The residents of Highland Oaks, a Bexar County community about 23 miles south of downtown San Antonio, have struggled with crime, flooding, mobility issues, and intermittent running water and electricity for nearly two decades, according to neighborhood representatives. They have a long list of demands, but roads are at the top of the list.
About a dozen members of Bexar Communities Organized-Area South (BOCAS), an umbrella organization for advocacy groups like COPS/Metro Alliance, brought the neighborhood plea for better roads to Bexar County Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday.
Members stood outside the courthouse to share stories of the 250 families living in Highland Oaks before heading inside to request the County’s help. They described their quality of life as substandard and likened the neighborhood to “border-colonias.”
Judge Nelson Wolff told residents and advocates that the County would intervene on behalf of Highland Oaks and similar neighborhoods that were dealing with quality-of-life issues.
“Needless to say, there’s been a lot of unscrupulous developers over the years and county taxpayers are having to pick up for their failures,” Wolff said.
Community activists have said the roads were built by County-approved developers who are no longer around, and the County should be held responsible. But as recently as Dec. 2015, County leadership has classified the roads as private, and therefore ineligible for public funding.
According to a County report released Tuesday, the streets in Highland Oaks are among the 270 “paper streets,” which were defined as privately owned and not accepted for County maintenance. Public Works is expected to return in two weeks with an updated assessment of the streets and future improvement options. (Click here to view the full report.)
Residents described a neighborhood where children wear plastic bags over their shoes to keep clean as they walk down Memorial Drive’s sandy road to Southside school bus stops, near Highway 281. The school buses are unable to drive through on rocky and uneven roads. Residents often miss parcels and mail because delivery trucks can’t handle the terrain.
Trips to the grocery store are an ordeal and many miss their doctor appointments, residents said. It’s not uncommon for a family to buy more than one used car a year because the uneven roads destroy vehicles and tires.
“This is really a social justice issue,” said BOCAS leader Amelia Martinez, who lives near Highland Oaks.
So why haven’t the residents successfully united for change before now?
“Many of these residents only speak Spanish, some of them are here from Mexico, and almost all of them are scared to come forward,” Martinez said. “I grew up in the inner-city (San Antonio) and I know that poor people are also the ones who pay for roads on the Northside but that isn’t right. It’s important that the people who can speak are standing up for them.”
“My daughter almost died on her way to the hospital,” said Maria Bernal, a Highland Oaks resident who only speaks Spanish. Her daughter Karely was just weeks old when she suddenly stopped breathing.
Bernal and her husband called 911, but the dispatched emergency vehicle got stuck in the sand. Medics abandoned the vehicle and rushed to the family by foot, where they were able to save the child.
“My family often helps cars that have gotten stuck on the road,” Bernal said. “I moved here because I was tired of renting, and I needed more space for my children. I didn’t even think about what it would be like. I never thought it would be like this.”
Resident Fernando Gutierrez has fought for better roads for more than a decade, and in 2007 the County agreed to pave part of Memorial Drive.
“I’ve lived in Mexico, and we had streets better than this,” Gutierrez said.
Following the Judge’s remarks, BOCAS and other supporters stepped outside the courtroom to discuss what would come next. The group described feelings of excitement, determination and nervousness. Sister Consuelo Tovar of Daughters of Charity Services told the supporters that they had gotten the public’s attention, but there is still a lot of work ahead.
Following the Judge’s remarks, BOCAS and other supporters stepped outside the courtroom to discuss what would come next. The group described feelings of excitement, determination and nervousness. Sister Consuelo Tovar, Daughters of Charity Services told the supporters that they had gotten people’s attention, but there was still a lot of work ahead.
“It depends on you, do not depend on them,” BOCAS leader Jorge Montiel told the group in Spanish.
*Top Image: A dog stands in a hole caused by years of vehicular traffic and weather. Photo by Scott Ball.