Suspended in Time
The community song of Wilson Street awaits its next refrain
"... it was precisely this anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction that lent the neighborhood its particular character."
– Joan Didion, The White Album
It's hard to remember a time when the place on Wilson Street looked kept up. Other rental properties in this slice of South Austin have been detoxed and gentrified over the last decade, but the place on Wilson Street has remained a constant, even in its perpetual state of disrepair and uncertainty.
This particular rental tract, owned by developer/property manager Mitch Ely, holds about a dozen little Forties-era cottages, a moldy two-story apartment building, and a tumbledown house built in 1925. Rent is cheap, and historically it's been a magnet for musicians, many who went on to turn their passion into full-fledged careers. Persistent but unconfirmed rumors have placed Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lucinda Williams here as former residents. An old boyfriend of Williams, Clyde Woodward, lived here in the early Eighties, but it's unclear if the two were together at the time.
Over the years the Wilson Street command post has carried a few nicknames: Heroin Hotel during one particularly seamy era, Hippie Heights, and more recently, Hillbilly Heights.
Chronicle Music writer Margaret Moser recalls buying her pot here circa 1981 and 1982, but she doesn't hold fond memories of some of the property's residents. "I always feel weird because that place had a den of speed freaks and lowlifes when I knew it," she said. "One of the scummiest – now dead – speed dealers operated from there for a long time. In fact, it was so bad, the rest of the neighborhood was really upset. This was the early Eighties, so maybe they were rehabbed into less toxic residences."
The late Eighties and early Nineties saw the arrival of another generation of residents who created a close-knit colony of musicians, artists, and people in the music industry. There was a continuous flow of neighbors moving back and forth between the apartments, the cottages, and the old house in back. "We painted and caulked the place and made it much nicer," said former resident Phyllis Arp, who occupied the house. Friend and music publicist Jo Rae Di Menno moved into the apartments in 1987, sharing cozy No. 201 with musician-producer J.D. Foster, who relocated to Austin from California after years of playing bass for Dwight Yoakam. Foster, who now lives in New York, recalls being blown away by the welcoming embrace of Austin's music community. "People were always dropping by – that was the great thing about living there," he said. "I'd never lived anywhere where people would just knock at your door and ask if you wanted to go get a beer."
Though the apartment was tiny, the Di Menno-Foster household served as the music hub for the Wilson Street pack. There was always good music and good food – save for the time Di Menno tried to make ravioli in her overly humid kitchen. Alejandro Escovedo and his wife Bobbi LeVie spent a lot of time at the couple's apartment, where Escovedo recorded his song "Pyramid of Tears." Residents at the time included members of the Gourds and the Damnations, as well as Di Menno's sister, photographer Theresa DiMenno (the sisters spell their name differently).
The sisters and other friends looked after another beloved resident, Ronnie Lane, former bassist for the Faces, who was dealing with the challenges of multiple sclerosis. They found Lane a place in one of the cottages and helped decorate the space. LeVie made curtains for the windows. In the spring of 1991, LeVie committed suicide, and the Wilson Street family pulled together to help Escovedo through his grief. Di Menno and Foster had split up shortly before LeVie's death, but Di Menno, the treasured matriarch of the Wilson Street tribe, stayed on at the apartments until early 1995.
For years the musicians coexisted with the hookers and dealers who were regular fixtures in the neighborhood, particularly along nearby South Congress. An expanding Downtown and the formation of the Dawson Neighborhood Association in the mid-Nineties eventually moved the sex and drug trades off the streets, and the nightly popping of gunshots grew less insistent.
In the city's boom years, market forces took their toll on many nearby turn-of-the-century bungalows. They were torn down and replaced by contemporary condos or faux-old McMansions – the exact opposite of what the neighborhood association had in mind for this southern fringe of the 78704 ZIP code, between South Congress Avenue and South First Street and Oltorf Street and Ben White Boulevard. In fact, when Dawson leaders submitted their neighborhood plan to the city in 1998, they said they wanted to preserve the old charm as much as possible.
