The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is preparing to rehabilitate a cluster of seven little homes, or "casitas," on the West Side in order to create community space and preserve a slice of the neighborhood from gentrification.
As part of the Rinconcito de Esperanza cultural hub it is building at 816 S. Colorado St., the center plans to use the casitas as a community health center, an internet access point and a studio for recording oral histories of the neighborhood, among other things, said Graciela Sanchez, the Esperanza’s director.
Dating from as early as the 1920s, the casitas represent a style of living that was once common on the West Side but which has largely disappeared as a result of urban redevelopment projects undertaken around the 1970s, Sanchez said. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, residents of the West Side often lived in casitas, also known as "shotgun homes," packed closely together with those of their relatives, with whom they formed communities of support, she said.
The wave of recent large-scale development, which is beginning to spill out of downtown, threatens what is left of that way of life, she said.
"The whole complex essentially resembles what the neighborhood would have looked like once upon a time, and is being preserved at a moment when the entire neighborhood is coming down, bit by bit," Sanchez said. "We were densely populated, and they de-densified it, and now we're trying to densify it again. So we just want to show people how it's still possible to build in that way."
The Rinconcito hub sits at the northeast corner of Guadalupe and South Colorado streets. The seven casitas are behind Casa de Cuentos, a historic home which Esperanza uses as a gathering space, and the former Ruben's Ice House, which the center plans to convert into the Museo del Westside, a museum dedicated to preserving the area's working-class history and culture. Last year, the city approved Esperanza's request to turn the 0.6-acre cluster of buildings into the West Side's first historic district.
The hub, about three quarters of a mile west of downtown, is face-to-face with San Antonio's urban boom: On vacant land across the street, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) is partnering with developer NRP Group to build a four-story, 88-unit apartment complex called Legacy at Alazán, which also abuts the Alazán Courts.
Until recently, SAHA and the Esperanza, among other housing advocacy groups, were embroiled in a bitter fight involving the Alazán Courts. Under previous leadership, SAHA planned to partner with NRP Group on the demolition of the public housing, and replace it with mixed-income apartments. In January, SAHA’s interim CEO, Ed Hinojosa Jr., announced a new direction: SAHA would still demolish and rebuild the courts, but as 100% public housing, and with the intent of adding to the stock.
In December, the Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) awarded $1.5 million to Esperanza to fix up the casitas and finish its work on the Ruben's building, including the addition of an adobe structure to serve as a museum gallery.
When the work is done, the Museo will offer about 2,300 square feet of space. One of the first events will be a symposium commemorating the 1921 flood which caused many deaths in the area around Alazán Creek, done in partnership with the Westside Preservation Alliance and Trinity University, Sanchez said.
The open space between the casitas, the Casa de Cuentos and the Ruben's building will form a courtyard to be used for music performances, film screenings, dances and literary events, she said.
The project encompassing the Museo and the casitas is expected to cost a total $3.1 million, Sanchez said. Along with the TIRZ money, Esperanza expects to cover $500,000 or so of the cost from state historic tax credits, and is working on raising the rest by applying for grants and appealing to private donors and members of the West Side community, she said.
In a TIRZ, revenue gained from the rise in property taxes is collected and reinvested within the boundary.
The center is waiting for the city to award the permits needed to begin construction, which is expected to take two years, she said.
In a prior project, Esperanza spent nearly $1.5 million installing a new roof to the Ruben's building and girding its interior with a metal structure. That project also included the construction of the MujerArtes Studio, a pottery studio used by women on the West Side, and the restoration of the 100-year-old house where Casa de Cuentos is now located.
As part of that project, Esperanza fixed up a casita behind Casa de Cuentos and filled it with historic furniture so that it could demonstrate what it would have felt like to be in such a home when the neighborhood was full of them. Rehabbing that structure required lifting it off the ground so that a new foundation could be installed, she said. The same procedure might be required for the other casitas.
When Esperanza bought the Casa de Cuentos building in 2001, the former owners offered to tear down that casita, Sanchez said.
"I had to say, 'Please, don't tear it down, we want to preserve it,'" she said. "And now it's one of the finest examples of a little casita that would have been home to thousands of people in this city, once upon a time."
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter