April 16


Out of the shadows, into the neighborhood association

While I was interviewing Everett Ives for a recent piece on Beacon Hill Linear Park, the conversation took a detour into the neighborhood’s undocumented residents. Ives illustrates the problem with an anecdote: His neighbors chased a man down the street who had stolen a bicycle from their house. They caught him and recovered the bicycle but refused to press charges. Ives strongly suspects their leniency came from a fear of having their own legal status questioned. These neighbors may even have been victimized precisely because the perpetrator knew they would be unlikely to press charges.

There is some evidence that recent immigrants often make better neighbors than natural-born citizens. The LA Times recently reported data showing that foreclosures among undocumented immigrants are about a third that of citizens. The border cities of El Paso and San Diego, with very high numbers of immigrants, consistently show the lowest crime rates in the country.

Although undocumented immigrants may be less likely to cause trouble than the general population, anecdotal evidence shows that in many cases they are afraid to reach out for help from the legal system — and even from the neighborhood association. Tom Heger, pastor at Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church, recalls a local news story about immigrants. The reporter contacted immigration attorneys, who approached their undocumented clients for an on-camera interview. None of them agreed. These are voices that cannot be heard through official channels. They are largely invisible, except when characterized by their political opponents or champions.


After Oscar, a meditation on love and revenge

Confession: I love revenge movies. Make them gory, make them violent, make them brutal. I respond to them at a basic emotional level. I think it's because revenge stories function in a parred down, heightened moral universe: a wrong has been committed, and it must be punished. It satisfies a basic desire for justice in the simplest form possible. We live in a world, after all, where justice isn't as straightforward as punishing the right bad guy and we're not often rewarded for being bloodthirsty.

Revenge stories are also effective as metaphors, letting us get back at big, historical enemies and ideas. So you can imagine my excitement for this past Christmas, when Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained came out. It seemed like the revenge film par excellence, tackling a controversial historical enemy, letting the oppressed rise up to take out their oppressor in the most flashy and cathartic way possible. Tarantino, after all, directed the Kill Bill movies, my personal favorite revenge stories, a pastiche of every old-school kung fu movie where the protagonist has to get revenge on the enemy clan.

And Django was a great film, and a lot of interesting things have been written about it (I'd cite something here, but, really, just google it). It attempts to be both a revenge romp about killing slave owners and a thoughtful commentary on slavery, and ends up succeeding at each about 75 percent of the time.

But these are just scaffolding. Despite first appearances, I don't think Django Unchained is a revenge epic. It's a love story. It took me a little while to figure out, but Django wasn’t the year's big revenge movie. That honor goes to Zero Dark Thirty.


How to build a neighborhood park

Beacon Hill’s recently christened neighborhood-scale linear park didn’t start as a dream so much as a constant complaint.

“For years we had a strip of dirt running through the heart of our neighborhood,” recalls Everett Ives, current president of the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association (BHANA). And a strip of dirt is not just a strip of dirt. The association’s Linear Park Committee Chair, Jerry Locky, refers to the former string of undeveloped lots over a drainage culvert as a “dumping ground” for old mattresses and other bulky domestic waste. One proposal to the city, produced shortly before District 1 Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros took up the cause, consists mostly of photos of brownfield lots strewn with trash, alongside sidewalks overgrown and broken to the point of being unusable.

The desire to erase a scar across one of San Antonio’s older neighborhoods soon grew into a powerful vision of intimate public spaces meandering through Beacon Hill. Today those magnets for illegal dumping have become a community garden, an innovative playground, and a basketball court, along with plenty of walkways, benches, and native plants. The path from grievance to vision to reality was long and circuitous.


Glitter Political: Rebecca Viagran

Rebecca Viagran, candidate for San Antonio City Council District 3, is so noticeably uncomfortable with my video camera that I half-expect her to just get up and leave me on my own to an earlier-than-scheduled breakfast at El Sol Mexican Restaurant, a South Side staple located across the street from Harlandale High School. The neighborhood clientele chattering gives our impromptu shoot the feel of a built-in studio audience.

“I think community engagement is something that has always been a part of my family and my history, so it was just a natural thing to be a part of the community and the process,” she says.

Viagran was one of several applicants who sought the Council’s appointment to the D3 seat last year, after Jennifer Ramos left mid-term for an unsuccessful run against County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez. In this May’s election, she’s facing Leticia Ozuna, who won the appointment, and Gabriel Velasquez, who also competed for the open slot.

She turns her head and orders a cup of coffee from our waitress.


Better buildings start at home

Interior view of the Tobin under construction, with one of the domes of the historic facade visible in the backgroundIt is not an accident that cities with an architecturally educated and engaged population produce exemplary architecture and public spaces ...

A mere 100 years ago, an estimated 10 percent of the world population lived in cities and towns. Today that number worldwide is more than 50 percent, and in the U.S. it is approaching 90 percent. This is a radical shift in how we live; it far surpasses other demographic shifts that receive much more attention in K-12 social-studies classrooms. We are an urban population, like it or not. We live our lives within, and dependent upon, the built environment.

But the question isn’t so much whether we like it, but whether we understand it.

I grew up in Atlanta in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the city was experiencing a building boom. My dad regularly took me out to see major new buildings under construction. I fondly remember sitting with bag lunches and watching the Atlanta Braves Stadium (since demolished), Lenox Square (one of the first shopping malls in the country), and countless skyscrapers going up downtown. Construction was slow on the weekends, but we would sit at some carefully selected vantage point – one of those details parents think through carefully while kids wonder how they were lucky enough to get such a great view. I would listen carefully as my dad explained in detail how the building was being built, the materials and methods, the timetable. He promised that we would return when it was complete, and we always did.


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