Art's Eastside Origins The East End by Mike Clark-Madison
No one seems to notice it much, but the streets near the old railyard are a bona fide creative district, the spawning ground for everything from car-dealer jingles and CD covers to clay wall sconces and the glasswork in the State Capitol. East Fifth and Sixth Streets are not the only such drags on the Eastside; Austin's art community, attracted by large spaces and low prices, has moved into prosperity-challenged commercial districts throughout Central East Austin, including East First Street, the Rosewood corridor, and quite visibly along Manor Road. While Downtown is still where a lot of local art and performance gets seen, East Austin is where it gets made.
For a lot of creative types - especially those serving a primarily commercial clientele - the distinction between the two areas is not that great, despite the public perception of I-35 as a fortified boundary. "Nobody can afford studio space downtown, but it's important to be near downtown," says Chris Gray, who with her husband John owns Clayworks on East Sixth. "We want to be accessible to architects and designers, since much of our work goes to the trade, [and] here, we have all the advantages of downtown without the parking problems and the cost of space... We bought this building in 1979, because it was what we could afford," says Gray.
Originally, the Grays only occupied half of the then-duplex with their workshop, where they craft lighting fixtures and other ceramics; their showroom/gallery now occupies the other half of the building. "When we bought here, there were a lot of artists at the cotton gin at the other end of East Sixth; that was a very comfortable situation," explains Chris Gray. Other longtime denizens of the area include Rejina Thomas, whose Graphic Glass studios - housed in an old railyard shed belonging to Capital Metro - are one block south; and the hordes of photographers, A/V people, and other media types that inhabit the 501 Studios (on I-35 and Fifth) and the old J.R. Reed Music Company building (one block east, at San Marcos).
Other artists and arts entrepreneurs, whose work is not so closely allied with the downtown design and media community, have parallel reasons for gravitating to East Sixth Street. "I'd been looking for a space in this area for several years," says Dan Niendorff, owner of the Niendorff Gallery a block away from Clayworks. "This space was originally a karate studio, and one day I noticed the sign was gone, so I checked into it; it was a really interesting space, and the price was right, and I liked the area and had lived over here... I knew that [a gallery] wasn't a real profitable thing to get into, so the space would have to be in kind of a fringe area.
"This area's actually grown a lot since I've been here," says Niendorff. "There used to be an empty building (formerly a dry cleaner) across the street from us, and one of the artists I know (Hank Drennon of Milagro Pottery) moved into it. And there's an artist next to him who moved in about a year ago."
Both Niendorff and the Grays pinpoint the citywide artists' grapevine as the main channeler of artists to East Sixth. And even with the commonly held, and somewhat accurate, view that the Eastside commercial districts are woefully underutilized, the demand for art space far exceeds the supply. "There's just not a lot out there now," Niendorff says. "Either most of it's being used, or it's not being made accessible to artists, unfortunately." "We've always got our eye out for space," says Gray. "We have colleagues looking for space and we're always scouting for them. We do a lot of work with other small studios, and we'd always like to see more in the area. In our work, there's lots of opportunities for collaboration."
Another element of the crunch are rapidly escalating property values throughout the inner East Side - while actual prices are still below the citywide average, the rate of increase is far higher - as the area becomes attractive to both commercial and residential buyers from Beyond the Interstate. "There were some places around here, which I saw when I was looking, that I now wish I had purchased," Niendorff says. "At the time, I wasn't sure I could afford them. Now, I know I can't."
In the East Sixth area in particular, the art-space market is being truncated not only by higher demand for Eastside space in general, but by speculation (in both the general and financial sense) about large-scale redevelopment projects in the area, mostly centered on the railyard itself. The empty blocks between Fourth and Fifth Streets, owned by Capital Metro, have in recent years been coveted for several projects, including: a "festival market," (aka the Mercado); the terminus of the light-rail line (which, in Cap Met's original scheme, would have already been under construction); the new city hall; or for other plans even more sketchy, except that they envision a Hispanic cultural district and are really big. (It should probably be noted at this point that, while the East Sixth arts scene is by no means milky-white, the major institutions within Austin's Hispanic art scene are based elsewhere.)
While relations between the East Sixth art community and other local businesses - such as those represented by the merchants' group Ole Mexico, which has taken a leading role in redevelopment efforts in the area - have been placid, the artists seem to realize that their aspirations are at cross-purposes with those of many of their commercial neighbors. Certainly, with the promise of imminent (relatively speaking) high-dollar development, the incentive for property owners to let their space at prices artists can afford, or in the quantities that artists require, will wither. That is, if there is any space left. Niendorff recounts seeing city planning documents that proposed demolishing both his building and Clayworks, along with everything in between them and the railyard. "I can see not being able to afford this space in future years; I've wondered how long this was going to last," he says. "Other arts communities in other cities have outpriced artists; I don't know if it's inevitable, but it certainly seems typical."
Which would seem a damn shame, given the synergies one might expect to see between an arts community and a primarily entertainment-based commercial district, and given the appeal of the Eastside, and East Sixth in particular, as a welcoming and stimulating community for creative pursuits. "It's a real vibrant community over here; it may not always be what people want to see, but there's activity all the time," says Niendorff. "People are working here in the bars at 2am and at the produce companies at 4am. There are small businesses, a close-knit community where people know and help each other. I've gone to city council meetings [and] they've talked about East Austin as if there's nothing here; they talk about revitalization, but what I can see from my front stoop looks pretty vital to me." n