Regular Folk

South Austin has longcaptivated the rest of the city with its diversity and funky charm. But it seems as if, just when Austin is really warming up to the South, the true South Austinites have less and less use for the rest of us. Several strolls through South Austin neighborhoods yielded conversations with every kind of person -- retirees, musicians, filmmakers, elementary school teachers -- but they all had one thing in common: A genuine love of South Austin and a willingness to talk about it till the sun went down.

For one thing, the rapid growth experienced all over Austin has not yet set down South the way it has other places. Many loyal South Austinites consider it the last bastion of a dying civilization. They have a whole lot more in common with each other, too. Once people move into South Austin, they're there to stay. Some of those interviewed were the third generation to live in their homes. Oh, and one other thing: When they talk about why they love South Austin, they're not shy about cracking the whip on their wealthy older brothers to the north. All the way around, none of the South Austinites I spoke with would consider crossing the river to do anything but get a job -- which most of them have had to do. They're polite about it, though, pointing out that if you want to be a yuppie -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- North Austin is the perfect place for it.

But if you just want to be yourself, South Austin seems like the place to be.

Graphic Artist Robert Rogers

photograph by Kayte Vanscoy

Graphic artist Robert Rogershas spent 20 years in South Austin. "There's something in the air that you notice as soon as you cross the river out here. It's just a different lifestyle. There's just something about the electricity you can feel. The vibrations in the air. Also, the people seem to be a little friendlier, the pace is a little bit slower. I just wouldn't care to live on the north side. Wouldn't live there even if the cost of living was a little bit cheaper. I'd pay more to live on the south side of town."

Fortunately for Rogers, he enjoys the advantage, shared with many other South Austinites, of lower rents and landlords who hold steady on their prices for years at a time. "In North Austin it seems like everyone's in a hurry to get to somewhere, but I don't think they really know where they're in a hurry to get to. It seems like the majority of the newcomers to Texas or Austin, once they get through Round Rock they get to North Austin and start looking for a place to live. Not that I have anything against new people, but I have this thing about Austin growing any more."

Doug and Sylvia Votra say they live "deeper in Bubbaland," but I caught up to them celebrating their friend Josh's 11th birthday in the Dawson neighborhood. Between them, they've lived in South Austin a total of 42 years. "It seems like it's more family-oriented. Seems like there's more neighborhoods," says Doug. "South Austinites seem to be a little bit more down home. North Austinites seem to be more urban," adds Sylvia. "It's the college kind of crowd up north," Doug explains. "Younger, yuppyish. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not us."

Carlo Dringenberg has livedin the Bouldin neighborhood since 1990, but he's lived in South Austin all his life. "My main reason for sticking around here, actually, is the rent. I would consider leaving if I found something that was around the same price," he said. To North Austin? "No, I don't know why. Maybe; it depends," he said, and then thought the better of it. "No, I guess I kind of like it south and southwest. My next move would be to buy a house. I don't want to be in North Austin."

He has noticed change in the Bouldin area. "More people are buying up homes and land and fixing them up. This neighborhood's changing a lot like that. It does seem like it's more white folks, but I don't know what their class would be. They're not rich rich. I think bubbas and yuppies are mixing, if you want to use those categories."

"In '64, this neighborhoodwas almost to the outskirts. The outskirts was back along Ben White at that time. So a lot of this area wasn't developed. This was a new subdivision here," says postal clerk Manuel Machuca of the neighborhood he says was once called the Forest Bend subdivision, just south of Oltorf.

"We were trying to find a house that we could afford. Back then we ran into problems trying to rent a house. There was a lot of bias. If they saw you were Hispanic, they wouldn't sell you a house and they wouldn't rent you an apartment. A lot of people here were older, a little bit more tolerant."

"What's happening now is the neighborhoods are moving further out and the downtown and the people that can afford it are buying in. It comes with what they call progress, and I hate to see it because I've been through it before. My father grew up on the Eastside and the city bought the property. Or, let's put it this way: They gave him an option. Either we pay you this and you take it, or we condemn the property and you still have to move."

