Crime and the City Solution
Do you know who's killing Austin's golden goose?
"You've been treading some unsafe ground." – "Six Bells Chime," by Crime & the City Solution, from the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, 1987
It was a fine night, Thursday, March 26, edging past 12mid, 60 degrees and muggy as all hell, but still nice enough. Thunderstorms rolling toward Travis and Hays counties were still nine hours away.
South by Southwest was a week over, and Sixth Street had returned to a semblance of normalcy, which is to say that around 1:30am Friday, March 27, the crowds were boisterously loaded but no more so than usual. The perpetual echo of music ricocheted around its self-proclaimed world capital. While the teeming heart of Austin's entertainment district at closing hour is rarely what anyone would call mellow, this night seemed pretty much like any other.
Which it was, right up until the moment when a sweet-natured, 21-year-old aspiring screenwriter named Nikolas Evans took a short, sharp sucker punch to the front side of his head from an unidentified black male assailant. Evans, who had been out for drinks with his friend Hugo Lagunas at the Dizzy Rooster and, later, Coyote Ugly, collapsed, the back of his skull connecting with a stretch of Neches Street pavement halfway between Coyote Ugly's east-facing side porch and the dance club Fuze – connecting hard enough to cause severe internal bleeding.
According to Austin Police Department Homicide Detective David Fugitt, initial 911 calls reporting the assault came in at 2:26am. The first APD officer arrived three minutes later. Closed-circuit video-surveillance footage from the area shows somewhere between 15 and 25 potential witnesses, although none have come forward to date. Lagunas provided a description of the assailant and a Hispanic male and two Hispanic females who also fled the scene.
Austin EMS arrived within minutes, and, again according to Fugitt: "From that point on, Nikolas Evans was transported from the scene to Brackenridge Hospital, where he was placed in ICU and essentially underwent a medically induced coma. He died approximately 10 days later. Once he was actually pronounced deceased, that's when the homicide unit took over the investigation."
To date, no arrests have been made, although Fugitt continues to work the case. "It's going on 76 days now," he says.
"So far as we know, the assailant did not know Nikolas Evans nor have we been able to determine that this was any type of hate crime that took place. We don't believe that it was racially motivated, but the investigation is very fluid, and the information we have today is certainly subject to change tomorrow."
In short, something's going terribly wrong on Sixth Street between Congress Avenue and I-35. During the past 10 months or so, the area has become a frequently bloody, often dangerous, and potentially deadly corridor that threatens not only the rock & roll heart and soul of the live music capital of the world but also the all-important revenues generated by the 512's single greatest claim to fame.
Sixth Street's never been a model citizen. On any given weekend, it's sloppy drunk, with alleyways that reek of urine and panhandlers that reek of permanent street-stank. The exiting bar crowds can be sporadically volatile, and fisticuffs are hardly uncommon. Despite a police presence, the area has remained steadfastly unruly, and, to a degree, that's how people like it. After all, if you scrub away all the grit and the grime, you might end up with a regrettable Texan version of post-Giuliani Times Square, safe but no fun, one boring longhorn of a street.
Beginning sometime around the tail end of last summer, Sixth Street's party-hearty vibe began to take on a menacing tone, which recently culminated in the May 29 shoot-up outside Spiros nightclub (see "Off the Record," June 5). Longtime Downtown residents point to an influx of "bad elements" lingering after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in September 2005. Others rightly point out that crack-dealing is visible virtually everywhere in the area. Still others think the gangs – Crips, Bloods, and the multinational Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 – have organized their ink-stained muscle in the center of the city's livelihood.
The one thing everyone – bar and club owners, service industry workers, and Downtown residents – agrees on is that Downtown Austin is experiencing a spasmic uptick in violent criminality and that the quality of life and leisure in and around Sixth Street is suffering because of it.
