At 7:15 a.m. on Monday morning, I drove south on South St. Mary’s Street with a hot cup of coffee from Halcyon. As I passed Subway, I remembered suddenly that we used to get our coffee there five years ago, back when it was kind of the only place around to get a decent cup.
Seattle’s Best was literally the best we could before Local Coffee and Halcyon set their sights on Southtown. Purple clad teens were making their way to Brack before dawn as I veered left to our little part of the world just before the train bridge: the old Mattress Factory.
Every now and then I meet a puro San Antonian who came to a show or two here at a DIY venue called The Red Room. I wasn’t here then, but even when I arrived in 2012 things were a lot quieter than they are now. It sometimes feels like we’re this new breed of urban pioneers, using the current abundance of resources our city offers to create alternative systems, and working to heal the damage done by the very industries that gave us this place to live.
It’s fitting that we’ve evolved to include an urban farm here at the Mattress Factory. South St. Mary’s used to be called Garden Street, after all, and this whole area around St. Mary’s and South Presa streets was all agricultural land owned and run by the Missions in the early 1800s. How time changes.
The Factory is architecturally reminiscent of the first wave of commercial buildings that lined the Mission Reach trail and the King William and Lavaca neighborhoods. The year 1928 is carved into the brick alongside the fading but visible “A. Grona” and “Serta” signs.
Are there still remnants on site of whatever toxic stuff they used to make mattresses with here? Probably. We live right on the train tracks anyway so we’re regularly exposed to whatever industrial dust comes blowing our way. Our first soil tests found a big lead spill where we broke ground for our early garden beds – nothing a big hole and four years of remediation can’t fix.
Interestingly, we learned that we’re still in touch with the Gronas. Moore’s Feed & Seed Store on South Flores, where we get our livestock feed, is run by a family directly related to them. I wonder what old Mr. Grona would think about what we’ve done with the place.
Trains used to mercilessly blow their horns what felt like one hundred times throughout the day and night. It was common etiquette for residents to pause their conversations when this occurred and resume without explanation instead of attempting to yell over the trains. It was also common for the only resident with a TV to keep the subtitles on so that when we all gathered around to watch a program, we wouldn’t miss anything when the train came blasting by.
The area has since become a quiet zone, made official with the blocking off of South St. Mary’s as a through street. We now contentedly sit at a dead end, although the railroad recently put up a fence to prevent people from crossing the tracks. At least it gave our goats a safe new place to pasture.
We’re a seemingly ragtag bunch that resides at the Factory. It’s a unique complex of two buildings and only seven living units. We’re an outrageous mix of Fight Club, Andy Warhol’s Factory People, Mad Max, and The Secret Garden. Many of our residents are fascinating locals and prolific artists, and it gives the place a feeling of becoming.
Access to the farm space is a special perk of living here. It’s like having an on-call therapist or a tropical getaway on site. It sometimes feels like a million miles from the city when it’s just a short walk to downtown. Residents enjoy wandering the rows of flowers, herbs, trees, and veggies that are often swarming and alive with beautiful bees and butterflies. They seasonally have access to fresh fruits and veggies through our community-supported agriculture. Sometimes we’ll just sit out and watch the chickens peck and the ducks swim, or we appease the goats with snuggles.
It’s a beautiful and powerful thing to have access to this kind of nature in the urban core, and it’s drawn people from all over the city who want to come and learn more about how to bring many of the skills we practice into their lives. My husband, Skeets Rapier, and I own the place. We run our business, The Renewable Republic, from the Factory. We’re solar electric contractors but also run the farm and hold events like Urban Farm Camp for kids and adults. The place is dynamic, to say the least. There’s always something going on, even if it’s just a few folks sitting around together outside enjoying some cold ones.
Probably my favorite place on site is the roof of the north building. There, sitting among almost 100 solar panels and a growing rooftop garden is a gorgeous view of the Mission Reach, the Lone Star complex, and downtown. The sunsets are amazing and you can see firework shows in panorama view. It’s common to find people hanging out up there – it’s just a peaceful little escape.
But most of all, up on the roof, just above the view from the ground, I can daydream about San Antonio becoming a macrocosm of our little project here at the Factory – a model for cooperation and community care with a focus on production rather than consumption and working together towards a radical re-localization of food, energy, and culture.
Our mission is resiliency, and everyday we’re understanding why that mission is ever more crucial.