Just what does the “association” in neighborhood association represent? For some, it reflects like-minded people coming together to work toward the mutual goal of improving their quality of life. Neighborhoods are representative of the village, and the proverbial village is tasked not only with “raising the child,” but also for ensuring – to the best of its ability – that the requisite means exist to that end, so all village residents can prosper.

For others, neighborhood associations are responsible for honoring neighborhood history, while strengthening the existing socio-economic and societal infrastructure. This includes being actively aware of endeavors occurring in and around their community and the entire city, as they relate to home. By doing so, they call attention to the value of their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood associations are some combination of all of the above and designed to embody a time when neighbors knew and took care of each other, family by family – the “good ol’ days.” That’s the way it was. No one expected or accepted anything different.

The fact of the matter then and now is that advocacy has to be built on more than a premise and promise of change. It must include the same motivation that previously prompted communal concern: a form of love. It’s just that simple and just that complex.

If “love thy neighbor” still stands, then shouldn’t love be the basis for how neighbors care for each other? And if so, how can neighborhood associations provide a foundation for seeking healthier living conditions? Should they advocate for infrastructure improvements like better streets, sidewalks, speed bumps, an effective police presence, senior and youth services, and whatever lends itself to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Does that make neighborhood associations the communal voice? And how does that voice remain engaged and relevant?

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s administration created the National Commission on Neighborhoods. At that time neighborhoods were described as “the most tangible social unit of our urban society, outside of the family.” They declared the urban neighborhood to be “a natural resource to be conserved and revitalized.” Were they talking about the village? Yes, they were, and that idea’s relevance has endured.

In 2007, President Barack Obama wrote:

“If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools, and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.”

I recently attended a ceremony honoring the Sam Houston High School Color Guard, a group of disciplined high school students who had given up their Saturday morning to be at the event. The ceremony was hosted by the Denver Heights Neighborhood Association as a followup to their National Night Out celebration.

Local awardees included St. Philip’s College, Tony G’s Soul Food, The Lewis Funeral Home, Mrs. Kitchen’s Soul Food Restaurant and Bakery, Mr. J’s BBQCheryl Davis Family Dentistry, Mrs. Bairds Bread, Mark’s Outing, and Sweet Yams. Participants contributed time, money, and resources to a successful occasion of neighbors meeting neighbors, civic engagement, good food, music, and fun.

The breakfast ceremony took place at Tony G’s in Sunset Station. Amid a feast of eggs, bacon, pan sausage, grits, skillet potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, the celebration recognized participants for their contributions to their communities and keeping friends involved in the “goings on,” said Denver Heights Neighborhood Association President Aubry Lewis. To cultivate and further grow these relationships, each business received a one-year membership to the neighborhood association.

Rev. Paul Wilkinson of New Light Baptist Church gave an invocation, following the tradition of his grandfather, the Rev. Dr. P.S Wilkinson, who had pastored the neighborhood church for more than 30 years. In African-American communities, the church is the cornerstone on which community, faith, hope, and love are not only predicated but nurtured. The church is an institution, an asset in many neighborhoods that provides support and direction when needed.

Community members walk to the New Light Baptist Church on the city's Eastside. Photo by Scott Ball.
New Light Baptist Church.

Community leaders also attended. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, Commander of the Eastside sub-station Capt. Troy Torres, State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-120), and Attorney William “Cruz” Shaw – who is running for the District 2 spot on City Council against Keith Toney and incumbent Alan Warrick – were present. These people with both individual and collective neighborhood visions spoke of the importance of investing in our communities. They commended the Sam Houston High School students on their dedication to uplifting Denver Heights’ positive image.

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An article from the African American Business Report on Tip-Top Cleaners.

When I asked Lewis about Denver Heights’ history, he spoke of memorable locals like Dr. Owen Whittier and news commentator James Hill, a graduate of Highlands High School, and businesses like Tip-Top Cleaners and Mrs. Chris’ Restaurant that served enchiladas that couldn’t be beat and hosted the pink room after hours.

