Urban Living

The Geography of Urban Life

 by Celia Hayes

I suppose that moving to a new location every two or three years as an adult sharpened my antennae with regard to house-hunting, just as a childhood spent with parents who were extremely energetic about all kinds of D-I-Y home and garden improvement projects instilled a certain degree of optimism in me about tackling them. Just as we never bought a brand new car, we also never bought a brand new home, up until my parents’ retirement house, and true to character, they oversaw the building of that, as well as doing much of the work themselves. Otherwise, we made do and made the best with what already existed. Which, I will point out – my parents were very, very good at.

I had already decided that I would buy a house, at whatever location turned out to be my last active-duty assignment. Halfway through the next-to-the-last assignment at Yongsan, ROK, I learned that I would be assigned to a base in San Antonio for my last active-duty assignment; I procured a city map, contacted a local realtor and appealed to a number of friends at Yongsan who knew San Antonio well for advice. One of them was an Air Force security policeman who went at it from the law-enforcement perspective. Each time I had a thick envelope of printouts from the MLS, I would give them to him, and he would scribble a brief note on each one: notes like, Very Good, Good, OK, Eh, Bad ‘Hood, Very Bad ‘Hood. The listings for Bad ‘Hood and Very Bad ‘Hood were discarded immediately, although it later was a curiosity for me to discover that many very good neighborhoods were merely blocks away from the Bad ‘Hoods, and that many charming and historic neighborhoods of well-kept late 19th and early 20th century house were embedded right in the middle of tracts of Bad ‘Hood and or light industrial districts. This was an interesting experience for me, since in Los Angeles the extremes were usually separated by miles, rather than mere blocks.

I eventually finished up in an established suburb on the northeast side of San Antonio, almost to the outside 1604 ring road, although I did keep looking wistfully at some of the old neighborhoods inside the 410 Loop. Alas, I could never afford a house in the nicest – such as Alamo Heights and Olmos Park – and the ones which I could have afforded were either in need of extensive rebuilding, or located in – as my security policeman friend said, Bad ‘Hood, or at best, an Eh. Still, it is interesting to note the progression of gentrification along the margins, like along North New Braunfels near Fort Sam. There were many houses and old duplex units along that route which once looked as if they were about to fall down – and now they have been propped up, painted, and renewed. I used to look wistfully at the 1920s era Spanish Colonial style houses along Mahncke Park, and think of how I would love one of those. Back then, a lot of them looked to be sadly run-down, but not any more. Government Hill, on the other side of Fort Sam also looked pretty slummy, but now many of those Victorian cottages have been rehabbed and renewed for another good few decades. I guess that the genius of gentrification is to figure out where it would be a good bet to buy and renovate – and have the wherewithal to do it. Just as a pie in the sky wild guess, I would say that the stretch of neighborhood along Blanco between Funston and Woodlawn might the next trendy focus for renewal, since it is in between a pair of very nice old neighborhoods, but is itself a little seedy at present.

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