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My home and photography studio are on the border of the King William and Lavaca neighborhoods. The Southtown commercial corridor is convenient to all areas of the inner city and accessible to the expressway to anywhere.
I agree with my dogs that it is a very walkable part of town. Actually, that’s an understatement. Many of the shops and restaurants I frequent are right outside my door; no walking is required.
I was born and raised in San Antonio and grew up near Woodlawn Lake, but downtown was as familiar as my backyard. I would take a bus to St. Mary’s Grade School and, later, to Central Catholic High School. A generation later, I lived in Mahncke Park where I kept my studio and darkroom, but I had a photo art gallery in La Villita. After 5 years of going back and forth from home to La Villita, I started looking for a place to combine my home and business.
I’d been in the photography business 25 years and, back in the day, my attorney Albert McKnight used to help me with legal issues. I happened to run into him at Rosario’s in summer of 2001 and he offered to sell me a triangular two-story he owned and worked out of on South Alamo Street and South Presa Street. And my adventure began.
My older brother Gerard and I closed on the building just days before 9/11. If we had submitted our intent to purchase a week later, we probably wouldn’t have lined up the financing. Banks, realtors, and other offices were in turmoil in the days following the terrorist attack.
The neighborhood was on the verge of change. Beethoven Maennerchor and the Guenther House have been there for generations, but I think it was the renovation of the old factory and warehouses at Blue Star that gave a jump-start to the area. The other big change to the neighborhood occurred when the City knocked down Victoria Courts.
Gerard and I came into this two-story maze of rooms not knowing what to expect. We started peeling back layers with the intention of taking it apart and opening it up. Our triangle needed a lot of work to make it into the studio apartment it is today.
The first thing we had to do was make it livable. Gerard and I began tearing out walls and we saved and reused every scrap of wood that was salvageable. Today our stairwell is built of beams repurposed from the demolition.
We also had to repair the leaky roof, but it was hard to make improvements and make a living at the same time. A professional photographer has to continually seek new assignments – and the appointments are always on the subject’s timetable. Renovation of our new home was on the work-when-you-can and the pay-as-you-go approach.
Gerard and I lived in our triangle the first year, working on improvements when we had the chance. Within a year after moving in, I met my future wife Liz at Tacoland, but she lived in Houston at the time. We commuted back and forth for a while, but she didn’t want to move in until we had a full kitchen.
Dining in was low on the list of priorities for us; eateries in the neighborhood abound, and Gerard was a bologna sandwich type of guy. But Liz was right – I needed more than a microwave and a burner. We quickly installed a kitchen downstairs, and Liz and I wed in 2005.
Then another stroke of serendipity occurred. The City opened up a Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization Program office in Southtown offering loans and matching grants to businesses wanting to renovate their buildings. This urban renewal program and the Historic and Design Review Commission helped me work out the color scheme and proper exterior renovation. We got our roof, fixed the awnings, did some stucco repair, and put on a new coat of paint.
Robert Alvarado and his team at South Antonio Builders did a great job giving a facelift to the exterior of our triangle. It took two years to take the old interior out and another five years to finish out the second floor. Gerard moved in to his new upstairs bachelor pad in 2006, and Liz and I moved from downstairs into our new upstairs loft in 2007.
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For twelve years, First Friday was a unique festival of arts and entertainment on the streets of Southtown. When it was in its prime, we reveled in the colorful cast of characters that passed by our door. I had art shows the first weekend of every month.
It was a very eclectic neighborhood. The bourgeois “blue bloods” over in King William mixed with the blue-collar proletariat over at Bar America. Big families in big homes lived side by side with singles living in small apartments. It’s still a diverse neighborhood, but now we have an abundance of small retail shops and dozens of bars and cafes.
The cycle is almost complete. It’s my theory that artists will move
in to a neighborhood because of low rents. They make it hip and cool. Then the businessmen move in, re-gentrify the area, raise the rents, and the artists have to move out. Then the cycle begins somewhere else.
For me, being a San Antonio photographer, this is the perfect place to live and work. Traffic is about the same as it was 20 years ago. But buses today are quieter and cleaner, and we now have bike lanes (but we also have those annoying scooters).
I look at the old 1892 Sanborn map and see how our triangle used to come to a sharper point. Sometime in the intervening years, around 1930, someone chopped off the corner of our building and the street was widened. The 19th century map shows the acequia flowing across Presa and the streetcar rolling down Alamo Street. It must have been pretty then. It still is.
San Antonio is now on another beautification project. And it keeps getting better. I plan to live here until I retire.