re fighting to preserve it.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.