Friends and new moms Brandy Roy and Jennifer McQuaid talk on South First.

Friends and new moms Brandy Roy and Jennifer McQuaid talk on South First.

photograph by Kayte Vanscoy

Machuca says break-ins in the area are rare, but prostitution is the biggest problem. The prostitutes "are very easy to spot. They generally wear short dresses and heels, even during the winter. Generally you can smell their perfume before you come anywhere close to them. Hopefully it has improved, but I haven't gone walking very much lately. Generally they have what they call a pimp. It becomes dangerous when you see one of them."

Crystal Amaro, 20, is living in the house her grandmother gave her, which is also the house she was born in. She says her neighborhood near Stacy Park has improved a lot in the past year. "It's not bad the way it used to be. It used to be gang-related and what not. Now it's a really quiet, peaceful neighborhood so we don't have to worry about stuff like that. The gang members lived two houses down. There used to be fights across the street right here, and drug deals."

In addition to the crime, Amaro says, cars have always sped down her street. "Last week a little boy got hit around the corner from here. I think he's in critical condition. You see kids playing and they still speed by."

Gilbert Garcia, joint owner,with his four brothers, of the sandblasting business his father founded, lives just around the corner from Amaro, also in the house where he grew up. He says the traffic off of Congress Avenue started in the mid-Eighties. "We used to play football in the street and now there's no way you can do it. Everybody comes home for the holidays and it's hard for us to play any kind of sports because of all the traffic."

He confirms that crime has been a problem in the area he calls the Harrison subdivision. "There used to be a lot of gang-banging around here but the neighborhood association just got 'em all out of here. There used to be empty houses around here, but a lot of younger couples are buying them up and fixing them up and it's not that bad, you know?"

Despite the difficulties, Garcia is a big booster of his neighborhood. "Austin's cool. It's a cool place to live, man. It's all down to earth. Everybody around here knows each other -- the Hernandezes, the Amaros -- they're all cousins. Everybody sticks real close around this neighborhood. So now that we've got all these gang members out of here, there's nobody that comes around here. I think what made the difference was the neighborhood association getting together showed the police department that they can get involved."

Equllia and Lashea stoppedat the corner of Oltorf and South Congress where they were walking with the five children -- ranging in ages 2 to 5 -- that they have between them. Equllia said she was trying to burn some of the kids' excess energy by taking the walk instead of the car. "I'm still getting familiar with the places around here. It's real convenient 'cause I stay right down the street. We got the grocery store, the video store, the bank. It's real convenient."

After the kids started asking for candy, Equllia and Lashea decided to take a walk to the nearby dollar store. They like this neighborhood from a kid standpoint. "We also have Chuck E. Cheese right up the street and in the neighborhood that we stay in they have a daycare and they also have a park right there."

Eleven-year Zilker neighborhood resident Harry Bodine says the growth happening all over Austin has not yet seeped into his neighborhood. "When I first lived here I lived in North Austin for two years. I hated it. There was no place to walk and it just seemed like cars everywhere. Here I can ride my bike and go to the greenbelt and Town Lake. I can walk up to the store. It's a little more friendlier." He adds that traffic is not so bad in his neighborhood yet. "South Lamar's kind of a drag at five or six o'clock. Yeah, I'm worried about it."

Jean came to the Zilker neighborhood via Durango, Colorado, and Houston, but has lived in Austin now for 15 years. "Everybody hates to see Austin grow. They talk about 'It's not the old Austin any more.' But South Austin still has the old Austin feel to it. I never go to North Austin because it's Houston up there. This is still a really nice neighborhood. Big oak trees. People out with their dogs. More of a neighborhood feel. I feel perfectly safe here, even though it's just off Lamar; I don't worry about crime problems. I've traveled a lot and every time I come back I think what a pretty city Austin still is."

