by Mary Tuma
A middle-aged San Antonian approaches the door, hungry, looking for assistance. Unable to work due to an injured back, he survives on a fixed income and receives food stamp benefits—an increasingly scarce resource due to recent national cuts. With children and grandkids, he barley makes ends meet to feed all the mouths back home. The man at the desk ushers him to a modest kitchen where he fills a brown paper bag to the brim with rice, beans and three kinds of bread. The hungry man beams, and offers repeated gratitude before exiting, bag in hand.
Arthur Flores, food program minister at La Villita Little Church pantry, fills a paper bag with rice, beans and bread for a hungry visitor. A new City proposal threatens the six-decade-old pantry's survival. Photo by Mary Tuma.
He’s from one of the estimated 600 households— of oftentimes elderly, widowed, disabled or unemployed residents—that visit La Villita’s Little Church food pantry each month. But after spending six decades as a trusted and dependable resource for San Antonio’s poor, a new City-backed plan is placing the nutrition distribution program in jeopardy.
Earlier this month, when the City’s Department for Culture and Creative Development asked building owners at the historic square to reapply for spaces they’ve long held, some tenants were distressed. The plan proposes to increase working artist studios from five to nine; reduce galleries from 12 to eight; add three restaurants and place “strict requirements” on the quality and type of goods sold at retail shops.
To do so, the department proposed transitioning the use of several of the spaces from either galleries to retail shops or office buildings into restaurants, as in the case of the two-story space that houses the food program—the largest of the 24 City-owned buildings in the square, the 3,000-square-foot structure (next to and separate from the church) is seen as the crown jewel of La Villita, and a coveted locale.
Why the sudden change after so long? Sebastian Guajardo, the department’s special program manager, tells the Current there are multiple goals at play including the desire to create a “vibrant and diverse” arts village with a range of different artists, to cultivate “bustling nodes of activity” and to enhance the tourist experience. To put it more bluntly, Guajardo, comparing La Villita’s foot traffic to that of the River Walk, pointedly asks, “Did you see a lot people walking around the last time you were there?”
Within the effort to allow artists and craftsman to showcase their authentic work in the area, the department’s recommendations hope to eliminate the perceived sale of overly manufactured items, “When you go into some of those shops, some may claim to be a gallery but they’re selling mass produced work, we want those products to be made by artists,” says Guajardo.
But that logic is hard to swallow for Cynthia Vela-Glass of Village Gallery, a pottery store she and her husband have owned for the past 40 years. Now, the store will need to transition to a designated “retail space” and she’s doubtful the shop will survive the strict requirements. Glass says the couple has invested about $200,000 in largely City-mandated upgrades to fall in code compliance over the past four decades— exiting now would be a major financial loss.
And the designation, she says, is peculiar since 95 percent of the items are handmade and already available for sale.
“It’s sad, we’ve put so much work into developing this business and built up our brand here at La Villita for so many years. We don’t want to leave,” says Glass.
Guajardo stresses the plan was drawn from recommendations laid forth in several studies, such as a 2008 Urban Marketing Collaborative Study on La Villita, “This was not pulled out of a hat
and these decisions were not made in a vacuum,” he says, “they are well-thought out.”
However, the recommendations strike some current tenants as a fairly blatant move to push them out so the City can boost La Villita’s bottom line and attract tourism. (If the plan goes through, the City would generate an additional $110,000 in revenue; the rental rate, for instance, of the church would increase from .31 cents to $1.25.)
“It basically means we have to start all over,” Arthur Flores, La Villita Little Church food program minister tells the Current at the church offices in between assisting needy residents. “We’re not happy.”
“Turning us into a restaurant to make a profit is really sad. We understand them wanting to revitalize La Villita
but they should keep letting us do what we’re doing— we’re here trying to help people.”
La Villita Little Church was established in the 50s. Church staff say the central mission has always been to feed the poor. Photo by Mary Tuma.
But Guajardo says the program could just run the food service out of the church itself. “I can’t help but laugh,” replies Flores, “are they suggesting we build a kitchen in the church?,” he says of the church dubbed “little” for a reason. Or they could move the operation to a mobile unit and park it on the street. Or they could wait and see if the City would find them a spot in another part of town. Flores says the options won’t do; the food program—the heart of the church’s mission—is well established and relocating would threaten the ability to assist the hundreds of clients it sees a month.
Tom Thomas, an unemployed veteran and food stamp recipient, enters the little church pantry on a Thursday afternoon hoping to walk away with just a few items to tide him over for the next few weeks. He recently read that the pantry’s fate was uncertain and asked for contact information of his city council representative in hopes of swaying a mind.
“We really need this service; there’s a lot of us that are not necessarily homeless but that live in homes and can’t afford meals,” he says. “Cuts to food stamps have been really devastating, so we need this more now than ever.”
The department plans to hold public information and stakeholder meetings in March and April and release their request for proposals in June. A final decision will be made when City Council approves contract awards in November.