Friday, March 31, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Looking for history: Austin’s public squares

From Lyndon B. Johnson announcing his first Senate campaign in Wooldridge Square to Booker T. Washington speaking there in 1911, some of Austin’s most historic moments and stories are set to be preserved in the city’s three original public square parks.

The program known as Our Austin Story is a partnership between the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Downtown Austin Alliance and will see signage and programming installed at Republic Square, Wooldridge Square and Brush Square to reflect history that might easily be forgotten.

At a pair of recent community meetings, residents met with parks staff and consultants involved in gathering community dialogue to share their memories of those spaces and other historic Austin landmarks that are mostly the stuff of legend to the thousands of newcomers moving to the city every year.

The story-gathering process will continue through the end of April via the Downtown Austin Alliance’s website dedicated to the project. The timeline for the changes in all three parks is still being developed and is in part tied to the ongoing $5.8 million renovation of Republic Square.

Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the effort’s intention is to help bind Austin together through its history that was at first largely centered in the three public squares promoted by Edwin Waller, Austin’s first mayor and creator of its first city grid plan.

“Those squares are the original common grounds in Waller’s plan for the city, and taken as a whole they help tell the story of Austin,” Barry said. “The way those spaces are now, you don’t know the history and the stories that are embedded there.”

Barry said the Downtown Austin Alliance is still developing a strategy for a permanent website and other components to preserve the stories that are gathered during Our Austin Story, with a plan expected by late summer. She said Downtown Austin Alliance leaders are having early stage discussions on repeating the process to embellish Congress Avenue, Shoal Creek and Pease Park in the future.

Someone who has been key to the current story-gathering process is Ted Eubanks, president and CEO of the content and marketing firm Fermata, who has helped coordinate the effort and will work through its completion.

At a community meeting on Tuesday, Eubanks shared stories like the LBJ announcement, with onlookers and visitors discussing among themselves their own stories of Austin past.

Eubanks even went so far as to say that Austin’s lauded reputation as a music mecca may have gotten its start in 1968 in Wooldridge Park thanks to a benefit concert held there. The poster for that event depicted a smoking armadillo drawn by legendary Austin illustrator Jim Franklin, who would draw the unofficial Austin mascot on who-knows-how-many concert posters for the Armadillo World Headquarters music venue in the following years.

“There’s no limit to the number of stories I want to hear about these three historic squares,” said Eubanks, who has lived in Austin for 25 years.

“I’ve had my own experiences, but I think I’m typical in that before this, I had no idea of what had happened there in the past. I had no idea that Lyndon Johnson announced his Senate campaign in Wooldridge Park.”

Eubanks said he and others involved in Our Austin Story have no plans to gloss over Austin’s historic marginalizing of its nonwhite population, because presenting the warts-and-all history of the city will help others learn and move forward.

“If you look at what they’ve done in Philadelphia, you don’t just focus on the Liberty Bell,” he said. “In Austin we’re focusing on the least-known as well, because it tells us the story of how we became who we are.”

Photo: City of Austin. [Marching band at Wooldridge Park], photograph, May 1, 1938; accessed March 30, 2017, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

Downtown Austin Alliance: A nonprofit, membership-based organization focused, according to its website, on "preserving and enhancing the value and vitality of downtown Austin."

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