Harry Bodine

Harry Bodine

photograph by Kayte Vanscoy

An RTF professor at UT, Lindy Laub is proud to have recently finished a feature film which she wrote, produced, and directed. Her 100-year-old home was moved to Zilker neighborhood from an older part of town several decades ago. She bought into the area five years ago because of the neighborhood feel but says she thinks the area has seen some change recently.

"The change here has been for the better, basically, you know, because this was a funky neighborhood. I'm excited to see people fixing up their houses a little bit. And that Lamar Plaza is getting incrementally upgraded. It's nice. I think the change is basically a thing for the better in this neighborhood."

Laub's neighbor, Linda Boxberger, strolls up with a carton of Czechoslovakian glass to show Laub, and ends up assisting her neighbor on the roof and joining in the conversation. "I guess we were looking for an older neighborhood with a mixed character. We would have liked it to be more racially mixed, but we liked the kind of economic mix and the age mix. And we wanted mature trees and little houses and we like the yards where people are putting in plants and taking care but they're not like manicured and sterilized and domesticated into lawn situations. That was a lot of the attraction, was just driving through and seeing the trees and people's just kind of relaxed native plant landscaping."

A few blocks from Laub's house, I came upon Kurt Maldanado and his neighbor Rob Thompson dickering over items at Maldanado's yard sale. "Charming," is how Maldanado, a machinist at UT, describes his new neighborhood after having lived at Oltorf and Palmer Road. "I can leave my vehicle unlocked at night. People walk by here and you say hello and they say hello back to you."

"Yeah, I don't even lock my door," adds Thompson, who has lived in the area for 61 years. "I've been here before the [Lamar] shopping plaza was here," he continues. "It was just a hill to me. It was real neat to just be able to go out into the woods and hunt animals and things. I've seen wild animals out there, on several occasions." Thompson says the growth hasn't affected his area. "These little streets are hardly ever traveled except by people who come to visit someone or the people who live here. Otherwise, nobody ever comes through here." He does have some qualms about growth around the edges of Zilker neighborhood, however. "Kinney Avenue is horrible. Almost as bad as Lamar because they take a shortcut on Kinney Avenue."

Maldonado registers a common complaint for residents of this area. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if somebody put a grocery store around here?" Even though he doesn't grocery shop in the neighborhood, Maldanado says everything he needs is within 10 minutes of his house. "The farthest I need to go away is work. That's up north. Once I go past the river in the evening, I don't go back up until the next day. Everything I need's right here."

Peg Fistel, a third-grade teacher at Del Valle Elementary, has the same complaint as Maldanado. "Grocery shopping's the worst. Usually I stop on my way home over in East Austin at Albertson's, because this little store here just doesn't have the turnover. I mean, it's okay for canned goods, but not vegetables or meat because it just doesn't move fast enough. Even the freezer stuff will have freezer burn on it."

Doug, a state employee, haslived in Zilker neighborhood for 18 years. He is pessimistic about the future of the area. "As soon as I get to retiring in two years, I'm going and getting something else. Austin is not, to me, a place to stay. I've been here since '63 and it has changed, the growth and stuff."

He considers the gradual improvement of his neighborhood as a negative. "The neighborhood here has been upgraded by the new structures. But no one in the neighborhood could ever afford those new structures. The people who need to work and be close downtown are saddled into having to pay for all the growth and the city's environmental consciousness without benefiting themselves."

Doug has a bone to pick with city planners and the green city council. "You need to really try to provide a balance of growth using environmentally conscious planning, but buying thousands of acres to say they're going to save our springs? Our springs have long been gone already." Instead of conservation dollars, Doug has some other ideas for city spending.

