Festival hopes to begin new chapter at 12th and Chicon, with city help
Austin’s trolley cars, which retired in 1940, used to stop at East 12th and Chicon streets. It’s there that Ada Harden and her brother would hop on, pay the five-cent fee and ride with little concern about a destination.
“We’d go to the end of it and turn around and come back,” said Harden. She was born in 1935 and grew up in East Austin. Recently, she joined longtime East Austin residents Brenda Mims Malik and Creola Burns at a new co-working space, called Urban Co-Lab, at 1818 E. 12th St. – one vivid change of many that have come to the area in the past few years.
Despite its newness, Urban Co-Lab has fast become home to some big ideas, such as a first-of-its-kind East 12th Street Festival. Burns, community members and city staff have been meeting at the co-work space to plan the festival, which takes place just outside its doors, at 12th and Chicon. The event is an attempt to start yet another new chapter for one of the city’s most notorious intersections. The festival has been named “Return and Discover.”
The festival, said Burns, is “for those individuals who have moved away, and maybe that 12th and Chicon corridor is not something they experience on a day-to-day basis.” Her father once owned a mechanic shop in the area; Burns now lives in North Austin. “They don’t see that it’s changed,” she said. “They don’t feel that it’s changed.”
When Burns talks about change, she talks about the multiple changes since Harden’s time in the area in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Back then, Harden’s father once owned a service station, and her aunt owned a café. She and Malik describe it as a tight-knit community. A woman named Miss Josephine manned the local movie theater, the Harlem Theater.
“I thought the community ended at (Interstate-35),” said Malik. “We had everything we needed right here. We had our schools, we had our businesses, we had our movie.”
In many ways, that arrangement was by design. Austin’s 1928 master plan infamously envisioned, and then made real, a “negro district” east of what is now I-35. But despite the forced segregation, it was the desegregation of the schools that Malik said caused initial changes in the neighborhood. And not good changes.
It began with the closing of Austin’s original Anderson High School in 1971. Students were bused to white schools as part of desegregation, and they lost a school that Malik described as a hub of activity.
“We had what we needed, but integration just kind of separated all of us,” said Malik. “We lost a lot through integration.”
Families moved, and there were fewer and fewer familiar faces in the neighborhood. As Harden recalls, there had previously been a general moral code neighbors followed. “If we saw someone doing something that they shouldn’t be doing on that corner, we would be free to be able to say something to them … and they would listen,” said Harden. “But nowadays, you’re afraid to say anything to anybody on the corner.”
Years later, the 12th and Chicon more familiar to younger generations arose.
“If you wanted drugs, you would come to the blue building at the corner of 12th and Chicon,” said Tim Pinson, who has owned Mission Possible Austin, a church on the corner of 12th and Chicon, since 2003. “The streets were lined with people selling their goods – either drugs or their bodies.”
In 2012, the Austin Police Department teamed up with nearby nonprofits and churches, such as Pinson’s church, to help low-level drug offenders get jobs. Some say the program was a success. Now, at 12th and Chicon, new businesses are joining the old. A new bar, King Bee, sits on the same block as longstanding Galloway Sandwich Shop. Just down Chicon Street toward 13th Street, condos are going up.
This is why Burns and others chose “Return and Discover” as the festival’s headline.
“Make a plan that, ‘I’m gonna go back to 12th Street today,’” said Burns. “I’m gonna return and discover what’s going on.”
The festival came out of a year-long discussion to create a merchant district in the area, with help from the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department and the Soul-y Austin Business District Incubator. (The Red River Cultural District Merchants Association came out of this program partly after iconic music venues in the area shut down.)
But Burns said the process has not been without pushback from some members of the community.
“We’ve had a couple businesses who have said they don’t want anything to do with our developing (the merchants district) because they have been promised and promised and promised [things by the city], and nothing has happened,” said Burns. “So they don’t feel like they want to invest the time.”
That’s fair, said Burns, for a part of town that has been neglected for so long, and has been the focus of so much attention recently – both from the city and real estate agents. In September of 2015, the city hosted “The Spirit of East Austin,” a heavily attended community forum during which Mayor Steve Adler said, “Today, we face east.”
Burns, Harden and Malik said that although the change may be out of their hands, they’re determined to be a part of it.
“I see change, and I see growth,” said Burns.
“And we’re not included,” said Harden.
“I’m gonna stay here and do what I can so we can be included,” said Burns. All three ran over one another’s words to say, “The spirit is still strong.”
Top Photo: 12th and Chicon in East Austin. Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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