There was Mel Waiters, renowned blues and soul singer of  serious “hole in the wall” acclaim. I remember the Waiters record store on Pine where I purchased my first 45, but I digress. There was the Rainbow Grill and Taylor’s Barber shop, where you’d find all of the illustrious pastors back in the day: Revs. J.J. Rector, James Nathaniel Byrd, and James Jordan, to name a few. At Pine and Iowa streets sat the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters headquarters, a place of business and a place to lay over between trips.

There were the only two black theaters, the Ritz and the Cameo. Leonard’s Drug Store, later known as Clardy’s Pharmacy at Iowa and Pine streets, rounded out the list. This was once a vibrant neighborhood, full of life, where businesses thrived, rather than merely survived.

So what happened? According to Mr. Lewis, “The older people died out and their heirs elected not to stay.”

A lack of interest and a lack of growth resulted in loss of opportunity. Residents moved out and on, choosing to settle in other areas of the city, the state, and places unknown. Neighborhoods, and ultimately neighborhood associations, as a result have suffered.

Like other neighborhood associations, Denver Heights has stood the test of time for decades. Founded to further the needs of their individual neighborhoods, members of these associations are present in every discussion that has potential implications for their ‘hoods, voicing their interests and looking out for their neighbors. A part of their responsibility is to help their constituency rebuild their properties and their lives and provide them with the possibility of a comfortable and fruitful life afforded to many others in the city. They are the keepers of neighborhood history, values and vision – history that may be lost if not maintained and preserved.

Mary Emerson, president of Harvard Place/Eastlawn Neighborhood Association, which is located near I-35 north, between Houston and Onslow streets, spoke of the demographic evolution that has occurred over the years.

“Harvard Place and mostly Eastlawn were Anglo neighborhoods, then became largely African-American and are now primarily Hispanic,” she said, echoing the migratory trend Lewis touched on.

Antioch Baptist Church, a large African-American church that was founded in 1935 and is a key asset today, received noise complaints and the neighborhood’s white residents moved out, Emerson said. Today, the association has longtime African-American and Hispanic members and newcomers who are devotees to their neighborhood. HarvardPlace/Eastlawn hosts neighborhood events to engage and introduce new families to long-standing members, while ensuring their voices are heard and community needs are addressed.

Across the country today, many neighborhoods are in flux. Revitalization is the name of the game, and how revitalization is implemented is the challenge.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Does it demonstrate that cities understand the importance of these treasure chests of history and, most importantly, the people who made the history? Are we anteing up a comparable outlay, especially since a return to the urban core and all of its assets is being touted as “the new normal”? Green, walkable, desirable living spaces that are safe is a recurring mantra of the 21st century, and other eras have seen comparable efforts.

Remember when urban renewal was the latest thing, complete with benchmark design, strategies, and economic viability for proposed development and re-development? I grew in San Antonio’s Kenwood area, and my grandfather was sorely against urban renewal. After all, the house he’d built on land he owned would be deemed not up to code. So he’d end up being in debt to modernize his home, when debt wasn’t what he wanted and modern wasn’t what he needed.

Lewis recalled a time when his mother would go to the site where their home was being built to pick up and save nails that were left on the ground. Building a place of promise and vision for her family in this community was just that important. This is an element that aided his choice to return to the Denver Heights neighborhood, to which he is deeply committed. It is this type of sentiment that must fuel the activism of neighborhood associations today.

Denver Heights Neighborhood Association President Aubry Lewis.
Denver Heights Neighborhood Association President Aubry Lewis. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We must plant the seed, even though we may not be around to see the fruit that will certainly grow, for it is a worthwhile investment that will yield great benefits,” said Charles Williams, owner of Williams Barber College and the Landmark restaurant, which has been in business on the Eastside for 56 years.

For me, not only must seeds be planted, they must be nourished, the rich soil tilled and irrigated. This has much to do with sharing history, a basis for the work that continues in neighborhoods today. Who’s keeping the history? For certainly knowing and understanding your origin, your strength, the love that brought you from that point to this, helps to determine where you should head next. In these uncertain times, with evidence of an ever-changing political landscape, setting a proper course is paramount.

So, what’s next?

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Arrie Porter

Trained as a public administrator and political scientist, Arrie Porter is a poet who works in neighborhood revitalization. She writes to further her work and to inform. Her love of writing has led her...