Living in Dignowity Hill


July 29, 2012, Washington, DC: I was struck by my recent conversation with Bekah McNeel of San Antonio. In relaying her story about moving into the neighborhood of Dignowity Hill two years ago, Bekah challenged me to think more deeply about not only our love of place, but about our responsibility to place. She had me considering where we are needed. How many of us embark on a house hunt considering what we can give to a home and a neighborhood in addition to what we can get? Bekah had great perspective on this, and I loved what she had to say about the secret ingredient to making a place home, both for old-time residents and fresh-eyed newcomers.

The Neighborhood Called Dignowity Hill: The neighborhood was the very first suburb of San Antonio and now it's considered inner city. It was the first exclusive neighborhood with some big estates and some beautiful homes. It's up on a hill. We can see the downtown fireworks from our backyard.

My husband's within biking distance of work. I'm within biking distance of work. We're both runners and we're six blocks from the San Antonio Riverwalk, a 12-mile running trail.

The neighborhood was redlined in the 1930s and that didn't stop happening until like 1977. In that time, it was the African American hub of culture for a long time. But as the African American people there started getting more affluent and desegregation occurred, many of them moved out, which left behind a lot of the bad things. It became a lower income area. There's a part of the area called the Hackberry corridor. Hackberry runs north-south and as it moves through the east side, it's kind of been the prostitution and drug corridor.

Dignowity Hill is now about 75 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African American, and there's a tiny percentage of white people. It's now the recipient of a United Way Neighborhood Promise grant and the city of San Antonio is investing in a downtown revitalization in a big way. On the east side, they're focusing on non-highrise revitalization. Things are happening. The neighborhood grant is going to be huge. There's a recognition of the gaps and the things that need to change.

Terms like gentrification are used on one side and terms like urban renaissance are used on the other. Our goal is to find some new balance of the two. My husband and I, for example, we didn't move in as an investment. We didn't move in to buy properties and fix 'em up and sell 'em for a million dollars. The people who've moved in, a lot of them are architects and people who are invested in preserving the houses, or they're people who are involved in the city. All of the efforts are on developing empty lots and houses that are vacated. It's not to make the neighborhood something it's not.


Photo Credit: Juan Garcia

The House Hunt: When we got married and were looking at houses two years ago, we looked at the area and said, What are our needs? We wanted to be close to work. My husband is an architect so he wanted something that he could fix up. And when we were looking at neighborhoods, we wanted to also look at, What can we bring to a neighborhood? What does this neighborhood need? We wanted to make sure we weren't just there for their own benefit. Dignowity Hill needs good neighbors: people who will clean up their yards and pick up after their dogs.

There are some neighborhoods that need people to be full-time neighbors.

The Long-time Residents: Many of our neighbors are long-time residents who have weathered this; a lot of them have been there, but they didn't have the capital to make changes. They have come out in huge support of what's going on. They don't want drug dealers living next to them. They are the first ones to greet you when you come into the neighborhood association meetings.

This is stuff that the people who have been there for a long time are trying to change. The community leaders and the elementary schools and the high school have been very active in trying to bring up attendance and all of that.

The Secret Ingredient: I think it's the principle of hospitality: not just having people over for dinner and throwing parties, but being hospitable with your schedules. Making people feel welcome in your day. This is hard for our generation, maybe our class. It's hard as someone who grew up with schedules and spreadsheets and reminders. We need to keep in mind that if the neighbors are coming over at seven for dinner, it's gonna be an all-night thing. You just make a night of it. It means when a neighbor needs help with something, a) we're making sure we're available and b) we're making sure there's beer in the fridge for afterwards to sit on the porch and hang out. The people who were already there in the neighborhood have been instructional in that.

For me, that principle of hospitality carries over into being willing to be a guest as well. My husband has a policy that if we're invited, we go. Knowing your neighbors is hugely valuable. You have everybody's phone number in your phone. They know who you are when you call. It's safer that way. It's more fun that way.

The Value of Participation: The experience of living in a transitional neighborhood is this common experience that unites cities that otherwise have very little in common. A lot of times when people think of moving to a transitional neighborhood, if you're not careful, you can underestimate the needs of the neighborhood and just end up taking up space. We're on our neighborhood association: My husband is on an oversight committee, I'm on the educational leadership committee. There's a community for the oversight of a big microbrewery, which is gonna be huge, but there's all this controversy surrounding it; they're planning to attach it to an historic structure.

San Antonio schools are notoriously troubled, some of the highest drop out rates in the nation. The charter school movement is trying to come in and fill the gaps and the public schools are feeling the heat of competition. We don't have kids. We decided we wanted to get involved in that before we had kids so we would have a good idea of what was possible and what wasn't.

We have been invited to speak at churches, to come talk about loving the city because what we're doing is "so radical." We're just living. We're just making a home. We want to love our neighbors, but it's not a soup kitchen and it doesn't need to be.

The Tendency to Buck Assumptions: I grew up in an area just outside of town called Smithson Valley. My husband grew up in a high-end historic district and then the family moved out to a ranch outside of town when he was in high school. For us, the social pressure to live in Alamo Heights... it's assumed you're going to live there if you can. Our neighborhood is more of an extreme, but people often overlook many of the other great choices. Alamo Heights has a separate school district. Some people assume, Of course you'll live in Alamo Heights. We both were like, We're not going to plan our entire lives and livelihoods around a false dichotomy. We said, We're gonna go live within our means over here.

We bought an 1890s farmhouse. We've done everything from the foundation up. This is gonna be a lifelong project -- there's no shortage of stuff we can do. The house has a fruit orchard in the back, so once we're done with the house, there will be cultivating and learning how to do with that.

I make the house sound like it was a total wreck, but my husband's an architect and he's not gonna buy a total wreck. It's got 11-foot ceilings and hardwood floors with inlay patterns. It's very beautiful, it just hadn't been updated in a long time.

Dignowity Hill, San Antonio
Dignowity Hill, San Antonio

Photo Credit: Bekah McNeel

The Benefit of Travel: I moved a lot growing up. I'd lived in eight places before I graduated. I loved the idea of setting up a permanent base here. I work in luxury travel so there's no shortage of exposure to other places. My husband and I both lived abroad, we both went away for school, so we're pretty keen on what it feels like to be home.

We get out enough to know that we don't have the itch to leave. That's different than staying home by default.

It's a choice we're glad we made. We're excited about watching San Antonio come into its own. Our neighborhood and our city have a lot going for them and we're hoping they own that.