In 2018, Rubi and Charley Lopez purchased their first home together on Monterey Street on the West Side. The 1921 bungalow belonged to Rolando Briseño, a nationally-recognized artist known for his public installations, and whose family lived there for five generations.
This pocket of the near West Side also produced the Cortezes of Mi Tierra restaurant fame, and marketing giant Lionel Sosa. West Side preservationists cite Belle San Miguel Ortiz, who founded the mariachi program a Lanier High School, which paved the way for similar programs across the U.S., and Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor who served on President Clinton's cabinet. Comedic icon Carol Burnett. The list goes on.
Soon after their purchase, the 30-somethings started to meet their neighbors and learn more about the history of the West Side, where they both grew up.
"We lived in the West Side, but didn’t know the historical significance of the area," Rubi said. "I guess you can say we didn't take the time as kids, teens, and adults to learn about our community's significance."
Later, in 2019, the Lopezes began attending meetings of the Historic Westside Residents Association, which had been collaborating with other groups for historic designation on the West Side for many years.
Earlier this year, the couple decided to nominate their part of the near West Side as the Buena Vista Historic District, which spans 10 blocks from South Brazos west to South Zarzamora streets, and roughly from Buena Vista street south to West César E. Chávez Boulevard.
The initiative, however, is receiving pushback from some in the neighborhood.
The Lopezes and their supporters argue the West Side is a building block for San Antonio because of the unique cultural contributions its predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American communities have made. In their application to the city, they also mention the historical significance of the housing stock, and the many prominent people who grew up in this slice of 78207.
The Lopezes also believe that historical designation will protect the area from rapid growth because, in their view, such a status ultimately preserves homes and culture. Higher-income people have been buying homes on the West Side here and there in recent years. Two major developments in the works, the University of Texas at San Antonio's planned expansion of its west downtown campus, and the San Antonio Housing Authority's proposal to demolish the Alazan Courts and replace them with mixed-income apartments, are seen by preservationists as harbingers of gentrification.
“With a lot of things that are happening, as far as growth, we want to preserve and make sure our community has a voice,” said Rubi, who’s a social worker.
Rudolfo Ortiz, a retired SAPD officer, has been leading the anti-historic district campaign. He's been distributing hand-painted signs that read "Vote No. Historic District." Ortiz argues property taxes will rise on the West Side, and will lead to displacement of long-time residents. Supporters argue taxes are going up anyway, and a historic district will actually give homeowners tax breaks for 10 to 15 years—which Ortiz views as a ploy.
"They give you a 10-year tax break, but they're playing the long game," said Ortiz, who rents a house on Saunders Avenue from a longtime friend. "You get a few years of tax breaks, but then when the 10 years are up, you're going to get a huge upgrade in your taxes."
Inside the proposed Buena Vista Historic District, which is part of the Prospect Hill neighborhood, there are bungalows and Victorian houses, shotgun homes and Queen Annes.
"The Buena Vista Historic District was one of the few communities that welcomed Hispanic homeownership in the 1900s," the couple wrote to the city. "Homes were built with craftsmanship and have lasted over (hundreds) of years."
Any area considered for historical designation needs to meet at least four of 16 criteria for evaluation by Office of Historic Preservation. Buena Vista meets the following:
» Its value as a visible or archeological reminder of the cultural heritage of the community.
» Its identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the community, county, state, or nation.
» Its character as an established and geographically definable neighborhood, united by culture, architectural style or physical plan and development.
» It is distinctive in character, interest or value; it strongly exemplifies the cultural, economic, social, ethnic or historical heritage of San Antonio, Texas or the United States.
Source: City of San Antonio
The Historic Westside Residents Association (HWRA) estimates the area boasts an 87% homeownership rate—homes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Inside the proposed district, the modest shotgun houses have as much value as the Victorian homes, said Teri Castillo, a member of the HWRA.
"Oftentimes people view historic preservation from a Eurocentric lens," Castillo says. "It's important for us to honor our history and our place in San Antonio and our role in shaping the West Side."
Last year, West Side groups began canvassing the area, because 51% of property owners must sign off on the historic designation, according to city rules. Property owners have until June 2021 to cast their votes. The pandemic eventually paused the block walking. The groups and the Lopezes were scheduled to regroup and start canvassing the area once again, now that the election has passed.
Over the summer, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, one of the groups that has long advocated for historic designation, along with another group called the Westside Preservation Alliance, successfully obtained historical status for three parcels it owns on South Colorado Street, which comprise the cultural hub Rinconcito de Esperanza. Its desire for a larger district having been slowed by the pandemic, the group pursued a smaller designation as a vital first step.
Ortiz said he doesn't need a historic district label, and the brown street signs that come with it, to have pride in the West Side.
