Economic inequality: The saga continues for East Side residents
By: Marcellius L. Caviness
As San Antonio gears up for its tricentennial, beautification efforts are underway in strategic areas of the city. In an attempt to attract potential developers, businesses and home buyers to find stability in a struggling economy, its citizens are facing a blinding disadvantage: San Antonio ranks No. 1 among major cities with a vast economic inequality.
There’s the new Loop 410-Highway 151 interchange on the Northwest side, the San Pedro Creek and the Southwest School of Arts. These efforts have put hundreds, if not thousands of people to work building new pathways, creative office spaces, lavish hotels and opulent lofts downtown.
Unfortunately, the city has failed to address the gross inequality that has plagued San Antonio for decades, particularly on the East Side. This undeniable truth continues to make national headlines.
Home to the AT&T Center, Willow Springs Golf Course and the Martin Luther King March, the East Side has suffered for decades without essential resources for progress.
“No resources leads to no opportunities. Studies show, you are already at a disadvantage if you grow up poor,” said Frank Patrick, longtime East Side resident and graduate of Sam Houston High School.
In a 2012 report by Pew Research, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor found that San Antonio leads the nation in economic inequality based on their Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI). Essentially, this index represents the separation of low-income communities, with their low wage earning power and potential, below average property taxes and subsequent low education standards, leaves poor communities continuously perpetuating and reproducing the cycle of poverty and an education system that prepares students for a blue-collar existence.
“Sam Houston High School doesn’t teach students how to start a Fortune 500 company but they at least teach students how to balance a checkbook and use a computer to have the basics of survival and the basics of becoming an adult,” said Walter Perry, Sr., East Side resident and community activist.
In 2009, the city was awarded a $90 million government grant by the Obama administration to jumpstart its growth efforts. This materialized as the East Side Promise Zone (EPZ). Designed to provide “ladders of opportunity,” the money was intended to rejuvenate the area through educational opportunities and job creation, while driving down crime rates and improving the quality of life with innovative community engagement programs.
“The whole function of the Promise Zone, the movement, the initiative, was to revitalize the East Side. It was to get those people who ordinarily would be forgotten the resources and the tools for them to help themselves,” said Perry.
The Promise Zone, covering 22 square miles, consists of 10 struggling ZIP codes just east of downtown including 78202, 78203, 78205, 78219, 78220 and 78222, home to over 80,000 residents who’ve endured economic hardships, low property values, struggling businesses and an education district that took its fight to the Supreme Court and lost.
“Teachers in the Northside ISD would not teach at schools like Sam Houston. Our teachers took the jobs they were offered so we ended up with bottom of the barrel education compared to schools like Clark and Churchill,” said Patrick referring to schools in more affluent parts of the city.
This glaring inequality can be seen all across the city. From the wealthiest area, Kendall County, where the average household income is above $200,000 to the poorest sections, most inside the EPZ, whose median household income rests near $22,000, the dissociation between privilege and poverty continues to expand. Though separated by only a few miles, these communities are worlds apart.
“There’s no reason why the East Side still looks the way it looks when there’s been well over $100 million that has flowed through this community. Not one dime was allocated for infrastructure,” said Perry.
The Spurs Cast a Long Shadow
The $240 million facility opened in 2002 as the SBC Center. In the heart of the East Side. The franchise got $41 million in federal tax subsidies with the securing of $160 million in tax-exempt municipal bonds. The Spurs have found everything they could ask for in a home, expansion possibility and low property taxes.
With most residents in the EPZ surviving on public assistance, tickets to Spurs games are luxuries most can not afford. According to Ticketmaster, depending on the popularity of their opponents, seats in the “nosebleed” sections of their arena can cost fans from $30-$65 each, while seats near the floor can cost $1,500-$2,000 and season tickets could cost upwards of $15,000. This incredible revenue stream continues to fund a franchise estimated at $1.5 billion
Through its Spurs Foundation, the franchise attempts to give disadvantaged children a chance to attend games and interact with players and coaches during “Read to Achieve” events. They donate to local charities to help with books and good reading habits, yet there are no local businesses in the shadow of the arena to help stimulate growth of the area.
“They're finding new ways to push long term residents out of their homes and transforming these areas into modern profit enterprises,” said Perry.
“Church is the most enduring successful organization in the Black community,” said Victor Roberson, senior communications major at Texas A&M-San Antonio and lifelong East Side resident.
Amid the strife of transformation and the generations of families desperately searching for answers and solutions to crime, gangs, education and scarcity, the church has remained head and shoulders above the conflicts and adversity. With 36 churches within the East Side Promise Neighborhood (EPN), most have closed or have declining memberships, one in particular has grown exponentially in the eye of the economic storm.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church stands as a gleaming representation of how a business can survive in the worst of economic times. This congregation, which has expanded exponentially, continues to thrive while the surrounding property value plummets.
Though the church seeks to engage with the community through multiple outreach ministries, fundraisers, revivals and events, it fails to enhance the life of the neighborhood. Instead focusing more on outlying areas and parishioners who travel to the East Side for the Sunday morning worship service, who have the discretionary funding to finance the business’ advancement.
With a large portion of the area living below the federal poverty line, their contributions are minimal. This has changed the perspective of the church to focus more on the benefactors of the congregation, instead of the families within walking distance who exhibit the greatest need: the children and the elderly of the Wheatley Courts.
“They don't control the money going into those coffers every Sunday, what bank is it going to? What’s the bank’s interest in the community? Are they putting the money back into the community?” Roberson replied when asked about the motivation behind the business of religion.
Despite the decline of the surrounding area, Antioch has increased its footprint by building a 22,000-square-foot sports complex and community center. The structure, which was meant to serve as a practice home for the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars, simply reinforces the impression that their connection, commitment and loyalties, lie outside of their own community. The team relocated to Las Vegas in 2017.
With the Choice Neighborhood Initiative, the city plans to flatten the dilapidated Wheatley Courts housing complex and key surrounding areas inside the EPZ, to make room for a more gentrified mixed-income housing community. Spearheaded by local, state and federal contractors, the plan is to transform the landscape and implement affluent shops, expensive condos and luxury apartments, where communities of color seek to keep their homes, heritage and legacy in tact, while working diligently to break the confines of unequalivilance.
“You have people that are in charge of vital funding and resources that don't know the community. The only thing they know about the community is what they've been told,” said Perry.
With projects like EastPoint Promise Neighborhood, designed to improve the quality of life for East Side residents, developers have been tasked with creating the types of jobs people on the East Side can do. While these companies are making use of vacant lots, these additions do nothing to address the financial disparity families continue to endure.
“It's a morale issue. Try looking at the same vacant lot, with trash in it for 40 years and nothing has changed. My view is only going to be that vacant lot,” said Perry.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. The type of change necessary to reverse generations of inequality are monumental indeed. While the city and county focus on the future, it’s the past and present that remain in the most danger.
More and more families will soon have to find new accomodations within the failing economy of the East Side. While a multi-million dollar platform rests at their doorsteps, the community is being dismantled block by block. Through community partners like San Antonio Growth on the East Side (SAGE), East Side Promise Neighborhood, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and the United Way, much needed growth and development is scheduled but will not benefit current residents trapped by generational poverty.
“We need to resocialize ourselves. That's where the revolution is, it’s social,” said Roberson.
These initiatives are only scratching the surface of the generations of unbalanced resource allocation that has created the gorge between wealthy and withering neighborhoods in San Antonio.
“We need to move in. We need an exodus back to the East side. There are some beautiful homes and neighborhoods here,” said Perry.