The people who know what’s going on

Yesterday I met a Hispanic pastor in  San Antonio whose church features a Spanish-language service as one of its three Sunday morning services. Those are increasingly common nationwide, but this guy’s church had an interesting wrinkle—one that is a tell-tale sign of what’s happening with immigration along the southern United States border.

This pastor speaks fluent Spanish, and his parents are from Mexico, but he was raised in Texas. A few years ago, he realized he was “no longer fluent enough” to reach his neighborhood’s current wave of native Spanish speakers—recent immigrants, many undocumented, who are living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

By “fluent enough,” he didn’t mean language, but culture. “My skin is brown,” he said, “but my culture is U.S.”

“These people are from Mexico, but also Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,” he said. And they’re very new to the United States. I asked him how often he meets people on Sunday mornings who have just crossed the border illegally. “All the time,” he said. (Note: that’s why I’m not including names or locations in this post.) His Spanish-language service expands and contracts based on what’s happening in the news. “That service shrinks when a[n ICE] crackdown is happening,” he said. “And I understand—people can’t leave their homes.”

He realized his skin color, his lifelong Spanish fluency, and his deep Mexican heritage wasn’t enough to relate to the immigrants of today. So he recruited a young person from Mexico to come help him and his wife lead this portion of their church community.

Think about that—the care and concern and principled leadership involved in that decision. This church is not large, and its neighborhood is high-poverty, with a median income around $33,000—well below the national average. It’s a stretch and a risk for this church to hire another pastor, especially one whose job is to focus on the most vulnerable and transitional people in the congregation. But that’s what this guy did.

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A San Antonio church. (Not the one mentioned in this post.)

Which leads me back to a thought I have a lot these days:

One of best ways we could serve America’s most vulnerable people is to ask pastors and priests serving low-wealth neighborhoods to make a list of what they need, and just give it all to them. Yeah, I know that’s been tried, sort of, and it’s a non-starter politically.

But it pains me, because I talk to a lot of ministers in low-wealth neighborhoods, and what I find is that they really know what’s going on—they have direct, up-to-the-minute knowledge of the lives and needs of people in a few square miles of city. Unlike elected officials and even many activists, ministers talk to the people in these neighborhoods everyday, and they talk to a cross-section: parents, young children, teenagers, the elderly, small business owners, the out-of-work, ex-cons, the disabled, people struggling with mental health issues, and on and on.

And what needs would these ministers identify? Well, they might surprise you—though I find that their thinking often echoes what I read from the best academic researchers and journalists on these issues.

The pastor I mentioned above mentioned two big needs: a soccer field for local youth, and business training for locals who are running fragile-but-promising ventures like lawn care and BBQ catering. Both needs, if fulfilled, would touch upon a laundry list of issues that the government and big nonprofits and foundations struggle to address: for the soccer field—physical health, idle time, confidence-building, teamwork thinking, beautifying a dangerous empty lot, and more; for the business training—economic development, leadership training, job creation, and more. (Side note: if this nation ever gets serious about job development in low-wealth areas, we’ll apply our startup know-how to the mom-and-pop businesses that already exist.)

These needs are no big deal in some parts of town. Fields of play are easy to come by in middle- and higher-class areas. Business coaching happens almost naturally in higher-wealth areas; it’s in the water. But in this pastor’s neighborhood? The infrastructure is not there. These needs are hard to meet.

A few years ago, he was able to get a playground built in his under-served neighborhood. It took some relational capital and some luck. A wealthy white business owner heard about the need, and offered to help. They had a meeting with few of the wealthy man’s friends, and by the end of the meeting, the men had pledged the $60,000 needed to build the playground. A few months later, they had a playground building party complete with 200 volunteers and free food and a band.

Cool story. But boy, that’s a hard model to scale across the many structural needs in a community like this one. Especially when no one thinks to ask deeply informed leaders like this pastor what a community needs.

This pastor recently turned down a big job offer in another city, one that would have given him and his wife some financial stability. He and his wife agreed that they simply could not leave. There is still too much work to do in this community. And if they don’t do it, who will?

A city in 12.5 miles

Anyone wanting to get a taste of the economic and social changes affecting people in San Antonio would do well to take a drive down Zarzamora Street. It runs only 12.5 miles, but that short distance covers a lot of ground.

Here it is: zarzamora map

In that trip, you can see what’s churning in our city. Gentrification? Check. Aging public housing? Check. Boarded up businesses? Check. Struggling traditional schools? Check. Newer charter schools? Check. Historic churches? Check. Distressed houses? Check. Middle-income neighborhoods? Check. Big new developments? Check. Untouched fields? Check. Plus plentiful taquerias, old-school factories, local artist murals, and more.

Start in the Deco District. Open the Zillow app and click around the listings, and you’ll catch the tell-tale language of gentrification: “up and coming neighborhood!”—“popular area”—“recently transformed”—“restored to original glory”—“income-producing property.” Per square foot, this is some of the priciest real estate in San Antonio. Here’s a listing for $160/square foot; here’s one for $161.

Zarzamora runs that way for about 7 blocks, or half a mile. Then you cross Woodlawn, and things suddenly shift. Woodlawn Lake is within walking distance, but now we’re in not-yet-transformed territory. The real estate listing lingo changes: “great opportunity” — “great potential.” The prices per square foot nosedive: This one is $108. This one is $71.

gentrification copy
A friend of mine called this paint color “the color of gentrification.”

(Every now and then, you’ll find a pioneering property, if “pioneering” is the right word, and it’s not. What I mean is that you’ll find someone who has ventured into an area they expect to gentrify, but they’ve ventured alone. “WOW COME SEE THIS HOME,” says this listing, which is asking $120,000 for 864 square feet. That’s $139/square foot on a block where most of the homes are severely distressed.)


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A house directly across the street from the listing above.

Retail changes in this area, too, as does the density of it—more aging businesses, and also more boarded-up businesses.

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Zarzamora Street Gym, for sale.

Eventually, you cross Alazan Creek, and then Apache Creek. You’re near big public housing complexes like the Cassiano Homes, and venerable nonprofits like Good Samaritan Community Services.

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One of two murals on the handball courts at Escobar Park.

Keep going south, and at some point you’ll realize you’re in what we call the Southside. Development is less dense here, and it’s more visibly middle class. You’ll see a Starbucks. You’ll see both a Home Depot and a Lowe’s. You’ll see the South Park Mall. Palo Alto College announces itself in the distance.


Downtown from Zarzamora copy
The view of downtown from Zarzamora St. and Gillette Blvd.

Passing under I-410 brings another dramatic change. Open fields abound, but there is an anchor institution: the Texas A&M University-San Antonio. It’s a commuter campus, and I imagine most students come via 410, but I recommend the Zarzamora route—especially to the sociology students. It’s easy to imagine the fields around this campus filling in as the years go by. For Sale signs are positioned at the edges of some fields as Zarzamora runs southward until it abuts Route 16.

Take a drive of Zarzamora. It’s all here—the city’s historic heart, its churning present, and its future in flux.

Zarzamora south end copy
The south-most point of Zarzamora Street. It’s a long way from Deco Pizza.