San Antonio’s Westside, the poorest district in the city and one of the poorest urban communities in the United States, received some exciting news last month. The Aspen Institute and the newly created local entity ESTAR West announced a partnership designed to lift the entrepreneurial spirit of Westside residents in an effort to breathe new life into the community’s economy.
The announcement event hosted by former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros included local community leaders long active in job creation, affordable housing, and educational opportunities. Key players in this enterprise include Janie Barrera, the long-time CEO of Liftfund; Ramiro Gonzales, the new CEO of Prosper West; and Olivia Travieso of the OCI Group.
There are approximately 2,600 small businesses in the Westside’s 15 square mile area. Although Latinos account for 64 percent of San Antonio’s total population, their ownership of small businesses stands at only 24 percent of all San Antonio small businesses. The majority of these businesses are in food service/hospitality, retail, healthcare, and social assistance. The majority of Latino businesses have fewer than five employees and 80% have fewer than ten employees.
There is much ESTAR West can do to generate new economic activity in the Westside and lift its residents out of longstanding poverty status. Among ESTAR West’s major objectives is to assist 30-50 businesses a year in making progress toward a 50 percent increase in revenue and profitability. With an increase in revenue, there is hope that the businesses will hire local workers. For example, Latinos make up a large share of the construction workers in the city, but there are only a handful of construction companies based in the Westside’s 78207 zip code community [hereafter Westside07].
Existing companies and startups in this industry can expect to receive equipment and training, something that ESTAR West proposes to provide over the next three years.
Solving problems facing urban communities must begin with a thorough understanding of the community, its history, its evolution, and its priorities and needs. Knowledge of the problems is an important beginning as resources are identified and invested. Only with accurate information, planning, and resources can community leaders expect to put forth solutions that address the community’s most important and persistent problems.
The Westside’s lowest-income sector, Westside07, is a high-density community. With an area measuring 7.3 square miles, the 78207 zip code zone encompasses half of the Westside area of interest to the Aspen Institute and ESTAR West. The district extends west of Interstate 35 beginning at Cattleman Square and is bordered by Our Lady of the Lake University and Cupples Road. The boundaries on the North reach out to Culebra Road on the edge of Little Flower Cathedral. Its southern boundaries run along Frio City Road.
In the year 2000, the U.S Census estimated the population of the Westside07 district at 56,484 residents. In 2020 the community registered a slight decrease with a population estimate of 56,348 [1]. Hispanics make up nearly 91 percent of the residents of this community. Whites at 5.2 percent and Blacks at 3.3 percent account for much of the remaining racial and ethnic groups [1]. The Westside07 has been losing residents for more than three decades. The districts surrounding this community are
also Hispanic majority areas and have absorbed many of the residents leaving 78207.
In the post-WWII era, Westside07 included the Avenida Guadalupe, Prospect Hill, and homes near the Brady Gardens. The community benefitted from proximity to Kelly Air Force Base and the large meatpacking Alamo City industries. The closing of Kelly Air Force base and the exodus of the large meatpackers coincided with the migration of Westside07 residents to other parts of San Antonio. In the last three decades, the stability of the 78207 community has been very fluid with high rates of mobility. In the 1940-1960 era, Westside07 residents worked in the San Antonio downtown retail stores as well as in smaller family-owned businesses near their homes. Many of the Westside’s small businesses closed their doors unable to compete with the larger mall stores. Other Latino businesses moved to the small strip malls in suburbs miles outside of the Westside.
There are many reasons for the exodus of
Westside07 residents, including a desire to be closer to jobs, better schools for their children, cheaper rents, affordable housing prices, and, in some instances, safer neighborhoods. Although housing in the Westside07 is relatively inexpensive, most of the housing is also older, with the vast majority of homes built prior to 1960. Despite a lack of population growth, the population density of this community remains high, at 7,719 people per square mile.
In 2019, Westside07 residents reported an average income of $27,205, significantly below the city and state
average [1]. Most residents of this community continue to work in the service and hospitality industries which pay only slightly above the minimum wage and seldom offer health and retirement benefits.
The Westside07 community is also the poorest in the city with a poverty level of 35.5 percent, a substantially higher rate than that of the state average of 13.6 percent. An estimated 83.2 percent of the Westside07 residents reported an income less than the earnings of the average San Antonian. As a consequence of this poverty, many Westside07 residents must rely on housing and food assistance from local charities and agencies. []
The statistics provided by the San Antonio Food Bank reveal some of the needs resulting from income inequities of the Westside07. Westside residents were the recipients of a large proportion of the 120,000 meals per week distributed to local communities. Successfully managing such a large-scale distribution effort required a dedicated staff numbering 260 employees aided by 72,000 volunteers. For the past twenty years, Eric Cooper, the Food Bank CEO, has managed food assistance with military-like precision that has helped many Westside07 residents provide for their families.
Good planning, execution, and precision will also be needed to create new businesses for the Westside07 community. ESTAR West acknowledges the need in the future to redevelop and activate vacant property and to improve infrastructure. ESTAR West and its partners are also considering how best to attract more small businesses, entrepreneurs, customers, and visitors to the Westside. They argue that by highlighting and celebrating the Westside’s historical and cultural attributes the community can become the New West, a frontier for growth and development.
Not discussed here are the pressing Westside07 educational issues which often account for the lack of good employment opportunities. These issues will be a topic for a later essay.