Mitch Ely has long had a different vision for his property in the 2600 block of Wilson and has allowed the rental structures to deteriorate since acquiring the property in the early Nineties. Ely's most recent redevelopment proposal for the property made it as far as City Council, which in 2008 granted his Cobalt Partners entity a zoning change allowing for a condo/duplex project. Prior to the proposal reaching the council, Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan had cast the lone "no" vote against the redevelopment. "I wasn't against [the project]," Sullivan explained recently. "I was trying to push for the preservation of the existing units." Specifically, Sullivan was seeking preservation of the cottages. The cottages arrived on Wilson in 1969, relocated from Red River Street and east of I-35 to make room for the University of Texas' expansion projects.
The council's approval of the condo project came only after Ely, through his agent Mike McHone, reached an agreement with some of the cottage residents – chiefly singer-songwriter Charlie Faye, who led the resistance – to hand over six of the cottages to Faye, along with house-moving money to relocate the buildings to another location. The nonprofit Design Build Alliance was on board to help find a site for the cottages – a first step toward creating a truly affordable community for musicians and artists, with financial backing from Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater.
But with the economy hitting the skids in late 2008, Ely was forced to halt his condo project, and the cottages, the apartments, and the old house stayed put. Today, life on Wilson Street has returned tentatively to normal, with Ely collecting rent from tenants who know their days are numbered. When things need repairing, the more resourceful residents take matters into their own hands. "I tend to fix things myself," says Darwin Smith, a musician and cottage resident for about two years after several years of hanging out there.
Like some other residents in the cottage community, Smith is able to overlook the battered state of the structures when weighed against the historically cool vibe of the place and the friendships he's formed with his musical neighbors, among them Faye, whose boyfriend Will Sexton is a frequent visitor; legendary blues artist Miss Lavelle White; Walter Tragert; and relative newcomers Jess Klein and Ray Bonneville. Longtime Austin musician Scrappy Jud Newcomb lived here until a little over a year ago and served as sort of a sage adviser to other prospective tenants on the best way to land a spot in one of the coveted cottages.
Meanwhile, Ely is trying to sell the property, and is asking $3.1 million for the 3-acre site. "These are not the best of times to be in real estate," McHone acknowledged with a wry chuckle. Should a buyer for the tract materialize, McHone said, it's likely the new landholder would respect the previous cottage-transfer deal struck with Faye. "I would think that the agreement would be mutually advantageous in that the new owner would love for her to take those away and not have to deal with them."
Even with an approved site plan, McHone said, it's possible a new owner would scrap the plan and do something completely different. Rehab the existing structures, perhaps? Probably not a good investment, he advised.
Faye, who moved to Austin from New York in 2007, is largely credited with leading the fight against the destruction of the cottages. A natural networker with no shortage of ideas for making Austin affordable for the creative class, Faye launched her "Save the Wilson Street Cottages" campaign immediately after Ely pink-slipped the residents. She contacted city officials. She brought together Dawson neighborhood reps, architects, builders, and others willing to do their part to move beyond lip service to the live music capital of the world.
Before the recession forced Ely to hit the pause button on the plan to hand over the cottages to Faye, the singer had offered up a proper farewell homage to the place with her album Wilson St. Currently on a 10-month tour across the U.S., Faye talked about her love of the little music community in a series of telephone conversations and e-mails.
"It's a magical place," she says of the facing cottages separated by a walkway where cats – as much of the history as musicians – lounge contentedly.
Faye is well-versed on the history of musicians and artists getting priced out of central neighborhoods. "Think about New York," she says. "In the Forties, all the artists and writers were living right around Washington Square. There were parties and a sense of community, and everyone knew each other, and there was this social and artistic interplay. People inspired each other or competed with each other and collaborated and worked on projects together. By the Sixties, there had been some development, but you still had everybody living in the Village, within walking distance of each other."
Fast-forward four decades to Austin: "You want to know one of the main reasons I moved to Austin?" Faye asks. "Because I felt like there was no sense of community in New York." With her band members spread from Brooklyn to Hoboken to the Bronx, getting together for a rehearsal took serious logistical planning.