"I celebrate it all the time and I’m not in a historic district," Ortiz said. "I have pride in my community. You don't need a historic district to have pride in Prospect Hill, to have pride in the barrio."
Ortiz's fears West Side residents will be giving up their property rights if they choose to go historic. A historic district, he says, will add more regulations to a ZIP code that has historically seen disinvestment from the city. Because of this, in 2018, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales introduced the concept of an equity budget, when funding for streets and sidewalks was distributed to San Antonio's 10 districts based on need—the West Side was one of the districts that benefited. But those upgrades have yet to be made on Saunders Avenue, and other nearby streets, where Ortiz lives.
Ortiz also points out that 78207 is one of the hardest hit in terms of code compliance violations, and sees homeowners becoming more vulnerable to municipal fines.
Shanon Miller, director of the city's Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), says property owners in historic districts aren't required to make improvements to their homes, nor will they be barred from making repairs.
In historic districts, ordinary repairs or minor additions can be reviewed and approved by the OHP staff, without having to go before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). According to the city, such requests include "paint color, removal of non-historic siding to uncover historic siding, small rear additions." The HDRC reviews "major additions, changes in exterior materials," etc.
Denials are rare, according to the city. If they're not approved the first go-around, OHP staff will work with the applicant on other options.
"The important part," Miller said, "is that the people in the neighborhood who are proposing the historic district are concerned about the future of the neighborhood from development and demolitions, and losing the character of the neighborhood moving forward."
In a flyer he's distributing, Ortiz states the tax breaks for homeowners in historic districts can only be received if they significantly restore their homes—which is false.
In historic districts, all homeowners receive a 20% tax exemption on the city portion of their property tax bill for up to 15 years, provided they remain in the home. Homeowners who "invest 30% of the assessed value of the structure" in rehabilitating their homes are eligible to have their city property taxes frozen for up to 10 years—or frozen for the first five years, then assessed at 50% of the post-rehabbed value for the other five years.
Ortiz argues his neighbors don't have the disposable income to do enough restoration that would trigger the full exemption on city property taxes.
"We're the poorest district in the City of San Antonio," Ortiz said. "You can go talk to any of these residents, they don't have that kind of money."
Gabriel Velasquez, executive director of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, argues a historic designation would actually lead to gentrification and would only hurt those that are economically disadvantaged. He sees the appeal of tax breaks as a weak incentive.
"In the short run you might see some savings, but in the long run you raise the property values of everybody around you, because it doesn’t matter whether they give you a tax break—it really doesn’t matter," Velasquez said. "In the ripple effect, it affects people who don’t have money.
"In neighborhoods of poverty, if the homeowner is poor then the regulatory advantage represents a disadvantage, because it assumes an economically level playing field, which cannot be supported in a neighborhood whose economic position is that of the poorest in San Antonio."
Gonzales, whose eight-year term as a council member will have expired by the time the issued is resolved in June 2021, isn't taking sides.
She believes that historic status can reduce taxes, but she mentions that homeowners over 65, or with disabilities, are already paying lower taxes. Aside from meetings with the Lopezes, she says she's only heard from property owners against the district.
"I have not heard anyone else say they want it," Gonzales said. "That is not to say there aren't plenty of people who do, but they tend to be less vocal.”
Miller is not certain whether gentrification will happen on the West Side, but she states that property values, and therefore taxes, are already increasing across the city—with or without historical designation. She says property values rise because people move into the central part of the city, partly because of the attraction of historic districts.
“All the things people love about historic neighborhoods are what are really driving property values,” she said.
Linda Ortega, a member of the HWRA, sounds certain developers will have their way if historical designation is not obtained.
"Bottom line is that we’re close to downtown, and that's it," Ortega said. "They want it because we’re so close to downtown."
Theodore Turner, a 48-year-old architect who moved to North Pinto Street in 2000, opposes the initiative. He believes that the neighborhood has made some improvements despite ongoing perceptions of frequent crime and violence, and he sees historical designation as stunting the natural growth and change of the neighborhood.
"As far as historic, that’s a harder part for me; I think there are times and places where that’s appropriate but it seems like an added burden for a neighborhood that’s just above the margin of being a poor neighborhood," he said.
Leticia Sanchez, co-chairperson of the HWRA, says the designation is about San Antonio recognizing the value of the West Side.
"We feel that our historic West Side has been overlooked by the city, neglected, and has not been valued," Sanchez said. "We want the rest of San Antonio to value our neighborhood as we do. And we feel this historic designation will help the city to see how valuable it is."
West Side to receive first historic district (June 12, 2020)
Renee Gonzalez is a freelance writer in San Antonio.
Heron editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.
