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VIA's East Side Restoration Project Leads Revival

VIA Metropolitan Transit recently won a Texas Preservation Award for its restoration of Ellis Alley, which was the first settlement of freed slaves in San Antonio. 

On the east side of San Antonio, a piece of history has been revived. From the 1880s to the beginning of the 1900s Ellis Alley was the center of African American life in San Antonio. Freed slaves were allowed to purchase land and they created a thriving community.

Today, what’s left are four small quaint houses and one two-story commercial building on Chestnut Street. The place is a welcome reprieve from the whir of traffic on nearby I-37 and the industrial buildings that surround Ellis Alley. Life back then may have been tight-knit. Ellis Alley’s only a block long, but back in its heyday there were more than 25 houses on that one block.   

The only two-story building in the East Alley enclave is cream stucco with red clay tile on the front and has some mission revival influence. It was originally constructed as a lodge which occupied the second floor for meetings and the ground floor was a funeral home. San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, or SAGE, occupies the building. Jackie Gorman is the Executive Director.

"All the buildings in the enclave have porches, a reminder of when there was no air conditioning. There’s a lot of windows and if we were to open the windows we’d get great breezes through there," Gorman says. "I have visions of coming through here in the evening I can see someone sitting on one of these beautiful porches in their rocking chair, talking to their children or talking to their neighbors."

Sue Ann Pemberton was one of the architects on the restoration project and is also president of the San Antonio Preservation Society.

"This was part of Reconstruction, and it was very successful here," Pemberton says. "The people were homeowners. By the time the railroad came through, they were working in the hotels, and the clubs, and the facilities all around this area which became a very business community for San Antonio."

But it wasn’t only all work for the people of Ellis Alley. The nightlife entertained the locals and drew visitors in from around the city.

"There were a number of restaurants and bars and the Cameo Theatre came in," Pemerberton says. "But there was always a jazz club that was predominantly patronized by the black community. Many of the very prominent black entertainers came to San Antonio, and performed here. Count Basie was here and a number of others."

Jeffrey Arndt is the president of VIA Metropolitan Transit, which occupies two of the houses that were joined together into one in the restoration. He says VIA restored Ellis Alley with hopes of reviving the area. Arndt says with a Park-N-Ride and Transit Center across the nearby, the area is quickly becoming the East Side hub for transportation, and more bus routes will be added. But, he adds, it’s more than that.

"With SAGE as a tenant, looking at economic development on the East Side, it also symbolizes the future, and the improved future of the African American community and of all business community, in particular the small business community in the city of San Antonio," Arndt says.

In addition to VIA and SAGE, a staffing agency and a counseling service share a duplex in another house. One of the houses is slated to be a coffee shop. And then there is the pink house. The very, very pink house. That’s where Cheryl Davis runs her dental practice.

"Well it was painted grey, a completely run down building. It was torn down. Several of the doors and planks were saved due to historical restoration. Then the developer decided on the color pink. I was very unsure about that. But it has served to be a very wonderful marketing tool," Davis says.

Davis says she feels honored to be an African American businesswoman in a place like Ellis Alley.

"My parents sacrificed. My ancestors sacrificed a lot in this country. And especially in a former African American settlement—an African American woman—it just gives me great pride to have come this far, to provide a wonderful service for everyone. When people walk into the office, they should be able to see a dentist, who happens to be an African American woman," she says.

In its heyday, Ellis Alley was packed with houses and businesses and churches and people. There may be only be four buildings left today, but those involved with Ellis Alley hope the success there will spread throughout the East Side.