The Where I Live series aims to showcase our diverse city and region by spotlighting its many vibrant neighborhoods. Each week a local resident invites us over and lets us in on what makes their neighborhood special. Have we been to your neighborhood yet? Get in touch to share your story.
Ask me where I live, and my answer will vary. I’ll say Lavaca, Southtown or Downtown depending on how I size up your perspective.
I live south of Hemisfair, in an old house in Lavaca. The county dates my house to 1921, but I know it’s older. In the late 1800s, a Prussian immigrant named Augustus Koch traveled around Texas creating detailed birds-eye view maps. The older part of our house shows up on his 1886 San Antonio map but wasn’t there yet when he passed through in 1873.
Lavaca Historic District, originally Alamo farmlands, is one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods and was built by working-class families. The houses here reflect a wide range of styles, and what I like is that the homes are diverse, just like the people. Some of the original structures were lost to urban renewal in the ’60s and have now been replaced by modern, architecturally designed houses. Overall it’s an eclectic blend with a rich and vibrant history.
Places with a past have a lot of stories, and you can read some of them written right in the sidewalk. Local artist Anne Wallace gathered recollections from dozens of interviews and stamped them into the pavement along Lavaca streets. One stamp points out that in 1895, the writer O. Henry lived just around the corner. I like to imagine he spent time with the earlier occupants of my house and that maybe they inspired his later tales.
Lavaca is one of the neighborhoods that comprise Southtown, long a cultural art district of the city. That genesis dates back to 1986 and a canceled show slated for the San Antonio Museum of Art. Due to curatorial changes at the museum, San Antonio Contemporary, an exhibition of local artists, got the ax. But developers Hap Veltman and Bernard Lifshutz, who had recently purchased the Blue Star Ice and Cold Storage complex, stepped in and offered to convert one of their warehouses into a temporary exhibition space. It was a lot of work turning an old storage warehouse into a gallery, but everyone pitched in and Blue Star I opened that June. Now the Blue Star Arts Complex hosts many artists and exhibitions throughout the year.
One such exhibition — Chavez & Danna & Datchuk & Gilmore & Fox & Morros & Perez & Rowe — happened after a recent moment of déjà vu. The McNay Museum of Art declined art it had commissioned from one artist for the show 8 Create [SATX], resulting in most of the other participants pulling their work in solidarity. James Lifshutz, Bernard’s son, stepped in and offered space for a new show featuring all eight original artists. This show opens at the Blue Star Complex April 1.
Jennifer Stanford and I have been collecting stories from the neighborhood, recording interviews with long-timers. I’ve yet to uncover the origin of the moniker Southtown, but by the early ’90s, artist studios, shops and restaurants were abundant. The Southtown Main Street Alliance was formed, infusing some government cash into the revitalization of the area. This organization is a connecting thread in countless stories and why it was so important is that it got everyone involved in the common goal of sustaining an arts community.
Several artists teamed up for a fundraiser called Art in the Hood, which morphed into First Friday, a monthly art walk. My neighbor, mosaic artist Oscar Alvarado, tells me artists and local merchants pooled their money to make an art map, which they delivered to nearby hotels, hoping to lure in the tourists.
My husband, Rick, and I rolled into town in 2000, and by then First Friday had grown into quite a spectacle. What brought us to San Antonio was our desire to walk. We were leaving Albuquerque and wanted to live in a city we could access on foot. We were blown away when we discovered Blue Star, nestled next to the river, adjacent to historic houses someone had fought to preserve, and a short stroll from the center of the city. It was quite the scene, with so many creators making art of all kinds, and there was no knowing what you might see on a night out. (Yes, there are a lot of stories.)
A side effect of living in an active, walkable community is that we got to know a lot of people. Imbued by the creative energy, we joined in. We rented a warehouse loft, opened a bookstore in Gallista (now Freight), opened a video store called Planet of the Tapes and started showing movies outdoors on a slab in the La Tuna parking lot. We started a family, bought an old house, started showing outdoor movies wherever we can downtown and recently opened an arthouse cinema at Blue Star. If we’d landed elsewhere, most of this wouldn’t have happened.
There used to be a sign at Blue Star, dedicated to Hap Veltman and Bernard Lifshutz, that read, “You are here because they were here.” This statement has a broad application in the neighborhood. What makes Southtown unique is that so many people contributed to pushing a vision of an arts and historic district forward. Southtown is here because they were here.