Dawson: Birth of a Neighborhood

Lightsey Road, Between Congress and First

With more than 1,100 households within its boundaries, the year-old Dawson Neighborhood Association (DNA) could be the subject of a lot of differ- ent stories. But for now, and for most of its existence, the focus of DNA's attentions has been right here, on the north side of a bridge over East Bouldin Creek, at the maw of a drainage tunnel, in a puddle of unsightly silt and stagnant water.

Currently, it's not a very large puddle, but that could change right quick. This is the outfall from the storm sewers for the new Ben White Freeway. Come the next big rain, tens of thousands of gallons of runoff from portions of the newly built highway will flow - for half a mile at pretty high speed - through a tunnel underneath South Congress, make a sharp left at Lightsey, and dump into the creek. At first, the runoff will be muddy with construction debris; later on, it'll be rank with oil, gasoline, and grease. The first pollution trap along the creek - aside from the backyards of the Dawson neighborhood homes that flank it - is planned for the corner of Gillis Park, at Oltorf and South First, at the very northern edge of the neighborhood.

In addition to distorting the drainage patterns in the East Bouldin Creek watershed, the freeway construction has severed the creek from its headwaters and filled in large sections of its uppermost reaches. None of this work, which was performed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) as part of the US 290 construction, was accompanied by the legal niceties - environmental impact statements, stormwater discharge permits from the feds, permits from the state, or go-aheads from the city planning department - that have generated such outrage among private landholders who find them onerous. (Paradoxically, perhaps, the western half of the Ben White project - where the freeway meets Lamar and MoPac - has been lauded as a model of enviro-sensitivity, notably in an enormous Austin American-Statesman feature, dominated by a full-page infographic, that must have made TxDOT very happy.)

If this were the whole story, it would be the same old story: Despite our lately heightened eco-consciousness, much of Austin's unique and extensive creek system has been wasted by the march of progress, and those who oppose these manipulations are held to be romantics at best, anarchists at worst. Sadly, this is not the whole story, as you can see at East Bouldin Creek's intersection with Ben White. The freeway substantially alters, and not for the better, not only the mien of the landscape but the lay of the land itself.

If you walk east on the Ben White frontage road from Banister Lane, you go uphill to South First, then downhill to the creek, then back uphill to South Congress. But if you walked down the bed of the freeway itself from Banister Lane, you go straight downhill all the way to South Congress, where the underpass is quite deep. This means that over six acres of concrete, (traversed daily by thousands of commuters in the near future), that used to drain into West Bouldin Creek - which is wider, greenbelted, and flanked by railroad right-of-way - now drains into East Bouldin Creek. Add to that another two acres of highway lanes east of the neighborhood boundaries that normally would have flowed into Blunn Creek, and you get a whole lot more dirty water flowing into East Bouldin Creek than ever before.

In Austin, there's a correlation between the depth of a streambed and the public esteem for the creek within it; it's the cliffs, bluffs, and falls on Barton, Bull, Shoal, or Onion Creeks that make them pretty and popular. East Bouldin is a shallow little creek that winds through residents' backyards, often within their property lines. These folks, especially the ones who live north of Lightsey and below the outfall, are already losing their backyards to bank erosion. Homemade barriers - from stretched landscape fabric to extensive masonry work - can be seen behind homes all through the Dawson neighborhood. Although the last big flood was in 1981 (about a month after the famed Memorial Day floods), East Bouldin's neighbors routinely watch the creek wash over their properties during heavy rains, especially as it backs up behind the pipe bridges and culverts that span the creek under cross streets. They are, unsurprisingly, not happy about seeing more water come under - and over, and around - the bridges, to the point where many are wondering how the recent property-rights craze will apply to them if their homes are washed away in a flood of diluted axle grease.

Neighborhood activism in Dawson, as in so many Austin neighborhoods, was born out of crisis; the DNA's battles with TxDOT and the city's Public Works & Transportation Department (PWTD) have dominated its brief existence and galvanized its members. About half the articles in the DNA News, the association's newsletter, deal with drainage along East Bouldin Creek, usually in less-than-ameliorative terms: "The runoff from the construction on Ben White Boulevard is causing many of our neighbors' backyards to wash away." Throughout Dawson, you encounter residents who know every tiny detail of their watershed and the insults to it, and of the insults to them from the engineers and bureaucrats at TxDOT - described, and not entirely without cause, as arrogant, stupid, or both. (For more on TxDOT, see box.)

Ironically, the immediate catalyst for DNA's formation last August was the city's campaign, via its Environmental and Conservation Services Department (ECSD), to protect the East Bouldin Creek Watershed. In light of the violence done to the creek by the highway project, the ECSD campaign - complete with a mighty slick, mighty tasteful info book telling Dawson residents how they can be good neighbors to the creek - is filled with unintentional humor. "There was an article in the newspaper about an ECSD pilot project for three Austin creeks, of which we were one," recalls association President Donald Jay Dodson. "And it mentioned an upcoming meeting of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association to talk about the project and we realized we didn't have an association."

Members of the long-lived Bouldin Creek NA, which covers the stretch north of Oltorf to the river (and includes both East and West Bouldin Creeks), helped the new Dawson group set up, along with the Austin Police Department's neighborhood center on South First, site of the group's meetings. The newly organized neighborhood didn't even have a name. "Originally, we wanted to call the group the St. Edward's neighborhood, since (the university) is right next to us," Dodson says. "But we decided to name it after Dawson Elementary, even though most of our members' children go to Galindo. We liked the acronym - DNA."

Dodson, who cautions that he is "obsessed with drainage," also highlights other association projects - ongoing graffitti removal and anti-spray-paint landscaping, volunteering at Dawson Elementary, and the neighborhood's other battle with Public Works: to save a stand of oak trees set for destruction during upgrades on Dunlop Street in the southwest corner of the neighborhood. (Until rather recently, this corner of Dawson was a working farm; the streets in the area are narrow and badly surfaced if at all, and a stretch of the creek - filled in by TxDOT - was used to water livestock.)

The association has also taken seriously ECSD's injunction to be good neighbors to the creek, organizing several cleanups that have purged East Bouldin of a vast amount of trash and winning two Keep Austin Beautiful awards in the process. "ECSD has been very good to us, and they've helped us get along with Public Works," says Dodson, adding that relations between Dawson and the city engineers were once quite chilly but are now rather good.

As a subplot to the creek saga, Public Works is building a flood control pond at Alpine Street, one block south of Lightsey; even though this is above the freeway outfall, the city and state claim (or hope) the pond will reduce the creek's flow enough to allow it to hold the extra water coming in at Lightsey. (This seems specious, since the Lightsey outfall is rerouting some of the water that would have flown into the pond; nor does this address the pollution problem.) However, the contractors for that project have hit both groundwater and an unexpected sewer line, thus delaying completion of the pond, which worries residents, since the freeway storm drains are ready for business.

Despite the gravity of the neighborhood's issues, or perhaps because they take up too much time for the neighbors to waste energy on needless structure, the DNA is a loose and mildly eccentric entity, at least compared to the hyper-organized and pleasure-impaired NAs in some Austin neighborhoods. Evidence of the prevailing attitude: The DNA News contains, between the news-you-can-use and the broadsides over the creek, restaurant reviews essayed by an anonymous resident, the "Mystery Gourmet."

"We have no dues or membership stipulations - if you're over 18, live here, and show up for the meetings, you can vote," Dodson notes. "The Bouldin Creek NA gave us their bylaws to use when drawing up our own. They were six pages long; ours are one page. We're all volunteers, and we have active members all over the neighborhood, and we're basically having fun. This has sort of become my hobby." n

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