Mapping Calle Ancha
The Avenue That Existed Before That Big Parking Lot in the Sky, I-35, Was Built
By Belinda Acosta, Fri., Jan. 26, 2001
La Calle Ancha -- "the wide street" -- isn't among Austin's high-profile streets and avenues. It's not at the center of debates between pro-development mavericks and historical preservationists like Rainey Street. It doesn't have the sexy cachet of Sixth Street, and unlike Congress Avenue, it's not the centerpiece of walking tours to celebrate architecture or institutionalize municipal pride. The truth is, Calle Ancha isn't found on any Austin map. That alone would suggest that Calle Ancha never existed. But that is not entirely true.
Calle Ancha is the nickname of what was once East Avenue Parkway, the street that existed before that big parking lot in the sky, I-35, was built. Calle Ancha is found in the memories of many Austinites of Mexican origin who are 60 years and older and either played on the calle or lived on or near it. It's commonly agreed that the calle started at the river -- before it was known as Town Lake -- and ended at 10th or 12th street, depending on whom you ask and what period of time the speaker is recalling.
When asked to talk about this place called Calle Ancha, the speaker's face will change -- a fondness flashes in their eyes. However, capturing and reconciling the memories of Calle Ancha with the official History of a city that holds its cultural mythologies as immutable, was an invitation to all kinds of misery. But here it is.
At the turn of the century, East Avenue -- La Calle -- was unpaved. Waller Creek trickled untamed through part of it. Broad pelts of rough pasture, with narrow swaths worn by foot or tires, meandered toward shopping areas, and toward homes located all around it. In one Austin History Center photo, dated 1931, a horse dips its head to nibble at the wild grass, while people go about their business, chatting or off on foot toward some unfinished errand.
At one time, there was a quiosco near First Street (now Cesar Chavez Blvd.) where American Legion bands used to play every Sunday. A Parthenon-like structure sat on a high hill near Brackenridge Hospital. In between, there were key landmarks, remembered with various degrees of clarity by some, forgotten by others. The most commonly mentioned landmarks include the Market Cafe at Sixth Street, remembered for its size, its long counter, black and white tile, 20-foot-high ceilings, and ceiling fans. Down the street, the City Market sat at Seventh Street, where for nearly three decades, farmers from the outlying areas brought their fresh fruits and vegetables to sell. Some time in the Thirties, the city built a huge, four-pronged shelter to allow trucks to pull up to assigned stalls. Buying and selling was done, of course, but it was also a place where families could meet, and neighbors and friends in from outlying areas could shoot the breeze. Eventually, the City Market was replaced by the police station.
Across from the City Market, for a time, was the Red and White Grocery, where housewives in the area could phone in their orders for bread, milk, or eggs, and expect delivery by a kid on a bike or on foot. Until 1971, the Matamoros Restaurant was at Sixth; Ferris Drug was between Sixth and Seventh. Bickler School was near 11th Street, as was Samuel Huston College, sitting where the present-day Eckerd's is now. An old-fashioned school bell at Bickler tolled to call children "from all around to come to school." A strange thing to imagine hearing nowadays, in an area saturated with the pulse of traffic.
When the avenue was paved in 1933, part of a beautification effort first conceived in 1919, the most prominent feature of Calle Ancha were the islands (parketas) that split the avenue in half, between Fourth and Eighth streets. These expanses of green, while not developed into parks as understood today, became the site of family picnics, places for "vatos to hang out with their guitars, looking for girls," or resting places for those who'd finished shopping on Sixth Street. Sometimes, as Austin resident Joe Sanchez remembers, "the negritos would come down (from above 11th Street) and we'd play baseball on those islands," while people sat on their porches and watched.
Sanchez has lived on East Sixth Street since 1946. Before that, he lived on Calle Ancha with his family for 20 years before he and his five brothers volunteered to serve in World War II. His father was part of the construction crew that not only paved the calle, but "paved nearly every other street in town" and helped build the UT Tower and the area dams. When asked if he thought this writer's perceived affection for Calle Ancha was real or imagined, he agreed it was real.
"Oh yeah, I think that when a lot of gente Mexicano moved in from the west side, they sunk their roots in deep, buying property there on the calle and on the Eastside," Sanchez says. He estimates that the big migration of Mexicanos from the west to the Eastside occurred in the Thirties and Forties. The reason? Development.
"Mexicanos couldn't afford to live there any more."
The move of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in 1925, a hub for many Mexican-origin families, further encouraged migration when it moved from West Fifth and Guadalupe to its present location at Ninth and Lydia. The area from Seventh to 10th, and East Avenue to Navasota, became the Guadalupe neighborhood. The area exists today, even after attempts at "developing" the area, Sanchez says.
"During the Thirties and Forties, and especially during the Depression, people worked hard to hang on. Back then, it seems like everyone was more united. Almost everybody knew everybody. The church had a lot to do with it, but it seems we were happier. We didn't have a lot, but we were happier then," Sanchez says.
