Despite the fire, the 60s-era wallpaper behind the scorched wall in the kitchen is in perfect condition.
Despite the fire, the 60s-era wallpaper behind the scorched wall in the kitchen is in perfect condition. Courtesy photo.

Committed vegans for the past six years, many of us in San Antonio also know the José and Tiffany Cruz as Señor Veggie, vegan caterers and now restaurateurs in Southtown. They opened their restaurant on South Presa Street just south of South Alamo Street on Jan. 31 to an excited crowd.

Inside and out Señor Veggie. Images courtesy of Señor Veggie's Facebook page.
Inside and out Señor Veggie at 620 S. Presa St. Images courtesy of Señor Veggie’s Facebook page.

Twelve days later, they left for the restaurant as usual at 8:30 a.m. A half hour later, Tiffany returned home to pick up towels when she saw smoke billowing out of the eaves of their beloved Lavaca home. She tested the doorknob. Untouchable. Hot.

Damaged wiring in the Cruz house. Courtesy photo.
Fire-damaged wiring in the Cruz house. Photo courtesy of José Cruz.

The San Antonio Fire Department arrived within minutes, but the fire was so hot and burned so fast, it destroyed the interior of the home.

But this is not a story about a fire. This is a story about community and family –not related by blood, but by shared experiences in this neighborhood.

José is a child of Lavaca. With his brother and sister, he was raised in the 1,000 square foot, 1924 house his parents bought in 1969. He attended Bonham Elementary and tells of the neighbor across the street who always had a jar of Butterfingers ready for the neighborhood kids who visited after school.

In 2002, he returned to San Antonio where he met Tiffany, who would eventually become his wife. After looking in a few neighborhoods, they decided to rent his parents’ Lavaca home.

Like most houses in this neighborhood 10-15 years ago, it was not in great shape. Though Tiffany hesitated when she saw its condition, Jose’s enthusiasm for the “project” of the neighborhood and for his childhood home convinced her to give it a go.

This is a story many of us in the neighborhood could tell: slowly fixing up an old house. Little by little, one small project at a time, often with very little money, we attempt to restore these houses to their former glory.

In an already special community, theirs is a special street. Each month, neighbors gather at a different house for First Thursday celebrations. The Cruzes recall fondly the first First Thursday they hosted in their house. So many new neighbors were met, so many friendships were made.

A Halloween party, one of many events the Cruzes hosted in their Lavaca home. Courtesy photo.
A Halloween party, one of many events the Cruzes hosted in their Lavaca home. Photo courtesy of Kristal Cuevas.

After the fire, the neighborhood stepped in.

Neighbors offered money; some went shopping for basic toiletries, others offered food, help, and clothes. Neighborhood businesses, too, are community. Southtown Yoga Loft set up a donation collection site and is donating proceeds from its Karma Yoga classes through March to Señor Veggie.

When China Garden owner Adrian Martinez – no stranger to the challenges of opening a restaurant – heard that Señor Veggie would be open the very next day after the fire, he was impressed with their devotion to their business and their customers.

“I could relate to their efforts, but mostly, I felt this spoke of their character as individuals. I knew I’d do what I could to help,” Martinez said.

Adrian Martinez, Owner and CEO of China Garden, along with Chris Benitez, co-owner of Whipstitch present a check for $1000 to Señor Veggie owner, José Cruz and Leah Pettway Williams, Front of the House Manager. Courtesy photo.
Adrian Martinez, Owner and CEO of China Garden, along with Chris Benitez, co-owner of Whipstitch present a check for $1000 to Señor Veggie owner, José Cruz and Leah Pettway Williams, front-of-house Manager. Photo courtesy.of Adrian Martinez.

And that he did: on Feb. 18, he not only donated 30 percent of profits earned that day when a customer said “Señor Veggie,” he personally matched that amount. This tragedy also initiated an idea to bring together businesses along South Presa to form the South Presa Business Alliance. Members will support one another and work with the neighborhood association to have a positive impact on the area.

But this isn’t the only recent fire in the neighborhood.