"Let's put some sidewalks on Lamar. You can't walk down Lamar from Seventh to the river. Now they're trying to give the Auditorium to the elitists and tell us that we're going to benefit because they're going to give away the only free parking in town and make a parking garage that we're going to pay for if you want to do anything. But we won't do anything there because there will be nothing there for us to do. And all of the people who are going to the hike and bike trail can pay to park, which they can park now for free. It's special-interest driven and I don't think it's gonna change anytime soon."

Musician Matt the Electrician lives with his girlfriend Kathy across the street from Doug. Doug's complaints sound familiar to Matt and Kathy, but they say he makes for a good neighbor. "He'll come over and mow our lawn. I guess he likes his view," says Matt.

"Yeah, I'm waiting for him to do my yard," says their next-door neighbor Jesse from his back porch. Both houses back onto Bouldin Creek and during the recent flooding the creek rose into their backyards. "That's why we live here, because it's by the water," jokes Matt.

Matt and Kathy say they shop at Central Market rather than shop at Cutrer's. Jesse adds that any kind of nightlife is always found on the other side of the river.

"The nice thing is there's good porn down here, actually. Which makes it easy. You don't have to go north to get your porn," jokes Matt.

Jesse reports that he was recently invited to a 78704 potluck where you had to live in the zip code to go. "What is this crazed recognition of South Austin?" he asks. "There's an almost jingoistic association with the 78704 zip code."

"Hey," says Kathy, "we didn't get invited to that."

Tim Marshall lives on Eva Street in a house he says everybody (including this reporter) seems to have lived in at one time or another. "People always stop when they're walking by. 'Hi' or 'I like the garden' or whatever. Then they'll always say 'I used to live here.' Then they'll tell you a story about it. Or you'll be talking to somebody somewhere and they'll say 'What house, where? Oh, I used to live there,' or 'I knew people in a band who used to live there.'

Musician Matt the Electrician and his girlfriend Kathy outside their South Austin home.

Musician Matt the Electrician and his girlfriend Kathy outside their South Austin home.

photograph by Kayte Vanscoy

"One of the reasons I like living in this part of town is I work in restaurants, I cook. So I can find a lot of work downtown. I really don't like driving around. A couple of years ago I decided that I was going to be able to ride my bicycle to work. So that's what I do. Everyday I ride my bicycle to work, no matter what the weather is. It's really not such a great distance that I can't do it. That's why I like to live in this area. You know, as opposed to having to drive somewhere."

Jennifer McQuaid and Brandy Roy were on a brisk walk with their five-month-old daughters at dusk through the neighborhood near South First street, where Jennifer has lived for two years and where Brandy is planning to move from Lakeway some time soon.

Brandy was very enthusiastic about moving into South Austin. "We're looking to come over here not only to be closer to our friends that live in this area but the houses just have a little bit more character in this area and it's more accessible to the community. We tend to participate a little bit more in musical and community- oriented events with our friends Jen and Eric, and it's hard to do that when you have to drive back at 10:30 in the evening when you know you have a 35-minute drive ahead of you and you have little, little ones. The houses here are a little smaller, but you know they were built in like the Forties and the Fifties and that adds a charm for our taste. We like to know that there were some families there before that made their way."

No doubt her friend Jennifer's enthusiasm influenced Brandy's. "We're getting ready to think about adding on because we love the area," says Jennifer. "Love the area, love the local color and the culture. Love everything about South Austin. It's just something that once you're used to it you almost can't go back to living in the homogeneous neighborhoods. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we're just so used to this, you know."

Brandy chimes in again. "My husband really would like to find a little bit more multi-ethnicity. A little bit different taste and all different kinds of people. He says he really longs for that since he came from South Florida where there's so many different kinds of people. Jen and Eric have shown us that you can go down the street to the little bakery, or you can go down the street to the little Mexican restaurant, or the shoemaker, or, you know, the guy who will fix your air conditioner."

"It's really hard to go back," says Jennifer. "Or you wouldn't choose to go back because this offers you so much in your life. And then, to bring up children in that kind of environment is just opening their eyes to so much more, and that's very, very important."

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