It wasn't just Mexicans in the area. Germans, Lebanese, Greeks, Jews, and blacks co-existed on and around the avenue, though from all indications, the existence was separate, but friendly.
A major intersection with Calle Ancha was Sixth Street, a much different Sixth Street than the one today. In Austin's early days, Sixth Street (Pecan Street until 1884) was the city's main east-west thoroughfare. An economic boom in the 1870s initiated the laying of railroad tracks on Fifth Street (formerly Pine Street) to accommodate the explosion of traffic and commerce, as "Austin's most prestigious businesses were located there," according to an Old Pecan Street Festival brochure published in 1984. In the late 1880s, Congress Avenue began to pre-empt Sixth Street in prominence with fashionable shopping, and with the construction of the Capitol complex. "Sixth Street still functioned as a site for offices, warehouses, and showrooms for companies utilizing the railroad," the brochure continues. What the brochure doesn't reveal is that in contrast to Congress Avenue, immigrants, including some blacks and Mexican entrepreneurs, were filtering into Sixth Street, opening businesses that catered to railroad labor, as well as the less "prestigious" or "fashionable" families in surrounding and outlying areas, who came to town to shop, trade, and socialize. Saloons, dry goods stores, barber shops, dentists, lunch stands, shoemakers, pharmacies, doctors' offices, and more thrived on Sixth Street and spilled onto East Avenue (Calle Ancha).
The Sixth Street Connection
Anglos and the various ethnic groups appeared to operate in a state of equilibrium, it seems, until something was at stake, be it diminished resources (as in the Depression), or a claim to a certain, intangible sense of prestige or entitlement.
"Oh sure, I remember those shoeshine boxes that I saw the other kids had," said Sanchez, remembering when he was about 10 or 12 years old during the Depression. "My brothers and I got one and went up and down Sixth Street, and when we went on to Congress, the police chased us off, saying, 'Go back. We don't want you over here.' We were just kids, trying to raise a nickel and a dime!" he said. "The cops, they were pretty rough back in those days, acting as cop, judge, and jury."
Even when overt exclusion from Congress began to loosen, it didn't mean that Mexicans or people of color were welcome. In an interview for the Mexican-American Oral History Project, housed at the Austin History Center, Lorraine "Grandma" Camacho shared an experience shopping at Woolworth's, which sat at Sixth at Congress until the Eighties. As a light-skinned, "but you don't look Mexican" woman, she often received different treatment.
"I was over there to buy some donuts to take to the family ... and there were some Hispanic ladies in front of me ... and the waitress would say from way over there to me, 'Can I help you?' And I said, 'No, honey, you can't help me. You have all of these [women]. Help them.'"
There is no shortage of these kinds of stories, which explains why businesses on Sixth Street and Calle Ancha existed, both as a necessity and as a refuge.
"Calle Ancha was a very important landmark," said longtime Austin resident, poet, and activist raúlrsalinas. "It was a boundary. It determined parameters for sure, a sense of security, because that street almost protected the neighborhood. Sure, it was the result of benevolent neglect, but left alone, it was a really neat place where you could walk and hang out."
In the 1940s, "serious commercial erosion accelerated after World War II," the Pecan Street brochure explains. "Buildings were abandoned and a general 'skid-row' atmosphere took hold. This sad condition worsened in the Fifties and Sixties." Coincidentally, this period of decline of Sixth Street occurred as more and more businesses catering to poor, mainly Mexican and black clientele, were surviving on the street. At the same time, the "super-duper highway," as I-35 was called in the Austin Daily Statesman, was making its way to the downtown area -- and the segment known as Calle Ancha -- ready to displace not only Calle Ancha dwellers but the "scene" that was part of its culture.
Progress for Whom?
"We didn't call it 'Calle Ancha.' We just called it East Avenue," said Austin native Bernardino Verastique, in an interview shortly before his untimely death last year. "'Calle Ancha' sounds like redacted chicanismo from the Seventies and Eighties to me." Although Verastique, who was an associate professor of religious studies at Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio at the time of his death, doesn't remember using the name, his memory of East Avenue and the Sixth Street area is vivid. He grew up on what is now an empty lot at Eighth street and I-35.
"My mom was a beautician back then. She bought three little houses on Eighth Street and when the highway was being built, people came to our house ... and offered mother fantastic amounts of money. She wasn't interested in selling, and then the city condemned her houses, to get the right of way, and the city gave her what they wanted to pay. Grandmother stayed in the last house near the French Legation, but it was eventually condemned, taken by 'eminent domain,'" he said.
