Low and Outside

Playing Ball With the Big Boys in Montopolis

by Mike Clark-Madison

This is a tale of two fields. On the corner of Riverside and Vargas, one block east of Montopolis Drive, lies a community soccer field. It is not, truth be told, a pretty place. There is no turf, just beige sand and sparse buffalo grass transcribed by the white chalk lines demarcating the field. The goals have no nets and are joined together by low-tech backyard welds and bailing wire. The concession stands are fashioned of scrap lumber, abandoned furniture, and cable spools. The sidelines are thickly carpeted with beer debris, and windblown litter strays across the field.

At the other end of Montopolis Drive, next to the Highway 183 bridge, lies a much larger field, which according to your friendly Rand McNally map is an actual city park, unlike the privately owned soccer field. It is likewise not a pretty place -- full of skanky scrub, hurriedly sealed waste pits, and enough illegally dumped trash to fill the convention center. If this is the best the city can offer Montopolis in the way of park amenities, no wonder Southeast Austinites have taken matters into their own hands.

To be fair, there are other parks in Montopolis, about five acres total in two chunks, but that's hardly adequate for a neighborhood with -- depending on where you draw the boundaries -- as many as 7,000 residents, about a quarter of whom seem to be playing football in the street on a sunny late-December afternoon. (Montopolis also has a recreation center, currently closed for asbestos abatement.) Another chunk of the populace, especially those in their teenage years, exhibit unmistakable signs of Nothing-To-Do as they criss-cross Montopolis Drive, stopping here in front of the Tomgro Grocery, there to play a quick game of pick-up basketball, over here to talk trash with members of the opposite gender across the street, down there to throw rocks at grackles in the trees, but never for long, always moving, edgy and frustrated, never stopping for long anywhere except to wait for the bus that would take them out of Montopolis.

Meanwhile, there are over 200 acres of prime riverfront up the street, on the city's parks inventory, currently fit for little more than a rousing game of Dodge the Rat. But we only have ourselves to blame for that, right? Requiescat in pace, O proud Park on the Colorado. If River City voters had only fallen for the screwball pitch of the one-time Austin Swing and their Macro Austin fan club, this homely tract would soon be a field of dreams. Not only would we have our "multi-purpose" stadium (akin to describing a screwdriver as "multi-purpose" because it can also open a can of paint), but we could enjoy ballfields, greenbelts, white-water kayaking in fetid Colorado River water, and other sundry amusements.

Austin latecomers, first introduced to the area during the stadium battle, are forgiven for not knowing that the Colorado River Park -- to give it its real name, not this tea-sip "Park on the Colorado" crap -- has been Just-Around-the-Corner for well over a decade. The park has been a priority project of the city since the 1986 Town Lake Comprehensive Plan, and was conceived as a greenspace primarily for the people of Southeast Austin, a "Zilker Park East" in a part of town that not only has no "metropolitan parks" (the big-mama units of the PARD system, such as Zilker and Emma Long), but no "district parks" either (the larger community parks like Pease and Rosewood). "The original plans were drawn up by the elders, people of influence in this community," says Clyde Russell, owner of the Tomgro and president of the Montopolis Area Neighborhood Improvement Council, or MANIC. "Supposedly, people in East Austin would have direct input in planning an environmentally active park and a safe place for the community. But the way I see it, the more value the property gets around here, the less input people around here have. The plans drawn up 15 years ago get pushed out the window."

There are many in Montopolis who supported the stadium (including Russell, though not without reservations) and even more who didn't ultimately give a damn, or who didn't realize that it would be built on the fringes of their neighborhood. But there is still a perception, according to community leaders, that Southeast Austin's park needs and plans were hijacked to serve the interests of the Austin Swing and its boosters. "What people want here is the new Little League fields," says Fr. John Korscmar, parish priest at Dolores Catholic Church across from the Montopolis Rec Center and a leader of Austin Interfaith. The reference is to a $2.9 million bond issue approved in 1992 to build a home for the 19 teams of the Montopolis Little League. "You kept hearing, `Are they going to build this stadium before they build the Little League fields?' There was an attempt to sell the stadium as something for the neighborhood, and I'm not sure people looked at it that way."

