Arts Who needs SoHo? We’ve got SoSo

Anchored by artists and small businesses, Southtown is expanding

As a kid, my folks warned me to look where I was going when I walked, and not stare at my feet, which is sage advice and probably spared me many an accident. However, had I followed it on a recent walk down South Presa, I might have missed this quote: “He came first and left her at the port of Naples waving. She really didn’t believe that he would send for her, but he did. They were married in the San Fernando Cathedral.”

Local commercial real-estate broker Steve Yndo has developed several projects along the South St. Mary’s-South Presa Corridor. Yndo says he bought his office on S. St. Mary’s “as a kind of self defense deal.” The building was in danger of becoming a “30-unit low-rent motel, which would have killed the neighborhood,” he says. “The office won’t be a big money maker, but it keeps things moving the right direction.” (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

The image it evokes of a hopeless woman waving at a ship starts the imagination rambling, perhaps more so because it’s someone’s actual memory, one of many Southtown histories collected by local artist Ann Wallace and stamped into the sidewalk of the pocket park at South Presa, San Arturo, and Callaghan `see “Secret histories,” July 8-14, 2004`.

Still, it does pay to look around you. Carlos Cortez’ faux-bois park bench — concrete and stucco, textured to look like a rustic wood bench — provides the perfect vantage point to view the South St. Mary’s-South Presa neighborhood’s transition: In the last year, a gas station has been transformed into a café, a house into a retail space, a uniform factory into a restaurant supply store, and a tire shop into a bakery — and there’s more to come.

“Just three years ago, we’d come out in the morning and there would be a pound of Cinta’s laundry lint blowing around on St. Mary’s,” says Steve Yndo, a Southtown commercial real-estate broker, who has developed several projects on South St. Mary’s and South Presa. “And then we’d have to pick up the quart bottles of beer. The homeless people would buy it at Sun Glo and drink it on the Bauer’s steps.”

In the last few years, Yndo has seen artists and small businesses push the neighborhood’s non-profits and law offices farther South, which has led to the renovation of what he calls SoSo, South of Southtown. Although Yndo says the artists were some of the first to move into the old neighborhood, he credits them for being the catalysts rather than the architects of revitalization. “Artists are more tolerant of the stuff that’s around and it’s cheap,” Yndo says. “Once they clean up the neighborhood and make it more interesting, other people say, well, it’s coming back, it makes sense to gamble.”

Mauricio Romero, owner of El Sol Bakery on South Presa has upped the ante. On January 20, he’ll add a café to his 2-year-old bakery, which specializes in whole-grain, low-fat Mexican breads and pastries for diabetics `See “Sin azúcar,” December 8, 2005`. El Sol used to be a tire shop and the café will be in what was once the garage, although you’d never know it to see the new coat of creamy, bisque-colored paint on the walls. Romero says the café will serve breakfast and lunch.

Across the street, Milagros Regalos y Mas also cultivates a warm, inviting atmosphere. “I want to make a safe haven for women,” says owner Cheryl Rodriguez, “to come and get a cup of coffee, sit on the couch and read a book, or make art.”

Rodriguez’ shop, a brightly painted two-bedroom house, smells of sweet soy candles, and incense smoke winds through handmade silver and bead jewelry, silk slippers, hand-painted vintage bags, cigar-box purses, hand-knit scarves, pillows, and more.

On Tuesdays, customers bring their own projects to Milagros for a “Stitch ’n’ Bitch,” and on first Saturdays, Rodriguez rents her backyard to local vendors for a Market Day. This year, she hopes to add craft workshops, a tea room, and a massage therapist. “I’m trying everything, girl,” Rodriguez says. After eight months of business, she’s still “just hanging on.” “Milagros means miracle. Boy, do I need one!”

In February, Milagros will have a new neighbor on Pereida: a wine and beer bar called Holden’s 101. Co-owner Ray Fuchs says the bar, named for Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, will feature acoustic bands and rotating art exhibits. “The big thing is that `our commission` on art sales will go to charity,” says Fuchs. “Right now, we are thinking about the Bonham Elementary art program, and we’re trying to get the art stores to match.”