The Revelez family: five kids, aged 15 months to 11 years, a single father, and two grandparents lived in the 1920 Lavaca house that has been in their family for 30 years.

On Jan. 19, while the grandfather, Ricardo, was out of town and the father, Luis, was at an event with his older kids, Maria Revelez was home napping with her 15-month-old grandson when the phone woke her. She smelled smoke. She called her neighbor, Gilbert Caceres, who saw flames and told her to get out of the house immediately.

Neighbors Richard and Lynda Ramirez sent out a notice of the fire through NextDoor Lavaca, an online, neighborhood-specific forum. A notice was also posted on the Bonham Academy Community page on Facebook.

Donations came pouring in: gift cards, clothes, toys, school uniforms. Maria Revelez is an employee at Lanier High School, where students pooled together money to donate to the family. Even friends and relatives of neighbors sent donations. The elder Mr. Revelez said, “It’s just amazing how God has guided so many people to help. We’re just so thankful to everyone.”

The Challenges of an Old House

In both houses, fire officials believe the fires were due to electrical problems. The Revelez fire started in the front room, and is believed to have started by an overloaded outlet, a not uncommon problem in these old houses.

José and Tiffany Cruz, owners of Señor Veggie. Photo courtesy of Hugh Donagher.
José and Tiffany Cruz, owners of Señor Veggie. Photo courtesy of Hugh Donagher.

The Cruz fire started under the house. They had installed new wiring about three years ago, but the old wiring had been left under the house. Fire officials said it was possible an opossum that had been living under the house had chewed through the old wiring which eventually ignited the fire.

The living, breathing, old house.

Those of us who live in old houses know: the houses seem to be alive. With 100 or more years of history, of families, of friends, of neighbors, those walls hold many stories. These old houses also breathe. They’re built so air flows in and out, but they also live. These houses are more than just wood and pipes, they’re keepers of our family history, of the history of the neighborhood. They have a life of their own.

Tiffany Cruz described life in the house before they opened the restaurant: lots of cooking, friendly playing with their dog, Duke, activity, life. Busy with their new business in the weeks prior, their house was left alone.

Duke was sent to the grandparents so he could get some much needed attention and they spent most of their time preparing to open the restaurant. She said, “The house was crying out for attention.” Indeed, the one thing spared inside, was a closet with art supplies and old piñatas. This is Lavaca. This is Southtown. Puro San Antonio.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

José Cruz preparing for a party in the kitchen of his now destroyed house. Courtesy photo(s).
José Cruz preparing for a party in the kitchen of his now destroyed house. Photo courtesy of Kristal Cuevas.

The Revelez family lost much of the contents of their home. Fortunately they had a good insurance policy which has allowed them to rent a home while theirs is rebuilt.

Luis Revelez, the father of five, said to KSAT-TV the night it happened, he felt lucky: Lucky his family survived, all were safe, and they have friends and neighbors and family to help. Had the phone not rung, his mother and infant son may not have awakened.

The Cruzes lost nearly everything in their house, including the book collection José had been building since he was a child and the memories that each book held. They lost the art collection they’d slowly acquired over the years and the feelings each piece evoked when they saw it.

Despite this, José said, “This is our chance to do it right. We’re going to restore this house as it should have been. We’ll give it the love it deserves.” The Revelez family are looking forward to returning to their home, and to their neighborhood of 30 years, more a part of their lives now than ever.

Both families are wondering how they could possibly thank all those who offered help in their time of need. No thanks is needed, as we all know they would do the same in a heartbeat. They both have also provided us with a reminder: check our wiring, review that it’s up to code, avoid overloading circuits, and give these old houses the love they need. They may stand another 100 years, with generations of families to share this community.

*Featured/top image: Despite the fire, the 60s-era wallpaper behind the Cruz family’s scorched wall in the kitchen is in perfect condition. Photo courtesy of José Cruz.

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Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

Cherise Rohr-Allegrini is an infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant. She is currently the San Antonio Program Director for The Immunization Partnership. Dr. Rohr-Allegrini was the Pandemic Flu...