Local writer Cary Clack returns to the near East Side neighborhood where he grew up, and finds a community in transition.
In January of 1944, my grandfather—a man I’d never meet—wrote a letter to my grandmother, a woman I spent more time with than any other person in my life.
“All day yesterday,” my grandfather wrote. “My left eye was jumping. That is why I called you last night to ask about the children…. Papa may close a deal today for a place. If he does, I think the place is nice. We have a space for you and the children now at home but am waiting until a deal is closed so when you come (you) will have a place for our things.”
There were four children, the youngest being my mother. The children and my grandmother—who I called Momo—were still in Houston where my mother was born.
My grandfather had moved to San Antonio to receive treatment for tuberculosis. He was living with his father, my great-grandfather, whose nickname was “Cap” (“Captain”) because he owned the San Antonio Black Missions, a semiprofessional baseball team in the South Texas Negro League.
The place that Cap closed the deal on was a house on a corner in the East Side neighborhood of Denver Heights, which was separated from downtown by the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. He would also buy the house next to it.
In a second letter, dated March of 1944, the family is soon to be reunited.
“The time is not long,” my grandfather writes to Momo, “before we will all be together again and I will be very happy.”
But that happiness and the reunion with his wife and children was brief.
In that new house, he died of tuberculosis on Nov. 5, 1944. By then, Momo was pregnant with their fifth child.
Clara Ann would be born in February of 1945, but died 18 months later in the same bedroom as had the father she’d never met. Generations of children in our family have been photographed in the front yard of that house, none more than me. But Clara Ann was the first.
For decades, until recently, the password used as a security code for the homes of relatives was “Clara Ann.”
A few blocks away from the two houses Cap bought was a cluster of famed East Side businesses known as “The Corner,” an intersection of culture and commerce at Pine and Iowa streets. Anchoring “The Corner” were W. H. Leonard’s Drug Store, a movie theater, a gas station and The Keyhole, one of the first integrated nightclubs in the South.
The Keyhole was owned by the bandleader Don Albert who, with his wife and children, lived across the street from the two houses Cap bought. Visitors to the Alberts included legendary black entertainers like Nat King Cole, whose lap my mother sat on when she was a little girl.
I was born in 1960 and the house on the corner is where I was raised in a neighborhood where whistles were a constant signal of transitions and passages.
Five blocks west, where the Alamodome now sits, was Alamo Iron Works. Four times a day, except for weekends and holidays, AIW’s whistle was a neighborhood alarm clock, going off at 8 a.m. (starting time); noon (lunch time); 1 p.m. (end of lunch time); and 5 p.m. (quitting time.)
Three blocks north, workers disappeared into Friedrich Refrigeration when its whistle blew at 8 a.m. and re-emerged when the one at 5 p.m. went off.
Day and night, the Southern Pacific trains screamed their noisy arrivals and departures. At nighttime, the sound of a distant whistle followed by the muffled rumble of box cars along the Sunset Station tracks made a child long for places he’d yet to know while already missing the places he knew so well.
Back in that day, there were places like the icehouse on the corner of East Commerce and South Pine, across the street from the Friedrich building. It was a lively gathering place for people in the neighborhood to buy snacks, tamales, sausage, soda, beer; play dominos and enjoy the jukebox’s soulful selection.
As late as 1986, it was mentioned in a New York Times story calling San Antonio the ”Icehouse Capital of the World.”
On the other side of the pawn shop next to it was the most popular mom-and-pop grocery store, Mon Fung Market, which everyone called “The Chinaman’s.” They sold moon cookies, toys and had uneven wooden floors, tilting downward towards the meat market which made it fun to walk fast.
The best sausage in the neighborhood was sold at Johnny Johnson’s yellow building at Montana and Olive. Other small stores were Joe’s at the corner of Pine and Montana and Piedmont Grocery at Wyoming and Piedmont.
At the corner of Pine and Dakota was Hicks Beauty School, owned by Jessie Mae Hicks, where mothers in the neighborhood would get their hair done at night while we played outside and drank tall bottles of Nehi soda from the machine standing atop a steep driveway.
These places weren’t only businesses offering services to customers, they were community gathering places, extensions of our front porches where people dropped by to visit, talk and reconnect.
As time rolled through decades, the train whistles sounded like a dirge for a dying neighborhood, especially during the 1980s and 1990s when heightened gang activity earned San Antonio the moniker of “Drive-by Capital of Texas.”
Friedrich Refrigeration closed, leaving a vacant, brooding building upon which were projected serial fantasies of resurrecting it into a catalyst for economic development for Denver Heights and the East Side.
Alamo Iron Works moved. The Alamodome, which replaced it, has been a success but never became the engine of economic development for the East Side as promised. To have been raised on the East Side, familiar with its history, and long immune from the disappointment of broken, if well-intentioned promises, is to also tire of constantly hearing it referred to as the “long-neglected East Side.”
The ice house was torn down. The little grocery stores closed. Hicks’ Beauty School burned down the same night O.J. Simpson took the nation on a slow-speed freeway chase.
My mother still lives in the house she moved into in 1944. The second house, next door, bought by my great-grandfather Cap, was always used as a rental.
When I was 3 years old, a newborn baby girl was found alive, one morning, in a neighbor’s garbage can. The baby was nicknamed “Elizabeth Taylor” because of her black hair. It was soon learned that her mother was the teenager who lived with her family in the rental house.
When I was 4 years old, a husband and wife had moved into the rental. One day, a gunshot came from the house. My father, a Bexar County Sheriff’s deputy, ran next door and took the gun from the man who’d just murdered his wife.
We sold the rental in 2014.
By then, I’d long been living in the house I had built on the far South Side. I loved the house and the area but it was far from the rest of my life. I sold it in 2016 and moved into an apartment on the East Side off Interstate 35.