The 1950s was a period of intense activity on the part of city and state planners who sought to realize the "dream" of the super-duper highway. Several articles in The Austin Statesman played up the wonder of "a motorist's dream" and how Austin would leap into the 20th century if such a dream were realized. A Statesman article -- featuring two large photos, one of East Avenue somewhere between First and 17th, the other of a sinuous boulevard in an unknown location -- was followed by the words: "The dream shatters when he hits the inadequate stretch of East Avenue between First and 17th Streets. Austin needs up to $1 billion to acquire right-of-way before this vital link can be built." What was not discussed was: vital to whom, and more importantly, at what human or cultural cost?
Highway planners got their wish, as announced in a 1956 Austin American article: "The long-planned stretch of the super, regional highway from north of Round Rock to south of Kyle, through Austin came nearer to reality, when the State announced it will make available $12 million for right-of-way purchases. ... State Highway Engineer, Dewitt C. Green said the highway commission would set up 'some money for protective buying on East Avenue in Austin from 19th to First Street.'" This funding meant that the last leg of I-35 could be built in the downtown area.
"That's when progress really kicked us in the ass," raúlrsalinas said. "I don't think people were really clear on what that meant in terms of community destruction, not until later ... If you never had anything, and they [the city] offers you something, you take it!" he said of the state buying and then razing houses on Calle Ancha for the pending highway.
Perhaps "progress" is always inevitable, and at that place and time, Calle Ancha was the only suitable choice for a highway. But what chills to the bone in reviewing the press of the time, and comparing it with oral histories, is the underlying desire to dismantle not just the landscape but the underpinnings of a culture. Done purposely or not, the result is the same.
"I noticed around the time all this was happening," Verastique said, "That there were these articles in the paper about how Sixth Street was dangerous, how the area, especially by East Avenue, had to be cleaned up, because people would hang out. It bugged people."
Indeed, an Austin Statesman article from 1953 paints the Sixth Street-Calle Ancha area as both wild and illicit ("a few months ago you could buy a stick of marijuana on almost any corner any day"), and populated with lazy "Latin Americans" (as Mexicans were called in the press). A photo ran next to an article titled, "It's Different on Dream Street." In the photo, two men are chatting and the description reads: "... These two Latin Americans ... talk it over early Wednesday to decide whether to go to work or go inside for a cool drink. Inside, peppery Latin American music ... lures many a worker away from his job ..." The two men, other than the broad description as "Latin American," are not named. It's unclear whether the writer of the article actually spoke to the individuals. In fact, the only person directly quoted in the article -- which at best, can be described as "colorful" -- was Louie Laibowitz, the "mayor of Sixth Street." Another photo, with two men and a woman, all unidentified, has this speculative description: "All are waiting ... for a friend, a live one ... maybe a drink or an idea ..." Not that Sixth Street and Calle Ancha were idyllic settings. There was crime and shady doings at night, many of those interviewed said. But during the day, it was a community meeting as well as shopping area.
"In Anglo culture, there is no 'plaza society,'" Verastique mused. "I think it came down to a battle between the plaza culture of the Mexicanos and the blacks, who were used to hanging out in parks and market places; outdoor places like East Avenue, and later Sixth Street (back then) were outdoor places. When that was destroyed, there was this kind of American, 'go live in your little cave' mentality. That's when the hippie establishments began to appear. They didn't come down near the highway, until the late Seventies," he said. "And that's what I really call the end of Sixth Street and the beginning of the Austin mystique. It started with the Armadillo World Headquarters and grew from there -- this idea of Austin as a liberal, artistic mecca. It was called a renaissance for the city, but at the same time, the highway became a major wound for the Eastside culture."
Ironically, the coffeehouse culture is not unlike the Calle Ancha culture many remember, though there are obvious differences in its class and space parameters. The comparison does not escape Verastique.
"Hey, I guess if it's cappuccino, it's okay. If it's atole, it's not."
Austin is not the only city to have a legacy of cultural effacement and neglect. Perhaps that is why coffee culture has become so prevalent, as a way, consciously or unconsciously, to make space for intercultural discourse. On the surface, coffee culture seems trendy, but perhaps it's really steeped in a desire to make connections. Perhaps progress, while displacing what appears to be a small segment of society, really has broader repercussions.
"What I feel was lost was this networking. In the old days, families would come around ... at Christmas, bring presents, coffee, hot chocolate, and tamales ... re-establish connections," Verastique said. "I don't know where that's at now. Unless you selectively chose to do these things, these rituals disappear. I think back then, it was a slower time, more civilized, gracious, we would spend time with neighbors to talk, eat, and drink. But I romanticize it a bit, too."
East Austin has not died. It's gone through its changes, but it hasn't rolled over and died. Evidence of this is in the creation of the Saltillo Plaza, the efforts behind the Center for Mexican American Culture, and revitalization of longtime institutions like the Nuevo Leon Restaurant, which weathered economic and cultural changes, and continues.
It does no good to "hold on to the bad things," Sanchez says, but it's important to do what you can, not to forget the past.