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Austin looks to engage residents and preserve ‘Old Austin’ through storytelling

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

From Wooldridge Square, the birthplace of Austin illustrator Jim Franklin’s legendary Keep Austin Weird concert poster, to Interstate 35’s historic past as a cattle driving route, Austin is built upon the stories and memories of generations past. However, as the city’s population continues to explode and development struggles to keep up, those stories are at risk of disappearing.

In an effort to preserve some of Austin’s most historic moments in the collective consciousness, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department partnered with the Downtown Austin Alliance and Ted Eubanks, the president and CEO of the content and marketing firm Fermata, to tell Our Austin Story by installing signage and programming at Republic Square, Wooldridge Square and Brush Square.

After three years of digging through historical archives, the stories that this partnership is exploring have expanded beyond the three downtown squares. Stories, Eubanks explained to the Parks and Recreation Board at its Jan. 22 meeting, are not contained within physical boundaries. He said the best approach is to first identify which story you want to tell and then figure out the best place to tell it. Eubanks used the Mexican free-tailed bat as an example of an iconic Austin fixture. Thousands of people watch the bats every year from the Congress Avenue Bridge, yet, “there’s not one thing on that bridge that tells them what they’re looking at,” he said.

But since the project’s purview is confined for the time being to the three public squares, Eubanks informed the board about the projects in place in those locations.

Already, last Sept. 29, the Downtown Austin Alliance celebrated the 107th anniversary of Booker T. Washington delivering the Atlanta Compromise speech at Wooldridge Square by staging a reenactment of his speech at the Austin History Center. On that day over a century ago, about 5,000 people filled the square to listen to the speech – the Austin population at that time was 30,000, according to Eubanks – and last year there was quite a handsome turnout as well.

Buoyed by the success of the event, Eubanks informed the board that in March they are set to unveil the first exhibit of Booker T. Washington in Wooldridge Square. Later in the year, the Downtown Austin Alliance hopes to tell stories about Mahala Murchison, the first African-American to live in Austin in 1839, as well as anecdotes about Paul Quinn College, which was founded in Austin and is the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi.

“I think that gives you a taste of what’s possible,” said Eubanks.

Although there are currently no permanent exhibits, Eubanks explained that in the future, the plan is to install low-tech signage at noteworthy historical sites as well as implement high-tech information pathways for the stories through apps on phones.

“I’d love to be able to integrate this (initiative) into one of the parks,” said Board Member Dawn Lewis. Board Member Rich DePalma agreed, suggesting that Eubanks and the Downtown Austin Alliance might look into the stories surrounding Andrew Zilker and his feuds with Mayor A.P.Wooldridge.

While there are no plans at the moment to explore that story, Eubanks acknowledged that “there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of stories to tell” and that through the process of this local storytelling narrative he is “dedicated to telling Austin’s lost histories and to engage the public in their celebration and preservation.”

Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the Downtown Austin Alliance, told the board that Our Austin Story recently won the Award of Excellence in Preserving History from the Texas Historical Commission.

Photo by Arnab Majumdar [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

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