PODCAST: Interfaces 1 (Government Hill)

Jo Ann Murillo at home in Government Hill.
Jo Ann Murillo at home in Government Hill. All images Marisol Cortez unless otherwise credited.

Marisol Cortez

A couple Sundays back, in late March, I finally get around to visiting Gil and Jo Ann Murillo where they have lived for decades in Government Hill—a neighborhood at the northeastern corner of what is now downtown, so named because it abuts Fort Sam Houston to the south.

Longtime neighborhood activists now in their 80s, Gil and Jo Ann live in a buff-colored, salmon-trimmed Victorian home originally built in 1925, which sits right on the swift-moving access road of I-35 South. Hemmed in by Fort Sam to the north, Broadway to the west, N. New Braunfels to the east, and I-35 to the south, the neighborhood feels self-contained and cozy, like a small, close-knit village nestled within a much larger city.

It’s pretty and tree-lined in Government Hill, the multi-colored houses large and old and well-lived-in, many of them subdivided into smaller apartments. The only other time I’ve really been there is once when I went to the San Antonio AIDS Foundation for an HIV test.

Jo Ann and Gil Murillo with a map of the neighborhood
Jo Ann and Gil Murillo with a map of the neighborhood (outlined in black) in relation to the larger East Side.
Government Hill map
Map detail: the Government Hill neighborhood (outlined in black). The white space up top is Fort Sam Houston; the white stripe down the middle of the neighborhood is Interstate 35.

As Gil and Jo Ann and I speak, though, I suddenly recall a deeper connection: the first house in which my father lived, the house in which he was in fact born, was also in Government Hill, on N. Alamo Street. During the 1940s, my grandmother worked at Fort Sam, a Mexicana Rosie the Riveter while my grandfather was stationed overseas during WWII.

When he returned from the war, they moved across the river to the Tobin Hill neighborhood. But my father and his two oldest brothers were born in that house in Government Hill, where one of my dad’s earliest memories—from infancy, he claims—is of hearing the sounds of Playland Park on Broadway.

My grandmother, Bertha Magdalena Cortez, holding my father Carlos Cortez in the yard of the house at 1915 N. Alamo, circa 1948. Courtesy Image.

There’s something about houses right on the edge of the habitat fragmentation wrought by intensive infrastructure—highways, train tracks, rail yards—that makes them feel, paradoxically, remote or rural. Near our house, for instance, which is a block-and-a-half away from where I-35 South crosses over San Pedro Creek, there is a little street that passes under the highway and over the creek, connecting one side of the neighborhood to the other.

Somehow, the little houses along that street, right on the bank of the channelized urban creek and in the shadow of the massive highway underpass—the houses that refused to sell, the houses left standing when the highway bulldozed its way through—feel far less touched by industrialization than our house, which is farther away from the highway but feels entirely colonized by the view of the offramp that looms at the end of our street.

Government Hill, highway
Edge effects: the flowers/the highway.

Gil and Jo Ann’s house is like the little houses on Furnish Street, so close to the highway it seems far removed from it, the green fields of pink primroses in full bloom all the more vivid and beautiful for their nearness to the cars and the concrete.

Government Hill is an edge zone, an interface, in another sense—it is where new, high-dollar development, triggered by redevelopment of the old Pearl Brewery, crosses Broadway to the east and begins to uproot the working-class fabric of the original neighborhood.

Government Hill development

I don’t go to Government Hill to talk to Gil and Jo Ann about this, necessarily. I go there, rather, to get their input as elders on which neighborhoods to select for another project I’m working on, an episode I’m curating for URBAN-15’s Hidden Histories web series.

This episode will examine histories of neighborhood removal and resistance to that removal in San Antonio. It’s partly rooted in the writing and the community work I’ve done on land rights struggles here. But it’s grounded too in my own personal history: our own house was taken and demolished when I was a child. I’ve seen the Tobin Hill neighborhood where my grandparents raised my dad and his siblings, not far from where I grew up, almost completely transformed by gentrification due to the Pearl.

That neighborhood too is now an interface, on the other side of the river from Government Hill.

Mural on the side of San Patricio parish.
Ah, the panoramic iPhone feature. More edge effects, left to right: public housing, AIDS Foundation vehicles, new-build gentrification.

I didn’t go to Government Hill that Sunday to learn more about what’s happening there now: illegal spot zoning of vacant lots for high-end multi-family housing, against established community plans that designate the neighborhood as single family residential. But I notice these things nonetheless, driving to Gil and Jo Ann’s house, in the jarring interface between the public housing complex and San Antonio AIDS Foundation on one side of the street and, on the other, new construction advertising condos that start in the 300’s.

And when I arrive—I bring the tacos, Jo Ann supplies the coffee—they school me firsthand. Click the podcast player up top to listen for yourself.