The Ghost of Developers Past
128 years of Rainey Street
In many ways, nineteenth century Austin was not unlike Austin today. Then, as now, it was a boomtown, and savvy developers swooped in to take advantage of prime land along the city's margins. One early real estate bonanza happened in 1884, when Jesse Driskill and Frank Rainey subdivided 16 acres between Water Street (now Cesar Chavez) and the River. Lots sold quickly as the city's newcomers clamored for more housing. Most early residents of this tree-shaded neighborhood were white, middle-class tradesman whose occupancy was long-term. However, demographic transformations swept the entire city in the early twentieth century. Middle-class families with means abandoned Austin's Downtown for suburbs north and west of the city. By the 1920s, the makeup of Downtown residents consisted mainly of working-class families and ethnic minorities. These demographic changes also corresponded to a decline in owner-occupancy, and increasingly industrial development in Downtown.
The Rainey Street subdivision was not spared. In 1908 for instance, the city's Street and Bridge Department moved into the northern half of the subdivision's Block 7 (now the Mexican-American Cultural Center). The regular passage of supply laden mule carts in and out of the maintenance yard was just the first inconvenience to the neighborhood. The flood of 1935 damaged or destroyed many houses in the neighborhood. Subsequent public works projects, most notably the construction of I-35, left this neighborhood stranded. By midcentury, most residential neighborhoods were gone and the urban core was rapidly becoming a ghost town. Its own little island, the residents of Rainey Street held on.
Municipal planning controversies over what to do with the Rainey Street neighborhood began as early as the 1960s. In 1967, a study recommended that the neighborhood should be the first project in a comprehensive Downtown renewal plan. Citing the deteriorating condition of the houses, the study concluded that the neighborhood would benefit from clearance and reuse that would replace existing single-family dwellings with high-density residential and commercial development. Neighborhood residents like Rudy Zapata saw things differently. Rainey Street was home, and despite growing noise and traffic, many families had neither the intention nor the means to move.
More studies were generated. A 1978 report estimated that more than half of the dwellings in the neighborhood were dilapidated. By this time, however, there was a growing awareness of the neighborhood's historical value. Residents joined with preservationists, and in 1985 they were successful in listing the Rainey Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The formal recognition of the neighborhood's historical significance succeeded in briefly cooling the most ardent redevelopment pressures; but by the 1990s, Austin's tech boom again had real estate hawks eyeing Rainey Street.
It took another 10 years for residential cohesion to weaken enough to allow for re-zoning. The 2004 re-zoning into the Central Business District opened the way for Rainey Street's latest transformation. It is unclear which of the competing interests have won out. Many, but not all, of the historic buildings contributing to its status with the National Register remain standing, but have been converted into bars and restaurants. The quaint Victorian houses and charming bungalows are the very elements drawing this latest wave of entrepreneurs and bar-goers to Rainey Street. Among bar owners, the commitment to preserving the historic character is strong. This represents a win for preservationists. On the other hand, the original impetus for historic preservation efforts came from people who hoped that preservation would safeguard the residential neighborhood. This has not happened. Ten bars and restaurants have opened during the past six years, with at least five more new venues planned.
The city's last historic Downtown neighborhood is now its latest entertainment district. So take a walk, have a snack, and enjoy a beer. And while you're at it, soak up some history.