Juan Valdez (right) and his wife Rachel Mialkowski walk in front of their house in University Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

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.

After spending some time in South Bend, Indiana working on my Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, a research grant from the National Science Foundation to begin my dissertation field work gave me and my wife a chance to move back to San Antonio. 

Having experienced miserable winters in the Midwest, we had a newfound appreciation for San Antonio, its food, people, and culture. We leased an apartment by Highway 281 and Loop 1604, but we quickly regretted how far it was from everything that we knew. We also realized that apartment living was just not for us, as we were accustomed to renting an entire house for ourselves back at Notre Dame. As our lease was coming to an end we began browsing Zillow for fun to look at dream houses that were way outside our budget. 

Eventually, we got serious and began refining the results to search for houses that were affordable to us — and in geographic locations that we were actually familiar with. That’s when we came across a blue house down the street from St. Mary’s University, where my wife and I met and got married. The house, located in the University Park neighborhood, was perfect for us.

St. Mary’s University is visible at the end of St. Mary’s Gateway District. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Our house, like most of the houses in the neighborhood, was built in the late 1940s. Despite their age, the houses in the neighborhood have remained relatively well preserved. They are in the minimal traditional style and were built to be small, affordable, and functional homes. Nearly 80 years after they were built, they have remained true to form. This housing style predates the more popular ranch-style homes that boomed in the 1950s, but they still retain just as much character. 

Affordability was one of the primary factors that contributed to our decision to purchase our home. Its location and well preserved utilitarian features were the other factors. In typical millennial fashion, we wanted a house in a location that exemplified the value of choice. Namely speaking, we wanted proximity to downtown life while also wanting some of the more tranquil features associated with suburban life. 

The location turned out to be perfect. My wife and I both enjoy a 13-minute commute to work without needing to drive on a highway. Outside our doorstep is a convenient VIA stop that connects us directly to downtown. It is the only shaded bus stop in the city that was built to be consistent with the architectural style of St. Mary’s University. 

The St. Mary’s Gateway District has a unique VIA bus stop with architecture that mirrors that of St. Mary’s University. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The neighborhood connects directly to Woodlawn Lake by way of Cincinnati Avenue. For exercise and recreation, we like to go on evening walks, either on campus or at Woodlawn Lake. Most recently our neighborhood participated in a shared street initiative, where Cincinnati Avenue was closed off to through traffic to encourage neighbors to take ownership of the street and to provide an additional protected space for recreation. The shared street project provided an opportunity to meet neighbors across neighborhood boundaries, and it has sparked a conversation among neighbors about redesigning our neighborhood streets to be more pedestrian-focused. 

Our portion of the neighborhood is lined with beautiful French style lighting posts, which I think pay homage to the French origins of the Society of Mary, the order that founded the University. The neighborhood and the university have long enjoyed a close working relationship. The lighting fixtures, for example, were a result of a five-year strategic plan initiated in 2007 by St. Mary’s University. 

The light structures are unique to the St. Mary’s Gateway District. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The strategic plan sought to revitalize the neighborhood by building affordable housing and leveraging federal and local funds to preserve existing housing stock and to address longstanding infrastructure issues. In 2010, the neighborhood became known as a St. Mary’s Gateway District neighborhood. Various improvements were made, including adding bike lanes to Cincinnati Avenue and installing new “St. Mary’s Gateway District” street signs at several intersections, including Culebra and 36th Street, and Bandera and Woodlawn. Marquee signs were also placed at Camino Santa Maria and Woodlawn, as well as Cincinnati and Tulane at newly created neighborhood microparks. 

The improvements initiated in the early 2010s brought much-needed investment back into the neighborhood. The strategic plan envisioned by Charles Cotrell in 2007 was a forward-thinking one. The plan managed to leverage funding from a variety of resources to preserve and rehabilitate portions of the neighborhood. There remains much work to be done, but these types of partnerships should serve as a model for neighborhoods and community stakeholders seeking to improve and protect their neighborhoods. 

As for our neighborhood, we like to think that we live in the most unique neighborhood in the city. We are blessed to have easy access to public transportation, to live near a historic university, and to be just minutes away from a beautiful park and lake. We feel connected to all of San Antonio’s cultural offerings, and not too far away from the spaces that matter to us. Sure, it’s a small house, but it’s been a dream thus far. 

Juan Valdez is an avid proponent of social capital and civic engagement. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and serves as a Senior Policy Advisor at Mayor Ron Nirenberg's Office.