It was alright but I missed living in a house and after a year was looking to rent one. I never really got around to looking for one and was about to re-up on my lease.
The man who’d bought our family rental had done some refurbishing on it. My brother asked him if he was looking for a renter.
He was and in December 2017, I became that renter.
It’s a small house with work still to be done and not one I’d buy. But it serves my purposes for now. I call it my “writing cottage” and it’s intriguing to be back on the corner in the neighborhood where I was raised.
The Friedrich Building still looms over it with dark, empty eyes, and Southern Pacific trains still whistle their way through Sunset Station depot several times an hour.
My next-door neighbor, my mother, who was 3-years-old when she moved into her house is now the neighborhood matriarch although most of the neighbors wouldn’t know because they are new to the neighborhood.
I call my daily walks “memory walks” as I pass houses and remember families who used to live in them, the children I played with, the conflicts and celebrations which spilled out of those households.
I remember the interiors of the homes, the meals served, and the yards in which we played.
Those families no longer own those houses. Old folks died and the young ones moved away, never to return—except me.
In Denver Heights, I can walk for blocks in any direction and count on one hand the number of houses owned by the same families who owned them when I was growing up. The near absence of generational continuity in home ownership in the neighborhood is startling.
I walk through a neighborhood of ghosts, feeling like a ghost myself, haunting streets upon which I’ve tread a million steps. I nod to unfamiliar faces in front of familiar houses and realize it’s only the streets who know me, so familiar are they with my footsteps.
When I was growing up, the neighborhood was predominantly black but with a good percentage of Latinos. It wasn’t unusual to stand outside and hear R&B and Tejano music being played.
A mix of middle-class and poor, of nice houses and those run down, it wasn’t anything close to being a slum or ghetto. But it says something about the mentality of my friends and me that as children, we’d feel sorry for the rare white folks who moved into our neighborhood.
We believed that no white person, if they could afford to live elsewhere, would choose to live near us, the black and the brown. That had to mean a huge fall from the paradise we imagined all white people lived in. They never stayed long before moving on.
Today, the largest demographic in the neighborhood, like the East Side itself, is Latino and there are more whites. In my first months back, I could identify the white people I saw as one of two kinds: heroin addicts and new homeowners.
Fortunately, the heroin addicts have disappeared. The new homeowners are planting roots.
It used to be, that whites lived in Denver Heights because they had to. Now they live here because they choose to, like they choose to live in Dignowity Hill and other East Side communities.
Never in my lifetime has Denver Heights—just minutes from downtown—attracted so much investment. Houses which have been refurbished are on the market for $300,000-$400,000. Even small, nondescript houses needing work are in the $100,000-$200,000 range.
My mother’s house, the family house which was paid for decades ago, is a house no member of my family could afford to buy.
Expensive but unattractive condos and townhouses whose designs are out of sync with the neighborhood’s older houses are popping up, as are bed-and-breakfasts.
Even the Friedrich Building is to be awakened and turned into a 174-unit apartment project, which could stimulate business development along the Commerce Street corridor, east of the railroad tracks.
New retail shops and businesses are soon to open or break ground and restaurants like Mark’s Outing and Tony G’s Soul Food and hangouts like the Dakota East Side Ice House and The Cherrity Bar are becoming community gathering places not only for the neighborhood but for people throughout the city.
For months, I’ve walked these streets with an embarrassing resentment that my new neighbors don’t have the memories I do and are unfamiliar with the stories I know. Embarrassing because of my self-absorption and knowing that one generation can’t be held hostage to another generation’s memories, or be held accountable for things of which they’ve been given no account.
No one is the sole custodian of a neighborhood’s memories, especially a neighborhood as old as mine. Each generation produces its own custodians.
Neighborhood history is preserved in stories told and retold until they have become legend and myth.
But when the storytellers pass or move away, when the front porch is less crowded, and when the stories stop being told and the memories no longer shared, who remembers its history?
The places of my youth are being supplanted by new places. My old and fading memories compete with new experiences of people and, one day, these new experiences will become old memories which they’ll stalk while haunting these streets like ghosts.
The word “corner” appears several times in this essay, what with corners being where so many of the places I’ve written about stood or still stand.
Street corners are intersections, a confluence of traffic where directions can be changed. The neighborhood of my childhood and—for now—my middle-age years is turning a corner.
So are my initial concerns about this turn, even within the course of this writing.
On a recent Friday afternoon, days after I’d written the passages about who are the custodians of a neighborhood’s memories and history, I went, for the first time, to The Dakota East Side Ice House on—here comes another one—the corner of Dakota and South Hackberry. I ordered Brisket Biscuits which, I assure you, will make me a regular customer.
Waiting for my order, I began looking at the black-and-white photographs covering one wall. Within seconds I was smiling, almost laughing while shaking my head.
They were a homage to history, pictures from the 1940s and 1950s of Alamo Iron Works, the Friedrich building, Sunset Station, “The Corner,” and several of Don Albert and his Keyhole club. My favorite was of Albert and Duke Ellington standing near the bar. Sitting at the crowded bar, looking back at them with a huge grin, is the unforgettable Nat King Cole. I took a picture to show to my mother.
This ice house, little more than a year old and thriving, is already a custodian of its neighborhood’s history.
This Denver Heights neighborhood is in transition. Yes, the sound of gunshots is frequent enough to not make you jump while streets are in such disrepair that your car will jump. But it is a neighborhood slowly becoming more prosperous and inviting to new families wishing to plant roots. People who, as my grandfather wrote 75 years ago about a house on a corner, “think the place is nice.”
I hope that families who’ve known this for decades, because they helped make it a nice place remain part of it. Families like mine.
Cary Clack is a local writer and member of the San Antonio Heron board of directors.