When Bekah and I moved into our little 1890s house and started renovating, we knew we wanted our private act of homesteading to plug in to the wider public atmosphere of life within Dignowity Hill. Life in this neighborhood was just too rich not to want to take part in it as fully as possible.
It’s always been a neighborhood of eccentricity and off-the-radar downtown living. There’s an overabundance of atmosphere in this little corner of San Antonio. It’s a crazy old patchwork quilt of falling down mansions, newly restored mansions, backyard shanty towns made of corrugated metal, giant pecan trees, old-fashioned neighborliness where everyone knows everyone else’s business, Union Pacific railroad noise violations, old timers who remember when it was all once a thriving and diverse family community, homeless people under the I-37 overpass, newcomers buying crumbling houses that nobody wanted for decades, and long conversations with friendly strangers in the middle of empty streets. We saw the richness of this smorgasbord and knew this place was speaking to our souls. (We’ve got weird souls.)
There are some very basic tasks that need to be happening in Dignowity Hill: steward the land, love your neighbors, fight for the poor and the oppressed, pray for Jesus to come back soon – all very typical stuff that needs to be happening everywhere regardless. But there is something about the atmosphere of historically depressed neighborhoods that makes all of these tasks feel particularly urgent as you go about your daily business here. Maybe it’s from all the broken things so readily on display left over from years of civic neglect. Maybe it’s the little patches of shinier new or repaired things cropping up here and there that stand in such stark contrast to the general state of the area.
We’ve been trying to immerse ourselves in this place relationally by joining the neighborhood association and getting to know the other folks on our street, learning from those who’ve been here long before us about what local causes we ought to help fight for (stray dog control) and what kinds of people we ought to be suspicious of (anyone barging in to the neighborhood who doesn’t want to be neighborly). We’ve also been trying to immerse ourselves physically in this place by trying to get our little plot of land to contribute in some way to the atmosphere that already exists here, and maybe even to add some new elements to this atmosphere that have never quite existed before.
Renovating the interior of our house was a necessary starting point, but I had always been looking forward to transforming the house’s exterior as a way to contribute something a little more public to the character of our street and our neighborhood. The exterior we started with had the usual neighborhood flourishes: chain link fence, ornamental burglar bars, non-original columns, sagging porch roof.
As we progressed with interior work I kept thinking about our house’s tired exterior. I began sketching some ideas. Our wildly ambitious goal as always was to force something transcendently wonderful into existence. But this always involves a bloody struggle between my competing desires for high performance, frugality, adventure and overwhelming beauty. Somehow I always find myself stuck in this same battle no matter what I’m trying to accomplish, whether it’s designing a building or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The city granted us a Certificate of Appropriateness and then we started wrangling some good craftsmen and laborers. Dirt began to fly. We’ve now made some progress in transforming our little stretch of street frontage into something more reflective of the interior life of our house. When our neighbors walk down the sidewalk past our front yard now hopefully they have a little more graceful experience here than they used to.
All of this renovation work is really just about making an attempt – in the messy old world of today – at drawing a sketch of what a new world might look like. Right now we’re trying to sketch an image of this new world at the scale of one house on one street. Other friends are at work in this same way on other properties on nearby streets. Maybe if we’re lucky our collective efforts will have some combined effect at the larger scale of our neighborhood and not just as isolated curiosities flaring up here and there.
Making sketches is an important part of any design process. I often think of our house as something like a sketch itself. As much as I aim for perfection, this house is still just a rough draft attempt at representing some other more perfect idea of a house. We might achieve that other house later under some other more perfect set of circumstances.