A revitalization effort in one East San Antonio neighborhood is highlighting the importance of art and green space in a community. On July 31, residents living around what will become Phillis Wheatley Park gathered at HIS Bridge Builders for an unveiling of the park design into which they had input.
It’s part of the Art in the Park Initiative in which the San Antonio Housing Authority turns unused green space near newly built or improved mixed-income communities into a family-friendly neighborhood park. In this case, the park is composed of a linear 1-acre strip of vacant land between Arthur and Lamar streets off North Mittman Street in the East Meadows community.
The park design is the culmination of several community meetings where neighborhood residents shared ideas, needs, and vision for the park and the artwork that will embellish it. It is the third project for SAHA; the organization also completed public art initiatives at The Park at Sutton Oaks and The Gardens at San Juan Square.
According to a conceptual site plan, the park’s elements will encourage visitors to have fun and be fit. The design contains an open lawn area, fitness equipment along a new walking path, a playground, sidewalks, a patio with picnic tables, shade structures, and a game court.
Lighting will surround the new park, which will also be dog-friendly, complete with a drinking fountain for humans and pets, a cleanup mitt station, benches, and bike racks. The park is slated to open to the public in spring 2019.
Among the public artwork included in the design are concrete lions, glass mosaics, and memorial walls with images, all helping the park to pay tribute to Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet.
The project also honors Ira Aldridge, recognized by many in the theater world as the first African-American stage star. Aldridge’s namesake street was removed in previous infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood, but will be honored as part of this Art in the Park effort.
The park will also feature public artwork created by Houston artist Reginald Adams to be incorporated into the park’s landscape design, which is by local firm Bender Wells Clark Design. Adams is perhaps best known for his public paint-and-mosaic-tile murals, including a few famous pieces of President Barack Obama in Houston and elsewhere.
Adams has been a renowned advocate of public art and its place in community revitalization. It’s through his previous public art project in San Antonio that by chance Adams met a representative from SAHA and got involved with the Wheatley Park project.
“My approach in community-based art is just that — community,” says Adams, who carefully noted input provided by neighborhood residents at meetings about the park. “I try not going into a project with a preconceived notion. I went to these community meetings with an open mind and ears. It’s those meetings I drew inspiration from.”
Among the three components Adams is crafting for the park are two concrete lions that will be posted at the park’s main entry. The lion was the mascot for the former Phillis Wheatley High School, which operated until the 1970s before the campus was turned into Wheatley Middle School.
Adams said neighborhood residents take pride in the lion mascot. “We thought it’d be a really unique aspect,” he said, adding that visiting children and their parents no doubt will want to sit atop a lion statue and take selfies. “This would put an air of regality into the park but in a playful way,” he added.
Adams’ art for the park will also involve memorial walls featuring images of Wheatley and Aldridge, and excerpts of Wheatley’s work. “The thought is to take their words and incorporate them into the sidewalks, landscaping and walls of the park,” Adams said.
Additionally, there will be seating surrounded by glass mosaics, and photos of prominent East San Antonio community figures. “I want my work here to be a reflection of (residents’) lives and voices,” Adams said.
The park development and other neighborhood changes have come as part of a $30 million Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant awarded to SAHA by the U.S. Department of Urban Development.
Earlier this year, the housing authority celebrated the opening of the senior living community, the second phase of the Wheatley Choice Neighborhood Initiative. This neighborhood initiative was designed to convert the previously distressed Wheatley Courts Apartments public housing complex into a mixed-income, sustainable community renamed East Meadows. The third phase of East Meadows development, currently underway, is expected to wrap up in 2019.
“I am extremely excited about teaching the children, as well as the adults that come to play,” said Rita Bethany, a resident of the nearby Wheatley Park Senior Living Community. “I think that these new changes are great for the community.”
According to SAHA president and CEO David Nisivoccia, residents can look forward to even more public projects, including a health clinic; improvements to sidewalks, curbs, and driveways; an urban farm; school improvements; and more.