Maybe stories are just data with a soul. – Brene Brown, LMSW, Researcher at University of Houston, on being labeled a “storyteller.”
On paper, Dignowity Hill has almost everything in common with other neighborhoods around the country experiencing recent renaissance. But statistics cannot tell the full story. For that, we need the storytellers, the living histories, the long-time residents who do not need to look at census data to tell you which way the neighborhood is headed.
Thirty minutes into the happy hour meeting in my living room, I’d learned more about San Antonio, global warming, and politics than I did listening to a full week of Texas Public Radio, which is saying something. My five guests, Hector Gonzalez, Sylvie Shurgot, Mrs. Betty Green, Dianne Green, and Jacinto Guevara have been in the neighborhood for a combined total of 162 years. That’s a lot of stories to tell.
Longtime residents of Dignowity Hill are pragmatic about what they call the “re-gentrification” of the area. Hector, Mrs. Green, and her daughter Dianne, remember when Dignowity Hill was an “it” neighborhood once before, not for white young professionals like me and my husband, but for middle class minority families.
“When I was a kid, this neighborhood encouraged me to be everything I could be,” Dianne Green recalls. “I want to return it to what it was… I want that kind of place for children to grow up.”
According to the research, community and neighborhood organizations seem to be the strongest ally for those who feel that they are at the losing end of gentrification. At Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association meetings, the entire neighborhood is given audience with decision-makers such as San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, City Manager Sheryl Scully, and District Two Councilwoman Ivy Taylor. Members voice their concerns to each other as well. “It acts as a control,” says Mrs. Green. It’s not a perfect system, but it keeps some agency in the hands of those most affected by changes in the neighborhood: its residents.
Hector Gonzalez reminded me that these were the folks who knocked on doors in the mid-80s to collect signatures on their petition to create a historic district within Dignowity Hill. They see change as inevitable; so you might as well make sure it’s for the better. When I posed the question: “What would be the most important thing you would like new residents to understand?” all five of my guests said the same thing:
Dianne Green gave me an attitude adjustment when I voiced my wariness of the new “Express Mart #4” going in up the street. I said I was concerned that it would cater to the more destructive elements in the neighborhood. “You can control that, you know,” Dianne said, “Just go shop there. Let them know what you want to see.” Get involved.
This was reiterated in another meeting I had with neighborhood association president Juan Garcia, Barb Garcia, Brian Dillard, and his fiancé , Francesca Caballero. We raised the issue of what it takes to thrive in a community.
Brian, who grew up in the Wheatley Courts area, is looking to return to his neighborhood and be part of the change. He remembers his parents’ position and reminds us of the importance of communication within a neighborhood, where lower income families can often feel like they are on an island with water rising on all sides. “You’ve got to know your neighbors, ” he insists, “So that way the people who are struggling are talking to the people who are not, and they can say, ‘hey, we’ve got to do something.’ And then the community can start to work.”
Our neighbor across the street rents his house. He is one of those who stand to lose if our neighborhood suddenly booms, sending rents soaring. However, when we moved in, he didn’t look at us as a threat. He said, “Did you buy that house?” We confirmed this and he said, “Good. I wanted someone to buy it so it’s not standing empty. Now we can keep an eye on each other’s houses.” And that’s what we do. We look out for each other.
Involvement is both a privilege and a mandate. For people whose recent memory includes events like Highway 281 wiping out neighborhoods and the city trying to bulldoze the Carver Center, the skepticism of outside forces is high—less toward individuals than commercial, non-profit, and state institutions. For these entities, community participation is required.
“I think it took a while for the administration at Bowden Elementary to understand what the community wants from them,” Sylvie Shurgot said, “But now they’re getting it.” She refers to the ongoing work of Barb Garcia’s Educational Leadership Committee.
Thanks to Barb’s tenacity, neighbors are now mentoring and tutoring in the school. Jacinto Guevara led an after school art club last year, Select Federal Credit Union taught financial literacy in classrooms, and many of us participated in a 2-mile fun run with the kids at the end of the school year.
Dianne Green had similar feelings about Eastside Promise Neighborhood, which is run by the United Way. “They’re catching on,” she said, referring to the level of input the community expects when changes are afoot.
If there is one concern that the longtime residents have about new homeowners, it’s their attitude. They are not opposed to restaurants that serve haute cuisine, as long as it doesn’t come with a side of disdain for the present culture. A recent article in the New York Times demonstrates the way simple fashion and design choices can become the iconography of superior attitudes and the gentrifying desire to renovate not just my home, but yours too.
In a functioning community, personal goals are only part of the mix, which can be uncomfortable for those raised in autonomous, affluent families. When Jacinto Guevara moved here from Los Angeles in the 1990’s he was shocked at how many young people wanted living situations deliberately removed from other people. “Now,” he says, “things are changing. People want to learn how to live together.”
The group in my living room did not have the slightest concern that the newcomers would get the credit for the positive changes headed this way. “This is what we’ve been working for!” Dianne said. “You’re coming here to be part of what we started.”
That’s the challenge for newcomers. When I dream dreams for our neighborhood, do they include the family across the street? Do they include the local elementary school? Do my dreams for Dignowity Hill have anything to do with the amazing culture flourishing here? Have I asked the residents about their dreams and how I can support and cheerlead them?
We have to start by knowing each other. At the end of the happy hour discussion, Jacinto headed home with two new sketches, Sylvie returned to her renovation project, and Hector and my husband Lewis hauled a giant cardboard box—debris from our own home renovation—to the community garden to be used as bed-liner. Just another evening in the neighborhood.
Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey as an International Travel Consultant. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.