Co-owners Ray Fuchs (front) and Kevin De La Garza stand in their new bar, Holden's 101, at the corner of Pereida and South Presa. They plan to open for business in February.

Fuchs is building the bar with his father, who remembers the low-slung 1920s building as an icehouse that sold contraband catfish. “He would come down here with his father and buy ice and fresh fish,” Fuchs says. “It was hard to come by in those days; you couldn’t catch and sell fish because the lakes were stocked by the state.”

Three palm trees mark Ann Wallace’s second pocket park, at South Presa, Sadie, and Eager streets, where one stamp reads, “My grandfather was the first person to have a black car dealership,” and a 1920s photo of house-proud Lon and Estella Mae Ellison leaps from the sidewalk.

At the Conjunto Heritage Taller, in the strip of storefronts that ends at Taco Haven, would-be musicians of all ages gather on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to learn to play the accordion and Bajo Sexto, a 12-string Tex-Mex guitar.


725 S. PRESA

728 S. PRESA


807 S. PRESA

1111 S. ST. MARY’S

1114 S. ST. MARY’S

928 S. ALAMO

1126 S. ST. MARY’S

1220 S. ST. MARY’S

1012 S. PRESA

“There’s lots of stuff happening down here that you might not notice — buildings that look like nothing, but there’s a lot going on inside,” says Yndo.

He points out the new Green gallery, housed in a rambling old Victorian, and the building Cakky Brawley recently bought for studio space. On South St. Mary’s, the old Picosos Peanut storefront is being renovated by Darryl Ohlenbush and will soon be leased as apartments and studio space.

The Sala Diaz compound, a cluster of bungalows long rented by artists and home to Sala Diaz art gallery, is the model for two long buildings Yndo plans to erect behind the old Sun Glo on South St. Mary’s. “It’ll be 12 units of live-work space,” says Yndo. “I’m hoping to have tenants like the artists and architects at Sala Diaz, to create that same kind of synergy.”

Yndo expects to finish that project at the end of 2006. In the meantime, Espuma coffeehouse has installed itself in the Sun Glo. Although the gas station’s red-and-white exterior is virtually unchanged, a coat of purple paint has transformed the interior into a cheery sunroom where regulars come to sip coffee and work.

Across the street, the Shambhala Center provides meditation instruction and classes on Buddhism, while its neighbors at Mission Restaurant Supply, in the beautifully restored Cinta building, and Ace Mart keep the neighborhood in kitchen supplies `See “Ace Mart v. Mission Restaurant Supply,” September 9, 2005`.

From there it’s just a short walk to Planet of the Tapes, owned by Angela and Rick Martinez. The video rental is now sharing space with Melissa Ozuna’s Time Warp Vintage and its racks of deliciously worn blue jeans, high-waisted dresses, and terry-cloth-lined Hawaiian shirts.

For a longterm view, you’d be hard pressed to find someone as cognizant of the changes to the corridor as Richard Hailey, owner of the Pig Stand, a fixture in the neighborhood since 1924.

Although “thrilled” with all the new business in the area, Hailey is more apt to note that crime in the area is down, and that improvements to the sidewalks and streets help draw foot traffic and tourists from King William and downtown. Hailey says that last year was financially difficult for the Pig Stand, but this year business has picked up such that, for the chain’s 85th anniversary, Hailey plans to renovate the restaurant, restoring some of the original architectural detail, including the pagoda-style roof, and updating the booths and lighting. “I think we could use some more crafts stores and things that would draw the tourists, many of whom are within walking distance, farther south,” Hailey says. “We could use a grocery store, for sure, and a hardware store, but we sure don’t need any more restaurants ...

“I’m just kidding. I think the more restaurants, the more vitality, it only makes the whole area more vibrant.”