"There was no 'Hey, I just got this idea; come over, and let's play on it.' Austin has that right now, but it's moving away from it. The farther out we get pushed from the center of the city, the more of a diaspora it's going to be. ... Your guitar player will live in North Austin, your bass player will live in Bastrop, and your drummer will live in one of the developments out at Mueller. Destroying one of the last little musical/artistic enclaves in South Austin is not a good idea if you want to keep our creative community thriving."
Friend and fellow New Yorker Jess Klein moved to the Wilson Street cottages a couple of years ago seeking that same sense of community. Before the singer-songwriter even hit town, she had heard about the cottages – from a friend of a friend of former resident Newcomb – and knew that's where she wanted to live. "It's a good place to come home to," she said last month, a few days before leaving for the United Kingdom, where she's opening for Arlo Guthrie.
Larger cities are cost-prohibitive for musicians wanting to live independently, Klein says. Here she has the luxury of having her own space – a small detached cottage, which she tastefully furnished and decorated on a $100 budget spent at the Salvation Army. Sitting in her cottage, she likes to hear the reassuring musical notes issuing from various points. From one end of the row of cottages, she hears Eastern European music; from another, she hears a saxophone; another, a guitar.
Late last month, Jo Rae Di Menno turned a year older, and in the months preceding her birthday, she allowed her thoughts to turn inward and back to her Wilson Street years. Recently she had listened to Jackson Browne's "These Days," and the song evoked a healthy sense of nostalgia.
Sitting at a corner table of the Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse on a Saturday afternoon, she recalled her times in the Dawson neighborhood as some of her happiest. "Living in the Wilson Street apartments felt like home to me," said Di Menno, who runs Hard Pressed Publicity. She now lives in East Austin, another hot spot for musicians looking for cheap rent in the face of expanding gentrification. About six months ago, she drove by her old Wilson Street home and was shocked by the apartments' state of ruin. "I sat in my car and cried."
One evening last month, I met up with Di Menno on Wilson Street for a guided tour of her old stomping ground. This time she brought along her 15-year-old son, Zed Hamblin Di Menno, for his first visit. We made our way down the walkway of the cottages. Sunflowers bloomed along the pathway. Toward the end of the walkway, we see where Ronnie Lane lived. And here, Di Menno says as we arrive at the end of the path, is where her sister Theresa lived – the same cottage Charlie Faye resides in now.
We walk on and come across the old house and chat with the residents. They recount how three of their refrigerators – all used and dirty, pulled from vacant units – had broken down over the last few months. When they demanded a new refrigerator, the management company demanded an increase in rent. Finally, after some back and forth, a new (or at least clean and working) refrigerator arrived. The housemates expect there will be more haggling over the rent.
Around the corner of the house, they point out where a tree had partially uprooted and fallen atop one of the buildings, creating a rather large dent in the roof. "We've been trying to get them out here for three weeks to do something about that," one of the roommates said.
It's precisely this kind of property neglect that rankles nearby residents. That's why Dawson neighborhood leaders agreed to sign off on Ely's plan to redevelop the site. "I know most of us like the concept and the feel of the cottages, and if someone had the money and the will to restore them, we would all probably cheer," said Cynthia Medlin, a former neighborhood association president and ex-Planning Commission member.
The apartments are another story. "I think the kindest thing to do would be to bulldoze 'em," she said in an e-mail. "However, it is affordable. So my conundrum has always been how much 'slumminess' does one tolerate in the name of affordability?"
If Di Menno had her way, all the buildings on the property would get a makeover in the name of music preservation. Within the last year, she and Faye have forged a lasting bond over their common ties to Wilson Street, swapping stories about its musical past and present. With the two determined to save the place from ruin – and condos – there's no telling what Ely will encounter when he, or perhaps a new property owner, secures the financing to build on the property.
"The Wilson Street community means the same thing to us now as they did to the musicians and artists who lived here 20 years ago," Faye insists. "Letting it go will deprive Austin's next musical generation of that experience."