"Violent crime, year-to-date, citywide, is up 2 percent," says Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo, sitting in his office at APD headquarters, surrounded by Darth Vader memorabilia ("Because I always knew there was good in the guy, deep down"). "But when you go to the Downtown Area Command, violent crime, year-to-date, right now, is down 14 percent. Because we have been putting resources down there. And when you think of that citywide 2 percent spike, bear in mind the significant budget reductions we've been experiencing. We are doing more with less. Our Downtown is still one of the safest downtowns in the country."
It's impossible to imagine a tougher job in Austin right now than that of chief of Police. The city is expanding, amoebalike, well outside of its Travis County origins into both Williamson and Hays counties, it's fast approaching the 1 million population mile marker, and budget decreases are resulting in problems ranging from social-services shortfalls to less pay and longer hours for teachers, firefighters, and, natch, the police. To top it off, public perception remains that violent crime in Downtown Austin is spiraling out of control, and, as Acevedo is quick to point out, "perception is reality."
One explanation for the recent perceived surge in both overt crime and aggressive panhandling in Downtown Austin – and one that until now was believed to be more or less apocryphal – is the disconcerting possibility that other Texas cities (specifically San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Fort Worth) are, in fact, sending their recidivistic riffraff down to Austin. On buses.
"We have had instances here where our officers have spoken to people who have insisted that they were actually placed on a bus by other police departments in other parts of Texas and shipped here," acknowledges Acevedo. "We have not been able to confirm that, but I can tell you, speaking from experience, police departments have been known to do stuff like that. We will never do that.
"I think what's happening in our city is that people are realizing it's a good place to be. It's a friendly city, it's a generous city, and so I think to an extent that makes us a little bit of a magnet or a soft touch."
As anyone – like me, who's lived at Fifth and Brazos for nearly a full decade – can attest, there's far more ominous skullduggery going on in the Sixth Street and Red River areas than a few busloads of miscreants. Virtually every weekend the corners in the district sprout hoodie-clad corner-boys straight off of The Wire, while surly, hollow-eyed and hankie-waving valets-from-hell intimidate people looking for parking into coughing up some scratch lest their Lexus adds to the shattered automobile glass that's everywhere, every weekend, all the time.
"Here's the challenge for us," offers Acevedo. "I know that this is going to be blasphemous for some people to hear, but we generally have a very permissive attitude when it comes to drugs [in Austin]. We don't take it that seriously. We don't realize narcotics dealing creates a lot of other problems. You get people with addictions coming around and then violent crime that's directly or indirectly related to the narcotics trade.
"One of the things I noticed early on is that we have a reputation, as a county, of being somewhat ambivalent when it comes to drug use and narcotics violations. So the challenge for us is that things are not going to get better. They're going to get worse as [the city of Austin] continues to grow. We have to re-evaluate, collectively, as a community what the standard of living we want to maintain is. We have to recognize the role that drugs play in the tremendous property crime that we have here.
"I believe there needs to be a conversation between the public, all segments of the criminal justice system including the Police Department, the District Attorney's Office, and, quite frankly, the judiciary as well.
"We're now a big city, and we have to start addressing [the drug problem] like a big city."
Quick and Dirty
Statistically speaking, Austin's entertainment and live music district – again, between Congress Avenue and I-35 running west to east, respectively, and on the north from Waterloo Park down to Cesar Chavez – is the engine that runs Austin's economy. Although exact figures were not available at press time, the 2008 South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival and Conference by itself injected "approximately $103 million into the Austin economy," according to an economic impact analysis prepared by AngelouEconomics, a local development consulting firm.
Also relevant, as Josh Allen of 6ixth Street Austin notes: "E. 6th St. generates about $50 million in mixed beverage revenue each year, according to a quick and dirty look at TABC's 2007 data. That doesn't include anything subject to simple sales tax, such as retail, food or beer or wine."
While it's too soon to tell what if any impact the public perception regarding Downtown's dodgy climate will have on Sixth Street-generated city revenue, it's certainly not too soon to worry about it, especially when you're walking out of the area at 2am on any given night.
Independent Realtor Jude Galligan, who hangs his proverbial hat at the Sabine on Fifth condos when he's not shuffling pricey Downtown properties, says he hasn't seen any drop-off in the market.
