“The only way I’d want to move is if we could take all our neighbors with us.”
I didn’t say that, but my mother said it one day when a possible route for Interstate Highway 37 threatened to force my parents to sell our home. As it turned out, the expressway route missed us by one block. (Most of the neighborhood is tucked just south of IH 10 and east of IH 37, split almost evenly by South New Braunfels Avenue.)
Mom had lived in a number of houses as a child and young adult. After she married Dad in 1949 and they moved into Highland Park, she planned never to move again. I, on the other hand, had different ideas when I was attending Trinity University as a junior. I would move to Alamo Heights, teach at the junior high school, and contribute stories to the North San Antonio Times.
My life took an unexpected turn when Mom died unexpectedly. The attention our neighbors paid to me, Dad, and Mom’s mother made me realize how lucky I was to live in Highland Park. After my grandmother moved into a nursing home and Dad remarried two years later, he generously left me with the house. I expected I would live elsewhere and this was the house I would return to on visits, but now it was mine. I never planned to keep the house indefinitely, but I never had a good enough reason to move elsewhere – at least not for long.
To be sure, Highland Park was a great place to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s. We knew all the neighbors on two blocks of our street, and half the neighbors on the street behind us. When I went out to play with any of the six children who lived nearby, Mom’s frequent reminder was simply, “Stay on the block.” All the neighbors kept an eye on us, and reports of our mischief or injuries often preceded us home.
It sounds like an old situation comedy, but our neighbors were like family. My parents shared a gate with one neighbor so they could access each other’s back doors. They weren’t the only ones; two other neighbor families purposely moved to adjoining houses. If we got bored, we’d simply walk up the street where we’d find someone to visit.
We didn’t lock doors or garages, and we left our bikes in the front yard or on the porch. We rarely went to a park; our backyards were full of things to climb up, swing on, jump off, and stretch our imaginations.
Of course, we could get permission to go off the block. We could walk to a corner ice house or to a little “mom and pop” store. Later, we would walk to McCreless Mall. When we were in high school, we could take the bus downtown.
As I grew older, my circle of Highland Park acquaintances grew. Having an aunt, uncle, and two cousins on the other side of Highland Park didn’t hurt. (My cousins returned to live in Highland Park, by the way.) I began attending forums and hearings in my 20s. People would ask me where I was from. At first I told them the South Side, but that wasn’t quite enough. I began telling people I was from Highland Park. If they didn’t know where that was, I would tell them, and I became pleased to tell them. I often said it was the part of the big city with a small-town atmosphere.
Things change, but some of my older neighbors were still around when I married and my wife moved in with me. A lady who lived on the corner was the first neighbor to see me after I was born; 44 years later, she was the first neighbor to see my daughter after she was born. We moved to another city for new jobs when my daughter was 3, but after an unhappy year, I accepted another job back in San Antonio, and we moved back into the old house. Sadly, other nearby neighbors have passed away since then, but we have made new friends, and one of my wife’s best friends lives right across the street.
New neighbors weren’t always friendly. We suspected gang activity in two houses on our block in the late 1990s. Young people from these houses seemed to walk constantly between the two; at night, they would walk around, as if patrolling, walking through the alleys as much as the streets and sidewalks. One or two would stand near the street with a cell phone and have quick transactions with people driving by at all hours. Graffiti and other vandalism became common. But the neighbors took action. We watched out for each other and kept each other informed, calling each other daily. We also regularly called the police and other law-enforcement agencies about every curious happening. Then, one day, both houses were empty. We could sleep in peace again. It had been a worrisome time, but the trouble brought us closer together.
Most homes in Highland Park are single-family homes. A number of them have been passed from generation to generation. There are renters, of course, but people of modest means can find excellent values here. (I know a good-condition three-bedroom house that sold for $80,000 just a few years ago.) It’s not a bad place to own a first home, but I hope people stay. We like having yards for children to play in, porches for sitting on warm evenings, and garages for almost anything. Some houses are historically unique; some houses are, well, nothing special, but they are our houses. We don’t ask for much, except for fixed-up streets, sidewalks, and drains … and to be left alone by criminal elements, greedy developers, and urban planners who think they know what is best for us. We can be very neighborly and highly independent at the same time.
My home may not be in a “preferred” neighborhood, and it may not be much to look at, but I would rather have a humble house than a $300,000 home I intend to sell before I ever pay for it. I would rather know neighbors and have neighbors know me than live in “splendid isolation.”
Maybe Highland Park isn’t unique, but it is my neighborhood.