Faster Than Sound: Pop Goes the Arts District

Fight over an empty lot near Riverside Drive intensifies, Xetas’ Kana Harris will open Bluebonnet Records in Lockhart, and Why Bonnie get a peachy opening gig

The proposed site for a Riverside arts district, previously home of Mexican market El Gran Mercado (Photo by John Anderson)

A large, empty swath of land sits behind an H-E-B near the intersection of Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road. It's planned to house a new "Pop-Up Riverside Arts District," which was supposed to be up and running by Jan 1. Or at least that's what Sun Radio Founder Daryl O'Neal was told when his station entered into an agreement with Austin Creative Alliance and the Presidium Group last year.

The partners have now informed O'Neal they face roadblocks from the city over the wind resistance of the planned structures, and are estimating a delay of three to six months. "The Pop" multibuilding complex planned to utilize temporary tent structures with enforced interior walls to occupy the site until permanent buildings were constructed, which would then be called the Riverside Arts District. Local groups including Austin Creative Alliance, Pump Project, Soundwaves Art Foundation, and Tapestry Dance Company announced plans to move to the district.

Located at 1600 S. Pleasant Valley, the lot's been vacant for over two years and now stands as an ideological stomping ground for concerns over art space affordability, out-of-town developers, and anti-gentrification activism. O'Neal sums it up as "uniquely Austin, the entire situation," given that the project faces a boycott from local activist organization Defend Our Hoodz, which opposes Presidium. Backed by L.A. investment firm Nimes Capital, the development company currently owns the Ballpark Apartments, four complexes that provide affordable housing for students and families.

The apartments could be destroyed if plans move forward for a new, Domain-style development on East Riverside.

"It isn't the art that matters to Presidium," shares Defend Our Hoodz member Jessica Meza, a student resident at Ballpark. "It's the look of the neighborhood that they want to promote. Then, they can push me and my neighbors out of our affordable living to bring in new Oracle employees and tech workers. All the connections that [the arts district] has throughout the city make it essentially the perfect aggregation of the gentrifying force that we have to fight."

Ahead of the East Austin Studio Tour in November, a large tent sponsored by Presidium appeared on the site to host arts events throughout the week. Defend Our Hoodz later celebrated the tent's removal on social media, but developers say it was planned to be taken down before construction began. Local artists, including musicians Black Joe Lewis, Street Sects, and Smiile, among others, signed onto the group's boycott. DJ collective Chulita Vinyl Club and cumbia artist Kiko Villamizar dropped out of an early-December Almost Real Things-hosted "block party" in the temporary tent, which ceded the event to another venue.

While activists oppose the Riverside Arts District for ushering out area affordability, many of the district's future tenants cite rising rents and lease cutoffs elsewhere as their reason for relocating. Pump Project left their East Austin location after the building was sold, and O'Neal says the rent offered by Presidium is around half of what they paid for their previous station in Bee Cave. Due to the building delays, Sun Radio is now operating out of a conference room in the upscale Edison apartments, owned by Presidium.

Staff scrambled to relocate the station after their previous lease ended with 2018.

"Austin makes billions of dollars leveraging the art in our community, but there's no formal plans for these artists or anyone that supports them to live, work, and stay in the city," says O'Neal. "This district is trying to create an environment where the live music capital of the world can support artists, because the government certainly isn't doing it. There aren't a lot of choices out there."

Kana Harris (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Flipping the Record

Kana Harris' earliest memories are of taking apart her mom's CDs to memorize the liner notes. In high school, the media junkie toted a DJ's vinyl carrying bag to go buy records during lunch. Frontwoman of established local punk act Xetas, Harris now manifests that obsessive love into a new vinyl outpost. Bluebonnet Records opens early this spring in Lockhart's town square, adding to the community of music capital expats.

"When I started working at a record store, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is where I need to be,'" the Austin native recalls of her years managing at Waterloo Records. "When you're that kind of nerd, all your skills are useless in the normal world. To have someone come in and be like, 'Can I hum a song and you tell me what it is?' I get a thrill out of that."

The bassist/singer also observed the pitfalls of record collecting culture "worshiping the same five rock bands." While her shop will buy and sell used vinyl, Harris wants to emphasize new releases, as well as hip-hop and regional Texas music. She's building up stock on Lockhart-born Tejano legend Augustin Ramirez and adds "to sum it up, yes, I will have Willie Nelson, but I will probably push Barbara Lynn on you."

Harris resides in Lockhart with her partner Cody Kimbell, guitarist/vocalist of Super Thief. As a former elementary music teacher, he'll help out with community engagement efforts, including an electronic beat-making lab for local youth. "More musical librarian than salesperson," Harris plans to continue booking and assisting with music events at other Lockhart businesses. At Bluebonnet Records' small space, she hopes to curate a judgment-free zone for musical discovery.

"Spotify wins because people are too scared to interact and seem uncool," she says. "In my mind, the promise of a place where that won't ever happen is the ideal record store experience. That would be a destination for me."

But Why Bonnie?

By the time they made it to Philly for a midtour basement gig, Austin dream-pop quintet Why Bonnie felt pretty blah. Despite sniffles, the stopover on the band's summer tour found a fan in a friend of indie rock wiz kid Lindsey Jordan, aka Snail Mail. Apparently, the Austinites' lush, melancholic tunes left a good impression.

Why Bonnie ultimately landed an opening spot with the rising guitar star for five out-of-state dates in early December. Every show sold out.

"On the plane, it was one of those sobering moments when you're literally realizing your dreams," adds Blair Howerton, provider of the locals' potent songwriting, billowing lead vox, and guitar accompaniment. "With music, you have to take every success as an achievement."

Why Bonnie reunites with Snail Mail on Jan. 19 at the Mohawk, and tickets went fast. Happily, the cap city crew brings its bright, bustling pop to Cheer Up Charlies this Sat., Jan. 12, for the release of Peach Bloom Records' Lonestar: A Texas Friends & Family Compilation. The statewide sadcore tape is assembled by Alex Montenegro of Dallas act Skirts, which joins Why Bonnie and local songwriting aesthete Fuvk for the show.

Howerton's band put out two excellent EPs in 2018 with NOLA mini-operation Sports Day Records. Latest Nightgown presents a grab-bag of the frontwoman's amassed songwriting material. She recorded lo-fi smidgen "In Parking Lots" solo years ago, before rounding up her current troupe of guitarist Sam Houdek (Growl), bassist Chance Williams (Dude Elsberry), drummer Mitch Lamon, and her lifelong best friend Kendall Powell on synth.

"For the longest time I was like, 'I don't want to be just another sad girl with a guitar,'" shares Howerton, reflecting on her postcollege jump to start a band. "Maybe that's what I was for a while, but if you work towards envisioning something bigger, you can surprise yourself."

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Riverside Arts District, Austin Creative Alliance, Presidium Group, Sun Radio, Defend Our Hoodz, Bluebonnet Records, Kana Harris, Xetas, Why Bonnie, Blair Howerton, Snail Mail, Peach Bloom Records, Lonestar: A Texas Friends & Family Compilation

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