After 45 years of Fiesta parties, political gatherings, and celebrations of every ilk, Cadillac Bar on South Flores Street opened one last time this weekend—not to serve drinks or food, but for a liquidation sale.
Owner Jesus “Jesse” Medina held the sale Friday and Saturday after deciding to close the bar, which has been largely shut down since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for good. Items sold included large saloon-style bars, tables and chairs, neon signs, and tableware.
Medina, who started working at the establishment as a waiter and dishwasher in 1975, a year after it opened, couldn’t have imagined his business would come to such an abrupt end.
“When they told us to shut down at the beginning of March, we had one great party and then Monday we were shut down,” Medina said. “It was like (we were in) limbo, like we don’t know what to do because this is 45 years and this place, it’s our whole life.”
Medina, who’s originally from Monterrey, purchased the business from the original owners in 1996.
While Medina is saying goodbye to the Cadillac Bar, he is still hoping that the name will live on elsewhere in town.
The long tenure of Cadillac Bar can be attributed to Medina bringing a unique flair to a regular bar and restaurant that reflected community and San Antonio’s prevalent Mexican culture. In an interview with Medina, he mentioned how early on he brought Tejano bands and artists to the bar to perform, appealing to a demographic that would ensure he would always have a booming business. But the bar did seem to attract diverse patronage, including celebrities such as actors Bruce Willis and Matt Damon, members of the Kennedy family, and Texas’ own Selena. Cadillac Bar also became a staple for many politicians, district attorneys, and judges, with the bar holding large political campaign parties. He also discussed how the Cadillac Bar basically held Fiesta before Fiesta became a city-wide tradition; large dancing parties were held on the back patio. Despite the city ordering them to cease from using the name "Fiesta," they carried on in celebration for many years.
“Everybody knew each other, even people that come every year from out of town for Fiesta,” says Medina, reflecting on how everyone shared a bond through his parties. “Cadillac Bar is the place to be.”
Much of the success of the bar and restaurant may also have to do with the personable and kind manner of Medina himself. Before he became the owner of Cadillac Bar, he worked as a waiter, bartender, and dishwater, a hard worker who understood what it meant to serve others. Speaking to a couple of former patrons at his liquidation sale, there was nothing but positive feedback for Medina and his generosity.
“I’ve been knowing Jesse for about 40 years,” says Aida Guevara, who celebrated her 70th birthday at the Cadillac a year and a half ago. “I know he has thousands and thousands of friends and customers who love him.”
According to Nany Mancillas, Medina is an “awesome person, very humble and caring.” Mancillas celebrated several birthday parties at the bar and mentioned how he was very accommodating while expressing her sadness to see the place shut down.
In addition to Fiesta parties, Cadillac Bar hosted all sorts of events including birthdays, weddings, and quinceaneras. Elizabeth Aguilar, a music promoter who credited Medina for helping bring in a number of Tejano bands, said she had three of her big birthday parties at the bar and had hoped to see Medina one last time before the bar closed down for good. Juvenal Soto is another patron who had his wedding at the bar while his cousin’s son celebrated his graduation last year.
Cadillac Bar was also popular in that it maintained an atmosphere that was fun but not hectic, perhaps making it easier for people to come together in a comforting fashion. Mark Sanchez had visited the bar for some 30 years when he lived downtown and he had the opportunity to make a lot of friends (he said he hasn't seen any of his friends since January and no longer lives downtown).
Guevara liked the bar for having good music but also for keeping the peace among patrons.
"You didn't have to worry about people being ugly and fighting," Guevara said. "The ambiance was great and Jesse was a beautiful person."
Medina said he tried to get help, including a small business loan, but to no avail.
“If they would have told me from the beginning that all the bars would not be open till next year, I would have done what I am doing right now, right there and then,” he said.
He said the business could not survive on just serving food, and when they opened two or three times during the pandemic, it was no use.
Medina also expressed frustration about the amount of money corporations were receiving compared to smaller businesses. “We have corporations that got $30-$40 million, and they really don’t need it. I know they don’t need it,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty, Medina is determined to keep the name of Cadillac Bar alive. In his words, he plans to go through legalities to keep the name of the corporation, retain the liquor license, and ultimately set up the bar and restaurant at another location. He is also looking for a temporary job in the meantime. Concerning his liquidation sale, he does not believe he will earn enough money to help himself and his family, seeing it as another way to pay off debt. Some might think the outlook is less than encouraging, but based on previous success and outpouring support, Medina hopes that Cadillac Bar will have a second chance.
“All the people that have been here,” said Medina, “I can’t even count the numbers but this is amazing that there are people that follow us.”
Setting It Straight: Because of a reporting error, this article originally misstated when long-time customer Aida Guevara had her birthday at Cadillac Bar. View our corrections page.
Renee Gonzalez is a freelance writer in San Antonio.