Golden chinaberries dot the sidewalk surrounding Sylvia Brown’s Victorian-style home, snapping beneath footsteps leading to a big backyard and a matching teal-blue carriage house.
It is the place where Brown has kept watch over her corner of Dignowity Hill for 40 of her 90 years, sharing what she has with neighbors and passersby and chasing away those who don’t belong.
“When I was coming up, the neighbors helped the neighbors,” she said on a recent afternoon, two daughters by her side and her dog Precious trotting through the yard. “That’s the way I was brought up. That’s the way I tried to bring my kids up – help everybody. Because you don’t know, one day, you may need help.”
Now the woman known as Mama Brown to everyone – from the 15 children she raised in the home to all those who live nearby – needs the kind of help the people in this rapidly changing neighborhood are determined to give.
In October, after a building inspector out in the field noticed Brown’s carriage house appeared unstable and requested an inspection of the exterior, it was found to be unsafe. An order to vacate was issued along with an emergency affidavit for demolition.
The order gave Brown 96 hours (four days) to present a plan for fixing the carriage house, a historic, two-story structure that housed not only generations of memories, but also an adult son, J.R., who looks after Brown and other elderly neighbors.
According to city code, if a repair plan isn’t approved by the City’s building official within that timeframe, the process for demolition goes forward. The $5,000 estimated cost to demolish the carriage house would be paid by the homeowner.
In cases where a homeowner can’t pay, the expense becomes a lien against the property with a 10-percent interest rate to pay it back.
“That adds up pretty quick,” said Michael Long, and often leads a resident to sell or abandon the home. As Brown’s neighbor, he refused to let that happen.
Long moved to San Antonio from out of state five years ago and purchased the dilapidated Craftsman next door to Brown.
While Long was working on his house one cold winter evening, Brown sent J.R. to invite the newcomer into her house for a hot meal. “That was my first menudo,” Long said, recalling how spicy but welcoming the dish was at the time.
The shared meals kept coming, and the neighbors have become like family.
“I want to be your neighbor forever,” he said to her. “I don’t know how to do much but I know how to fix houses.”
The street they share, however, looks very different than it did when Brown and her husband first moved there from a one-bedroom apartment the family shared on the West Side. Several newer homes have been built and older homes demolished, leaving empty lots.
“We’ve seen our street become gentrified really quickly,” Long said. “The demographics of who was here seven years ago and who’s here now has completely changed. We were the first young white kids on the block and now it’s like 50 percent that way.”
Some of that change is the result of investors buying and flipping homes in the increasingly desirable East Side neighborhood. Potential buyers call Brown frequently with offers that she turns down, and neighbors suspect one of them tipped off code enforcement about the carriage house in order to make selling the property more appealing.
As the owner of a small home construction company, Long knows something about the building process and City’s minimum housing code and agrees something should be done.
“This building was going to fall over eventually,” he said. “I don’t know if it would have been within that [time] period or not. But it would have eventually, and something needed to happen.”
Over the years, as Brown’s children grew into adulthood and got married, several of them lived in the carriage house at one time or another. Karen Baker was one of them. “Whenever one of us needed someplace to stay, she and my dad were pretty good about, ‘Well, here’s a place for you to lay your head,’” Baker said.
Most recently, Brown’s son made his home in the carriage house and in his spare time helped his mother and other elderly neighbors with yard work, house repairs, and errands.
“The neighborhood is really awesome – everybody has looked out for each other,” Baker said. “I remember my mom … fixing plates for everybody up and down the street because they were older or they couldn’t get around.”
The demolition order was handed down on a Thursday and the four-day time clock would run into the weekend when City offices are closed. So on Friday, neighbor Long called engineer Chester Spaulding for an opinion on whether the carriage house could be saved.
“He came out about an hour after I called,” Long said. “And I was surprised to hear him say, ‘Oh yeah, look at this thing – it’s totally perfect up to here. We’ve just got to straighten it out down below.’”
The engineer’s letter stating the structure was repairable stopped the demolition process.
“Demolition is not something we want to do – it’s the last option,” said Ximena Copa-Wiggins, spokeswoman for the City’s Development Services Department. “We want to work with homeowners as much as we can not to get to that point where it’s unsafe for them or someone else.”
But the cost of repairs was daunting. “There’s no money,’” Long said to Spaulding. “He was like, ‘America needs this right now – neighbors helping neighbors. Let’s do this.’”
By the following Monday, Long and a crew had braced up the sagging walls of the carriage house, Long said, and by 9 a.m. that morning, the code enforcement officer was there to see that the work was done.
About two weeks later, Dodson House Moving lifted, inch by inch, the entire structure from the bare ground where it had been built in the days when that was standard practice. Now suspended about a foot off the ground, the carriage house and the two-by-four braces are ready for a new concrete foundation and first-floor walls.
That work is ongoing, and when complete the house movers will set the building into place, and “it’ll be here for another hundred years,” Long said. He expects the repairs to be finished by the end of January.
But that project will cost up to $22,000 – a price tag that Brown, who relies on Social Security to get by, can’t afford.
Long has created a GoFundMe page to solicit donations from the community and recruit hands-on volunteers to help. As of Saturday, the page had raised over $8,000. Long is donating his time as a general contractor and Spaulding also provided his services pro bono.
The response he has received from the community has led Long to believe the neighbors can create a “lifeboat” for others in the same situation. He is looking into the city’s alert system that will notify him any time a homeowner in the neighborhood receives a demolition order.
“We could zoom over there, we could check it out, and we could [determine if] this is a project that is savable, worth saving, and do the people want to save it,” he said.
Such an effort would allow more elderly residents to stay in their homes, Long said, and pass the asset down to their family members the way Brown and her husband decided to years ago. The couple was married 68 years before Leo died in 2013.
“She’s sticking with it so we’re just sticking beside her. That’s what she wants,” Baker said. “We’re trying to honor what she wants. And she doesn’t want to go anywhere.”