Most activities at the 64th annual International Downtown Association conference in San Antonio this week focused on transforming and enhancing central business districts in cities worldwide.
But one event during the conference, which was co-hosted by Centro San Antonio, the city’s nonprofit downtown advocacy group, gave attendees a glimpse into two long-established Southside neighborhoods fighting against the odds to achieve revival.
On a two-hour bus tour arranged by the Urban Future Lab at the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, more than 20 conference attendees visited parts of the Mission San José and Quintana Road communities.
Urban Future Lab is collaborating with the Southside First Economic Development Council, local tech startup Cityflag, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation on a community-driven pilot project aimed at developing tools and strategies to invigorate residents, businesses, properties, and schools in the two Southside neighborhoods.
Antonio Petrov, Urban Future Lab director, and Andrew Anguiano, former Southside First executive director, spoke to attendees while the bus traversed major corridors such as South Presa Street and Quintana Road, but also side streets. They passed Mission San José and Port San Antonio – the former Kelly Air Force – among other notable spots.
Anguiano said while the City does what it can to invest in infrastructure on the South Side, economic growth still remains stagnant for most businesses in neighborhoods around Mission San José and Port San Antonio.
He explained that a history of redlining and other policies supported by the City in the distant past put Southsiders at a disadvantage. The effect of those policies – inequality, mobility issues, and income segregation – linger for many residents and business owners south of U.S. Highway 90, he added.
Anguiano also said much of the South Side – economically, culturally, and socially – feels more connected to communities south of the city limits heading toward the Rio Grande Valley than to San Antonio’s North Side.
“The question is why is there such a shift when you cross [U.S. Hwy.] 90 into my community versus north of 90?” he asked.
Anguiano said it’s important to collect data on why the Mission San José and Quintana Road neighborhoods are hounded by poverty when major economic assets such as the Spanish colonial missions, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Port San Antonio exist nearby. That is why Southside First started working with Urban Future Lab.
“The data and numbers we found and were given … wouldn’t match what we saw on the ground,” Petrov added.
Unable to reconcile stark socioeconomic data from the area with a history of better economic times and assets such as the missions, Urban Future Lab began working with Southside First on a deeper study of the two Southside neighborhoods.
“We got to know neighborhood association presidents, the community itself, and then we began engaging with Mission San José and Quintana Road,” Petrov explained. “They’re really reflective of the promises and issues of inequality that we see on the South Side.”
The bus tour came to a stop at a commercial property on West Southcross Boulevard. There, attendees were treated to tamales and presented some of the data Urban Future Lab has gathered in its research of the South Side.
Participants examined a scale model of the two neighborhoods as they exist now, with a representation of current structures and roads. They also heard from two neighborhood leaders who hope the data will help them and other stakeholders map out a route toward economic revitalization.
Erica Benavides, who owns the commercial building, explained that she and her family have invested money, time, and energy in trying to fix and remake the property and grow their business.
This site was once home to Benavides’ business Don’t Forget The Music music, which hosted classes and programs for neighborhood youth and local musicians. It closed, but Benavides hopes to one day reopen there.
it was “the kind of business that gave back to the community, opened its doors, and gave people an entryway to arts and culture, which we kind of lack here on the South Side,” she said.
Theresa Ybanez, Mission San José Neighborhood Association president, said her neighborhood is struggling economically despite the attention on the World Heritage site, but added that Urban Future Lab and Southside First have helped local residents and merchants gain a new perspective.
“I’m learning so much as a leader and [about] how we need to use this data in a totally different way with leadership that makes policies in our city,” Ybanez said.
The scale models, for example, used certain colors to show a higher intensity of activity around places such as Mission San José and Port San Antonio. But that intensity drastically wanes in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Through the data, Ybanez said learned that many residents have to leave their own neighborhoods to find basic services, such as groceries, pharmacies, laundromats, and affordable physicians that accept their insurance.
Ybanez and Benavides said they look forward to further analysis of this data, more public engagement, and using both to positively benefit their neighborhoods.
“I’m hoping that all of my neighbors understand and see the impact it can have on our community,” Ybanez said.