The Only Constant on Congress Is Change
Liz Lambert chronicles being both sides of the gentrification debate in Through the Plexi-Glass
There are two stories entwined on the same timeline in Liz Lambert's SXSW 2021 documentary Through the Plexi-Glass: Last Days at the San José: hers, and that of the city of Austin. Both emanate from her transmogrification, starting in 1995, of the San José Motel – a decrepit fleabag with a steady cop presence in what was then Austin's red-light district – into the svelte Hotel San José on today's now fully gentrified, hipster-rich, South Congress Avenue.
Back then, Lambert grabbed an opportunity to break free of her ho-hum day job as a lawyer for the state and purchased the motel for $550,000 with exciting plans for the place whose front sign advertised "Color TV," presumably because "Air Conditioned" was too iffy a proposition. For the next three years, while Lambert struggled to secure the $3 million for the renovation, she ran the motel from the front desk, interfacing with a broad swath of the city's down-and-out, most of whom strained mightily to pull a nightly $30 in bills and coins from their pockets; others squatted in rooms, shooting drugs, being arrested, expiring – or even getting physically ejected from bed in the morning by Lambert herself. "Think they do that at the Marriott?" she asked wryly.
Sympathetic, nonjudgmental, and beyond accommodating, Lambert became the perfect hotelier to the San José's sad parade of humanity and decided to place a camera next to her at the front desk. And, oh, the Decameron-esque stories of brokenness and poignant humanity that were recorded and brilliantly edited together. (Not to mention the music, this being Austin after all.)
In the end, the bank funding came through and Lambert bid a fond farewell to the residents with whom she had formed authentic bonds, and proceeded to turn the motel into a hotel whose understated interior and exterior style rendered it the iconic crown jewel of South Congress and a darling of national shelter magazines. Lambert captured all of that in an early version of Through the Plexi-Glass, which first screened in 2005. Fast forward to 2020. Film titles announce that "the renovation of the San José sparked the gentrification of South Congress" – the evergreen city-planning hot button that hovers over the film. In something of a coda, we get the second leg of Lambert's San José story. We learn that she moved way beyond her initial limited goal of fixing up the 24-room motel and onto other hugely successful hotel projects outside of Austin, eventually selling a majority interest in her company to Standard Hotels only to be fired following a dispute with them over growth issues.
Her voiceover words: "I understand the irony of all this ... The same thing that I brought to bear on the San José was brought to bear on me. The big cattleman is running the little cattleman out and I'm down with the little cattleman. You're kidding yourself to think that things aren't changing – getting fired from the business I started and no longer having anything to do with the place I imagined ... it's always where I came from – things aren't forever and nothing gold can stay, right?"
Austin Chronicle: So, you screened the first cut of your film in 2005 and then 15 years later, here you are with an expanded version of it. What made you revisit your San José story all these years later?
Liz Lambert: I have always wanted to share the San José story with a wider audience. Over the last number of years, life got busy – I was traveling nonstop and also starting a family. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that I was forced to stand still, which allowed me time to focus on the film, producing a new and improved extended edit with a killer soundtrack, and graphics.
AC: Can you talk a bit about why you decided to end the film the way you did – going a bit "meta" and adding a personal follow-up? What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
LL: I hope the viewers take away the stories of the people that lived there, ones of hope, heart and humor. I ended the film with a personal note as the documentary is really a love letter to a time and a place in my life. Without this footage, I would have easily forgotten what I thought I would never forget.
AC: Today's thoughts about the renovation of the San José being the spark that started the gentrification of South Congress?
LL: Seeing what South Congress has become in the context of what it used to be is a real "through the looking-glass" journey. The debate about the benefits and evils of gentrification and development is an ongoing one, especially now that Austin is growing at such a turbo-charged pace, and the story of the San José has a place in that conversation.
Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San José
Available from 4pm, March 16