Saturday, January 24, 2015

Word on the Street

On the block: Houston and Navarro. A conversation between two tourists, one giving his take on the streets of San Antonio. “Tell me,” said the surly man in a thick New Jersey accent, “what kind of a city builds its sidewalks where two people can’t walk together side-by-side?” I stopped in my tracks. Looked down. Looked around. His perception all too keen. Street smarts.

Bounded by St. Mary’s to the north, IH-10 to the west, IH-37 to the east, and Cesar Chavez to the south, the downtown area streets appear to be fairly hospitable for those traveling on foot, but this soon begins to change as we leave the inner city. Even in some parts of the affluent neighborhoods of King William and Monte Vista do we find sidewalks leading to nowhere or nearly non-existent. Historical districts near to the city center no longer weave a social fabric that once housed a vibrant working-class community.

With the advent of the mass-produced automobile, car culture soon began to take precedence in the engineering of San Antonio city streets. Roads were widened to accommodate vehicular traffic thereby removing frontage space, curtailing a thriving street life. The organic cultural exchange of goods and services once rivaling New Orleans in its cosmopolitan diversity, gone. Open-air markets and plazas designed by the original Spanish missionaries, paved over and repurposed.

It was more than just sidewalks this city lost. Streets have the potential to perpetuate a healthy balance of harmony and disorder. The public realm in Ol’ San Antone used to be a wondrous place, connected by pedestrian pathways, where all walks of life would venture to congregate and interact. In essence, the street can become the destination itself.

Though it touts its national ranking of seventh largest city with a population of 1.4 million people, San Antonio is still missing key elements of intra-neighborhood connectivity and an around-the-clock system of public transportation. Instead, we operate as a network of small towns with Olmos Park, Balcones Heights, and other municipalities incorporated by annexation policy over the years.

And so I pose these questions: How can we overcome decades of social isolation and environmental deterioration promulgated by single-use zoning and suburban sprawl to forge a new community for the 21st Century? Will it be the voice of the community to shape public policy for better streets and better neighborhoods?

Perhaps we could take note from UTSA professor and author Heywood Sanders given during a town hall event focusing on the topic of gentrification, defining the term’s usage and its apparent symptoms. He proposes a fundamental shift in policy in which investment is directed towards resident and neighborhood needs, taking priority over public incentives in place for developers capitalizing on vacant and neglected property.

Designing sufficient sidewalks where we can walk together side-by-side would be a good place to start.

I’ll see you on the street.

- Commissioned article for "The City Journal" (coming soon)