The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: Lowrider Knows Every Street

Digging deeper on the Eastside car club story reveals both our past and our future

By Mike Clark-Madison, April 2, 2021, News

Where I grew up, in the farmlands on the north side of Southern California, was a hot spot for the same car culture found here at Festival Beach and Chicano Park, now viral after Texas Monthly spotlighted tensions between local car clubs and the residents of the Weaver, a new housing property down by the lake. Back home in my youth, the neighbors complained about it, too the lowriders and slabs and jacked-up dually trucks, the hydraulics and scrape plates and spinnies and mag bars throwing sparks, the metal-flake paint and "Olde English" vinyl letters on the rear windows and airbrushed goddesses and madres on hood and trunk, the loud engines and booming bass rolling down Main Street or Oxnard Boulevard at 5 mph. (At least in Austin, Festival Beach is off the main drag.) Y'all know this; you've heard this song and seen this movie. The bumptiousness is the point. It was true decades ago in my teen years; it was true decades before that in my mom's teen years in the same environs, à la American Graffiti; it's true now. A tale as old as time.

At its core, the TM story by Peter Holley is a well-reported and well-written tale of the same culture shock. Car culture through the decades has been a vehicle (sorry) for diversity and integration, the clubs that represent it best here and now are Black and Latinx (that is, Chicano, like César Chávez, whose name now graces the entire neighborhood), and the new residents of the Weaver include older white women who winter here from Chicago, and you can guess the rest. On the surface, it's half obnoxious, half hilarious. One level down, it's a microcosm of Austin gentrification and our often sublimated but no less bitter and painful struggles with inequity, just like nearby I-35 (see p.24).

But there are more levels than that, some above and some below – scenes of our past and of our future.

The Poor Side of Town

Dipping down a bit into the past, we find some salient artifacts of Austin's cultural and racial legacy at this very spot. We told you back in November about neighborhood activist and organizer Bertha Rendon Delgado and her work to document and defend the history of this barrio for which Chicano Park (formally named Edward Rendon Sr. Metro Park at Festival Beach, after her grandfather) is part of the public realm. Back when I was growing up on the West Coast, when the very-much-alive César Chávez might turn up at my half-Anglo/half-Chicano high school to visit the MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) student club, Bertha Delgado's elders were organized as the Brown Berets, modeled very much after the Black Panthers.

They found conflict, or conflict found them, not with new white neighbors on the Eastside, because there were none; it was instead the white West Austin captains and commodores of the old Austin Aqua Festival, coming across town to watch the speedboat races on Town Lake that were a marquee national sporting event. In 1978, after years of being literally trampled in their own neighborhood, the barrio dwellers and Brown Berets had reached their limit and mobilized some direct action, Saul Alinsky-style. You'll be shocked, I'm sure, to learn that Austin police overreacted and beat people bloody, in scenes that managed to cut through the hazy complacency of the Aqua Fest gentry and finally got the races moved and, eventually, abandoned.

No amount of garage magic can make a car club coche run as loud as a hydrofoil speedboat, so the folks at the Weaver have no idea what real misery afflicted the folks who lived around Festival Beach then, not all of whom have left the barrio behind. So Holley's story on this level might understate the discomfort of all this and the ironies and role reversals that have defined the evolution of Austin's "neighborhood" politics into the era.

The Promises We Made

But even before the boat races, earlier promises were made on Festival Beach, with the construction of the RBJ Austin's first age-restricted senior housing complex, named for Lyndon Johnson's mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson. By our time, much had changed in Austin but not at the RBJ, which though a beloved home for many of our elders has also been kind of a disaster waiting to happen. It's needed a major overhaul for a long time, and the nonprofit that owns it finally found the money to do so by selling part of the property to the developers of the Weaver.

Holley's evocation of displacement and gentrification in his piece was taken even further by the Discourse, which decided within 24 hours that the Weaver was an invasive and toxic species. In real life, nobody was displaced by its construction; sure, one can argue that market-rate apartments with lakeside views inherently put pressure on less affluent incumbent neighbors, but that is true everywhere in Austin and well into our hinterlands. Here, the infill project directly supports the preservation of existing affordable housing, bringing it up to code and extending its design life well into the future. (It also, as a side community benefit, provided a landing place for KMFA to build its cool new studios, which we've also featured in our pages.)

Last weekend, Steve Adler and Greg Casar showed up to visit the car club gathering that had grown by an order of magnitude from the week before. The story continues; the road goes on forever.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.