So now, it's Just-Around- the-Corner, and we find ourselves in the same old place. There is no discernible Plan B for building the Colorado River Park, even though the city's intended fiscal incontinence regarding the stadium would seem to indicate that money is not the issue. (PARD Director Mike Heitz, a prime fantasist behind the Park on the Colorado, has recently been transferred to the Drainage Utility.) Meanwhile, the news from Montopolis gives additional resonance to the anti-Swing mantra "Priorities First." As we've seen, even if we restrict ourselves to parks, there are enough needs in Montopolis to make the good-hearted and ill-tempered among us want to introduce Swing boosters to new uses for a baseball bat. But the needs, of course, do not stop there. The Montopolis Neighborhood Center currently has one city-paid staff member, with major parts of its programming -- such as the new mini-library and "Learning Corner" -- being managed by volunteers who don't even live in Montopolis. (Needless to say, there is no Montopolis branch of the Austin library.) The center also housed an Austin Police neighborhood center, staffed by Sgt. Richard Matta -- from the area, Spanish-speaking, trusted and beloved by the community, and by all reports uniquely effective at keeping a lid on gang and drug action in Montopolis. But he has now been transferred to a different branch, and Montopolis no longer has a resident officer.

Then, of course, there are the big needs -- housing and jobs being prominent among them. Fr. Korscmar notes that "we've got the older and the younger folks here, and there's a need for people in the middle, families with children. And what it'll take is good, solid, affordable housing, and, I suspect, job opportunities as well. The two reasons I hear that people move away from Montopolis is that they can't find a house that's big enough, well-built enough, and in their price range, or that they can't find a job."

In addition to these threats to neighborhood stability -- unfortunately common in East Austin -- is a more specific danger, in the eyes of many, to Montopolis itself. The former colonia, once known colloquially as Poverty Island, has become one of the hottest spots for Austin's neo-industrial sector, and the southern edge of the neighborhood is quickly becoming hemmed in by corporate citizens like Sematech, Advanced Micro Devices, Motorola, and new kids Tokyo Electron, plus the upcoming Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Reaction to this upsurge of enterprise ranges from welcome, to vague unease produced by change, to well-articulated fears that Montopolis will end up in the way of Macro Austin's progress, get tagged as insolubly blighted, and get paved over -- as boosters and bureaucrats tried to do to Clarksville for most of a century, and are now trying to do to the inner Eastside. "When we got the notice that industry was coming to gobble us up, we wanted some buffers, and that's when MANIC was formed," says Russell, who leads that 10-month-old neighborhood group. "One more Tokyo Electron and Montopolis is gone, as far as the poor people who live here are concerned."

The big high-tech companies have begun to help Montopolis in the usual good-corporate-citizen ways, participating in neighborhood meetings, donating computer equipment, and starting job-training initiatives. It has not escaped Russell's notice, at least, that such powerful neighbors are also powerful allies. "I think we've made them realize that Montopolis is people, and not just a place," he says. "Depending on what the folks down here want, if we could redraw our plans (for either the Colorado River Park or for other projects), and then go to Tokyo Electron or Motorola and have them lobby the city dads, then we could get somewhere... Otherwise, I think whatever Montopolis wants, it's going to have to fight hard for it. If the city wants to push something else through, they probably will."

It speaks pretty poorly of any town that the visions of civic powers would endanger, rather than empower, the ability of a neighborhood like Montopolis to realize its own visions. To Fr. Korscmar, the disparity between Macro Austin's dreams and Montopolis' realities points up "larger questions about taxation and public policy and what neighborhoods should be able to do for themselves. How do we work together -- the neighborhood, the businesses, the city -- to create an environment, here on this small scale, where families and children can be nurtured? If a small neighborhood can't do these things for themselves, what does that say for society as a whole? If you can't do it in Montopolis, where can you?"

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