"Not yet," he amends. "But, in Downtown, we've never seen a string of negative media reports like we've seen over the past few months. I think those media reports are warranted and perhaps long overdue, but the concentration of them could certainly have a negative impact on people's perception of Downtown.
"Sometimes we need sensationalized headlines just to get something going."
If you don't live Downtown, work on or near Sixth Street, or take in the bars and clubs on a regular basis, you could be forgiven for not realizing how dire the situation feels to those who do. But dire it seems, and dire it is. You need only poll a few local business owners as to what they've been seeing.
Gary McCreight, owner, Aaron's Rock & Roll, Sixth and Neches:
"We've been here for 20 years this year, and from our vantage point, it seems like we now have organized gangs who are not only selling crack out in the open, they're also selling fake crack, and they're victimizing and robbing the homeless at least as much if not more than they are those people who come down to the Sixth Street area to go to bars or clubs or wherever.
"We see it from our windows every night: Whenever the cops are around, the drug dealers scatter, but the moment the cops walk past, the dealers are right back in front of our store. Like clockwork. I think what's happening is that the gangs are recruiting homeless people to work for them. I know for a fact they've got them acting as lookouts, and I assume they also sell crack for them."
Asher Garber, owner, Room 710, 710 Red River:
"I don't want to attribute the uptick in crime to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, but I definitely think it's associated. I'm not concerned about the people who are sleeping in the ARCH at 8 at night, and I'm definitely not attributing this crime wave to the homeless, at all. It's the people who aren't sleeping in the ARCH that I'm worried about. And that location, across from a liquor store in the heart of the entertainment district? That doesn't help." (See "Mobile Loaves & Fishes.")
Graham Williams, Transmission Entertainment:
"Downtown has gotten pretty crazy, for sure. As for why this is happening, I can only attribute it to the economy. Maybe it does really trickle down to the point where people who were already pretty desperate are now to the point where sticking a shotgun in someone's face is a viable solution to their problems. For sure, that whole area near Red River on a Friday or Saturday night is nowhere near as safe as it used to be. It's treacherous."
Beat's So Lonely
"Downtown is the most critical asset that we have as a city," says Sheryl Cole, widely regarded as the City Council member most engaged and active in all things Downtown. "Obviously, a large portion of our tax revenue comes from the tax base that is Downtown. It's also the central place for our tourism industry from which our hotel occupancy tax is derived. So I think it's critical as a city that we keep it safe. And we are determined to try and do that."
Cole's determination may not be enough to cut through the creeping sense of slippage that's making itself felt in Downtown Austin. What may end up being far more effective in the long run is the revitalizing yet nongentrifying tactics being undertaken by Downtown neighborhood groups such as the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and the Downtown Austin Alliance.
On March 10, former DANA president and current DANA board member Marshall Jones, an associate vice president of investments for Wachovia Securities, was instrumental in bringing together DANA, various community stakeholders, and the APD at the Hilton for the first meeting of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Crime Watch. That meeting birthed several plans for the group, not least of which was a Downtown Austin Crime Prevention website (www.downtownaustincrimeprevention.org), a useful online forum to help keep abreast of crime-related issues Downtown.
"We need to clean up the small issues, and the bigger issues will go away," asserts Jones. "Small issues are graffiti, broken glass all over the sidewalk, and allowing drugs to be sold right in Brush Square Park. Cleaning up the alley behind the Brazos Lofts alley. That's really a bad alley."
[Full disclosure: It's also my alley.]
Most ambitiously, there's the Downtown Austin Alliance, a Downtown-centric quality-of-life consortium representing 250 Downtown commercial-property owners led by Executive Director Charles Betts. In the wake of the Spiros shooting, the alliance offered up its version of how best to achieve an ideal Downtown at the June 1 Public Safety Task Force meeting. Among the bullet-pointed suggestions to the city of Austin and the APD were suggestions such as "the implementation of technology, such as crime safety cameras" and "an increase in police presence Downtown – both foot patrols and special strategic operations."
