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Reviving Guadalupe Plaza a matter of dignity, community

January 9, 2019

Access and safety.

In the end, after 30 years of the iconic Guadalupe Plaza anchoring the heart of San Antonio’s West Side, after two years and two months of the plaza being enclosed by a cyclone fence, and after a four-month process that brought the West Side community together in a series of input meetings, access and safety have surfaced as the issues that matter most.

It makes sense. The community wants its plaza back. That means no fence to keep people out. But safety is a real, palpable concern. The fence was installed — temporarily — to keep the plaza free of crime.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, though. The idea of access in the West Side brings familiar feelings of neglect and exclusion. West Siders don’t take well to being kept out, because for generations the community has been systematically isolated from progress — you can’t go from downtown to the West Side without having to cross a highway, then railroad tracks, then a jail complex.

The idea of safety takes on an added dimension here, too. Yes, there’s crime around the plaza. But there’s crime everywhere in the city — each part of town has its own brand of criminal. But for too long, when San Antonians think of the West Side they immediately think poverty, and crime.

I think something different, and the meetings we’ve had with West Side neighbors since September cemented two things in my mind: The West Side has dignity and community.

That’s how you renew and return Guadalupe Plaza to its neighbors — you answer the need for access and safety with dignity and community.

What does that look like? It looks like investment, programming and whichever opposite of neglect you care to choose: respect, use, attention, care.

But it could also mean completion. When the plaza was designed 30 years ago, it was part of a larger complex intended to revive that part of town. Funding shortfalls stopped the complex from fulfillment. Preliminary work has already begun to renovate the site and, among other needed things, bring it to ADA compliance. And there are funds to spark programming that bring families back to the plaza.

It’s a good start. But more is needed. Millions of dollars have been spent renovating parks and plazas around town — Milam Park, Main Plaza, Hardberger Park, to name three. The question was raised at our last community meeting — why not Guadalupe Plaza? Generations of infrastructure and, until 40 years ago, political neglect put that question in stark relief.

It’s a question of dignity. What’s needed is a response that matches the abundant dignity of West Side families and businesses and schools and neighborhoods.

Much has been said and written about the now notorious fence that encloses the plaza. The problem, though, is not the fence. The problem is that we’ve been asking the wrong question. Removing the fence is not an answer on its own. The fence is a symptom of the chronic disregard of one of the oldest, most traditional, most vibrant parts of the city. It would be a poor investment on the city’s part to remove the fence and spend a little on renovations and programming without addressing the root causes of neglect.

On Friday, I’ll be meeting with the wonderful young people from Latinos In Architecture who unveiled their proposed Guadalupe Plaza redesign in mid-December. We’ll be discussing the feedback we received from community members and planning the best way to move forward on this long-needed change. I’m determined to make sure that it’s also the beginning of renewed hope, attention and dignified investment for the Guadalupe community.

Access and safety go beyond the plaza, and our answer — dignity and community — should go beyond it, too.

Shirley Gonzales represents District 5 on the San Antonio City Council.

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