An image by Mariangel Castaneda shows the reflection of an old home in the window of a new development.
An image by Mariangel Castaneda shows the reflection of an old home in the window of a new development. Credit: Courtesy / Mariangel Castaneda

Gentrification can be a highly charged word in San Antonio, with neighborhoods around downtown experiencing recent rapid changes in home values and plentiful new construction. As the city’s population increases annually, newcomers move in, and longtime residents of neighborhoods move out.

The issue might seem too complicated for fifth- and sixth-grade students to tackle, but Booker T. Washington Elementary School teacher Francisco Cortes thought otherwise. A one-night pop-up exhibition of student photography titled We Live Here took place Monday evening at Brick in the Blue Star Arts Complex, featuring 41 photographs by a dozen students.

The photographs document changes in the East Lawn neighborhood where the students live. Many feature obvious signs of gentrification, such as real estate signs on newly constructed homes, and dumpsters on the lots of homes undergoing renovation. Others show new, modern construction that looks out of place next to smiling families on the porches of their pleasantly decorated, modest older homes.

For a brief period, the title of the show no longer applied to the family of sixth grader Sophia Rodriguez. Due to rising rents, Rodriguez and her parents had to move to nearby Kirby, following the path of many displaced East Lawn residents.

“Generations of my family have been on the East side,” Rodriguez said. “The fact that we had to move because of other people’s problems is not right.”

The family was lucky, she said, and was able to move back to East Lawn to live with her grandparents. Others are not so fortunate, she acknowledged. Rodriguez is represented in the show by several photographs, including a portrait of East Lawn resident Kimberly Jackson with her young son in front of their modest one-story home. A new angular modern-construction home looms next door, over a newly-built wooden fence between the two homes.

Rodriguez’s portrait is juxtaposed with a shot from her classmate, Mariangel Castaneda, of the jarring new building.

“Building new houses is a good thing,” Castaneda said, “but the fact that they’re making them way too overpriced for the type of people that live in this neighborhood isn’t right, because it’s not helping for people to stay here.”

We Live Here is the fourth in a series of annual projects for the photography club. The 2018 project dealt with another thorny subject, mass incarceration. While adults and governments argue over solutions to complicated societal problems, “these are all issues that the students deal with personally,” Cortes emphasized, and are agreed upon through discussion among club members.

Though the effects of gentrification can seem subtle — even favorable — to outsiders, those who live in affected neighborhoods experience complex results, Cortes explained. A former student of his was the only survivor of a recent multiple shooting on a recently-cleared lot near the elementary school pictured in one of the photographs.

Francisco Cortes, director of Light Catchers Society (right), waits to introduce all the student photographers.
Francisco Cortes, director of Light Catchers Society (right), stands with students (from left) Sophia Rodriguez and Mariangel Castaneda. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The violence is one result of gentrification in the Dignowity neighborhood to the east, which pushed residents, and some persistent neighborhood problems, into East Lawn. “There’s a lot of conflict and a lot of confrontation,” he said.

In a brief announcement introducing the student photographers to a crowd of 150 gathered at Brick, Cortes said, “fortunately there are families and students that see the value in creating art and want to voice themselves.”

Christian nonprofit organization SA Heals, which has been active in the East Lawn neighborhood for five years, has supported Cortes’s efforts including the We Live Here exhibition. Pastor and organization president Charles Foltz initiated a mural project on the side of SA Heals’ community center on the corner of Arthur Street and Gevers Street, that presents the exhibition’s charged title in large black-and-white letters with a raised fist clutching a camera.

“It’s meant to say we have a voice, we want to give these kids a voice,” Foltz said. “It’s meant to be a little bit of a statement, like, ‘Hey, we’re here, this is our home.’”

Describing the issue of gentrification in East Lawn, the project led by Cortes, and the resulting exhibition, Foltz said, “We feel good about how the whole thing represents the statement that the kids made, better than we ever could have hoped to.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...