This idea of community policing, essentially a return to the ideal of the old-fashioned, Brooklyn-style "beat cop" who would patrol, on foot, a few blocks of downtown without being rotated out every few months and thereby earning the trust and learning the names and faces of both the residents and the merchants on his "beat," is one that virtually everyone interviewed for this article, including Chief Art Acevedo, agreed with.
"We've asked the federal government for 50 police officers for the three bureaus that Austin is divided into," says Acevedo, "and when I get those bodies, what I want to do is turn them into squads of about 18 officers and put them in areas where there's a lot of crime, but put them on foot and on bicycles only. No cars. To do exactly what you're talking about. Unfortunately there's about $1 billion worth of funding and several billion dollars' worth of requests.
"What we need the public to do is write to their congressional delegates – Lamar Smith, Lloyd Doggett, Congressmen [John] Carter and [Michael] McCaul – and let them know that we need those 50 positions. We'll use them for exactly what you described.
"To me, community policing is a philosophy in which the community is your friend, and whenever you can, you try to befriend people by getting to know them, by being responsive, by opening lines of communication. The problem with that is that it requires a lot of resources. We still have to take calls. The challenge is how do we do that with our current resources and when we've got calls stacked up already? But that's how New York City cut down their crime; they put four cops on every corner."
In the meantime, the Downtown Austin Alliance is taking steps to ensure the rebirth of Sixth Street, an uphill struggle in the best of times, but one that Betts assures is possible.
"We see East Sixth Street as our biggest challenge," says Betts, "but it's also a huge upside opportunity. People say you can't change East Sixth Street, that it's going to be the same damn dump that it is, but look at what South Congress did. Remember what SoCo was 10 years ago? If South Congress can do it, for God's sake, East Sixth Street can, too. That's the most historic street maybe in the state, those six or seven blocks. We have the opportunity to turn a problem into a destination place, a wonderful place for everybody."
"Mixed use" is the key, meaning less shot bars and more economically viable retail and specialized properties such as the Alamo Ritz, Esther's Follies, and dining establishments like parkside, Chez Nous, and El Sol y la Luna. Couple that with the return of the aforementioned beat cops, and Austin might find a permanent solution to its entertainment district woes.
Do You Know Who Killed Me?
All this talk of revitalization, the reinstatement of the beat cop, and the creation of "great streets," an urban development term that refers to prominent streets with pedestrian and tourist-friendly features such as wide sidewalks, benches, trees, and sidewalk dining arrives too late for Nikolas Evans.
At the time of this writing, his mother, Marissa "Missy" Evans, and APD Homicide Detective David Fugitt still have no clue who murdered Nikolas or why. With the help of Capital Area Crime Stoppers, she's erected a billboard with her son's face and a "Do you know who killed me?" message at the corner of 30th and Guadalupe, and there are plans to place similar signage throughout Downtown, on the sides of buses, on pedicabs, and wherever else a call for anonymous tips might be useful. No luck yet.
Any killing is a tragedy, but Nikolas' murder reverberates even more poignantly in a town in love with film, filmmakers, and underdogs. The aspiring screenwriter-filmmaker, who revered Paul Thomas Anderson's melancholic Magnolia and the work of Paul Newman, Elia Kazan, and Woody Allen, had been accepted to UCLA film school in the weeks before his untimely death. His girlfriend, Vicki Do, and he were planning a move out to Los Angeles later this summer.
Nikolas sported dueling tattoos on each bicep, a heartfelt quote de coeur from his favored literary muse, Hunter S. Thompson: "Too weird to live, too rare to die."
And, one might add about Nikolas Evans' death, just too goddamn sad.
Murder by Numbers
*Downtown Area Command statistics, discoverer using highest offense based on current boundaries.
Dowtown Austin Crime Prevention
Krimelabb: Austin Citywide Crime Data
Downtown Austin Neighborhood and Real Estate Blog
6ixth Street Austin Blog
Capital Area Crime Stoppers