Deliberative Acts in Reclaiming Hays Street Bridge in San Antonio

The Hays Street Bridge in San Antonio, Texas is a reclaimed public space that the community may access for family gatherings, wedding photography, poetry readings, dance, and art exhibits. The bridge was assembled from several other bridge parts, including a bridge that once served as a lifeline to marginalized neighborhoods cut off from the city center. Without bridges like the Hays Street Bridge, access to those neighborhoods, where the railway and other blue-collar individuals lived and worked, would be difficult, placing undue hardship on the community, and the city as a whole. This bridge provided access to places of employment for many, but the site fell into disuse and disrepair and was slated for demolition. However, the community that surrounds the bridge complex decided to reclaim this bridge as a public space, and, by so doing, not only saved the bridge as part of engineering history but also turned the bridge into a symbol of the revitalization efforts in south San Antonio.

The community-motivated revitalization effort was in direct opposition to other forms of revitalization, namely gentrification, which is typically led by corporations or individuals from outside of a community. The San Antonio Southside community resisted city government and big business investor plans to bring the bridge down. They reclaimed the historic Hays Street Bridge as a public space first, and second, renewed its relevance as a lifeline to marginalized, low socio-economic communities. These goals were met with the help of Puentes de Poder (PDP), a public education program organized by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (EPJC). PDP generated enough community engagement to galvanize community resistance and help sustain this reclamation effort. The program deliberately employed a rhetorical strategy, which I connect with Chicana feminism, to serve a culturally specific goal: save the bridge for our community. The EPJC used their resources through PDP to straddle two opposing worlds in the city of San Antonio–city governance and marginalized communities–by building public excitement and interest in the bridge and ultimately by engaging public deliberations across many communities. The community education initiated by the EPJC was a deliberative act to fight against a more massive bureaucratic structure, city government, and big business for the benefit of marginalized communities in south San Antonio.

I begin by defining deliberation and deliberative acts. Deliberation about public spaces tends to include people who hold power in a city, such as city planners, government officials, and experts employed by the city to conduct specific research. This deliberation is often “open to the public” or performed for the public in scheduled talks or town meetings, where the public is invited to give input or to watch and witness such proceedings. However, to participate, members of the public must know when meetings occur, have access to transportation, and be able to attend. Any restrictions to such conditions is a cause for concern because these restrictions make the process of deliberation accessible only to privileged people who have knowledge, means, and access to such public forums. Deliberative acts are different, in that these acts are not limited or designated to be effective only in such formal public forums where individuals with access and privilege are the only ones who attend. In other words, deliberative acts are different from deliberation because deliberation usually occurs with equal individuals who hold power. Deliberative acts span multiple communities and varying degrees of power. Deliberative acts involve “speech acts,” but are not limited to simple acts of speaking. Deliberative acts also may include all types of performance, including arts, photography, poetry, literature, and dance (Lyon 25). These acts are augmented by community education and allow for the performance of cultural difference as part of the deliberation process.

By adopting a Chicana feminist perspective, I investigate a culturally specific deliberative act, enacted by EPJC in its PDP effort to reclaim the Hays Street Bridge . Examining the ways community education programs augment deliberative acts offers us a rhetorical understanding of how marginalized communities access and claim power through enactments of self and performance. The EPJC provided a safe space through PDP for people to stand up through art, poetry, music, drama, and literature. They educated the community on the ways in which they, and people like themselves, have been excluded from the process of shaping their own neighborhoods. PDP is a community education project steeped in deliberative acts that ignited the public deliberation which surrounded Hays Street Bridge. In an interview, Travis Sparks, lead engineer involved in the restoration of the Hays Street Bridge, states, “It is through their [EPJC] action that people got involved and were able to reinterpret the history of the bridge”(NCPTT | Texas Dancehall Preservation and the Restoration of Hays Street Bridge (Podcast 30)). We can learn about the role that community educational spaces and deliberative acts play in the process of public deliberation by examining the ways community education programs, like PDP, augment deliberation to expand ideas about public spaces through deliberative acts.

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About the author

Sonya Barrera Eddy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She holds an MA in Creative Writing/Writing from Our Lady of the Lake University and a BA in Creative Writing from University of Arizona. Her work centers around the intersection of art, rhetoric, and writing with a focus on the way marginalized communities employ art and community education in deliberative contexts.