'Los Courts' exhibit explores the legacy of San Antonio's oldest public housing

by Lea ThompsonSeptember 19, 2018
The Alazán-Apache Courts are San Antonio's oldest housing projects. V. FINSTER | SAN ANTONIO HERON

In 1941, the Alazán-Apache Courts opened as the first public housing project in San Antonio, bringing modern homes and amenities to nearly 5,000 Mexican-Americans. At the time, for hundreds of families, the courts were a step up from the slum conditions that defined the West Side. Nearly 80 years later, living conditions at the courts have declined, but generations of families continue to benefit from its resources and job opportunities.

The Westside Preservation Alliance and the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center explore that legacy in a new exhibit called “Los Courts,” which opens with a reception 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Alazán Community Room, 1011 S. Brazos St.

The exhibit highlights life on the West Side, from the 1920s to present-day, through historic photos, video, and recorded testimonies from past residents. Mexican-American families, who had struggled with high death rates linked to tuberculosis, benefited from housing that offered modern amenities and sanitary living conditions.

Despite local and federal efforts to segregate minorities via public housing, especially through the nationwide housing increase during the Great Depression, developments like Alazán-Apache allowed many residents to achieve new levels of upward mobility.

"[The Courts] gave people the stability they needed to be lifted out of poverty, and enormously changed the quality of life for so many people," exhibit curator Sarah Zenaida Gould said. "We need to be thinking about how we can do that again, because we still have so many people in need of quality food, shelter, education, and health care."

A cropped piece of a panel in the exhibit. COURTESY PHOTO

The exhibit is partially underwritten by the District 5 office and the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), which manages the courts.

"This community was the beginning of our efforts to increase affordable housing, and the history of the community is invaluable," said David Nisivoccia, president and CEO of SAHA, which was founded in 1937.

When construction of the Alazán-Apache Courts stalled in 1939, SAHA leaders wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who authorized the federal funds necessary to improve living conditions for West Side families. Today, the Courts are shaped by three properties: Alazán, Apache and Guadalupe Homes.

Public housing continues to reduce local poverty and homeless rates, but funding, and the living conditions of the dwellings, have plummeted in recent years. The Courts’ faded surfaces, concrete walls and outdated infrastructure, are problematic for a new generation of families. More than half of the Courts’ current residents are under 18, said Gould, who also serves as coordinator for the Westside Community Museum, a project slated to open next year in the old Ruben’s Icehouse at Guadalupe and South Colorado streets.

In a door-to-door survey last year, SAHA found the median household income at the Alazan Courts, north of Guadalupe Street, to be $10,242.

A newspaper clip dated April 12, 1941, announces the birth of the first baby at the Alazán Courts. IRMA ARELLANO CARREON

The courts' units remain largely unchanged since the 1940s. Last year, SAHA applied for up to $30 million from the Choice Neighborhood grant, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The plan was to demolish some of the existing Alazán Courts and replace them with market-rate housing in an attempt to revitalize the near West Side, and remove the Courts’ sketchy stigma, SAHA said at the time.

SAHA, which had secured Choice dollars to rebuild Wheatley Courts into the mixed-income East Meadows development on the East Side, did not receive the funding.

The courts were the first opportunity for many families to have access to "indoor plumbing, real linoleum floors and electricity," District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said. "We are looking to recreate this type of housing, with multigenerational families living together, (and) look forward to bringing back that type of living to the inner city."

SAHA plans to continue its effort to revitalize the Courts by applying for Choice Neighborhood grant dollars again in 2019, Nisivoccia said.

“We hope, as people tour (Los Courts), they can appreciate the growth and opportunities made possible through numerous organizations dedicated to empowering the West Side community,” he added.

N. Straus Nayfach, architect of the Alazán-Apache Courts. COURTESY RUTH FAGIN-WILEN

On the development end, SAHA has partnered with NRP Group for an 85-unit apartment project at the southwest corner of El Paso and South Colorado streets, but it will require low-income housing tax credits, which SAHA will apply for next year, to make it happen.

Despite its West Side roots, the courts have helped define the city’s present-day landscape and housing resources available to residents. Officials hope the show will travel to other communities throughout San Antonio.

“There’s so much more to tell here,” Gould said. “We hope that this is just the beginning of the story.”

"Los Courts" will be on view 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Alazán Community Room through Oct. 26. For more information, call 210-228-0201.

Previously published
A look at the history of Alazan Courts


Lea Thompson works as Communications Associate for LiftFund, a nonprofit small business lender headquartered in San Antonio. She freelances as a reporter and photographer for local and regional publications.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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