These stories about Austin’s people, places, culture and history rang true with readers during the first six months of 2016.
Early on June 26, 2015 — the day that the crucial U.S. Supreme Court decision was announced — their phone rang and rang. A voice crashed over the line, “You guys can get married!” William “Bill” Lavallee drowsily replied, “We can’t afford to get married!” Two days later, friends of Lavallee, 88, and Forrest Hooper, 83, picked them up from their South Austin apartment to obtain a marriage license. The merry troupe arrived at the Travis County offices bristling with official papers collected over the couple’s 59-year partnership.
On Saturday, March 19 — as the 30th annual South by Southwest Festival wound down to a close — South Congress Avenue swam with locals and tourists. Though the weather had turned chilly, folks dressed in funky outfits strolled slowly up and down the wide sidewalks. Peaceful and relaxed, they stopped to chat, to drink in some street music, or to browse the hand-made crafts hawked by outdoor vendors. Some ventured into shops or eateries, virtually all of them locally generated. At scattered spots along the way, eager young activists used their charms to sign up passers-by for idealistic causes. Every once in while, one could catch the foxy whiff of a still-forbidden substance. If the alert observer squinted very hard — and blocked out decades of intervening memories — one could almost be transported to Austin’s Drag along Guadalupe Street opposite the University of Texas campus in the 1970s. Sure, the hair is shorter, the crowd is more varied, the causes have evolved, and the prices on those modish crafts have skyrocketed. Yet so much about Austin’s culture in the 2010s reflects an unmistakable provenance in the 1970s.
Dapper in a dark jacket and jaunty hat, Roger Lambert relaxes in the gleaming lobby of the historic Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. His bushy, well-trimmed beard lends him a professorial air, and his wise eyes dance with avuncular warmth. When he sits down behind the grand piano in the hotel’s darkened Bar 414 to play his signature mix of jazz, blues and classical tunes, Lambert looks as if he has always belonged right there. How many of the spiffy bar patrons would guess that not long ago, Lambert — seven years homeless in Austin — had camped out in a bamboo jungle off of East Riverside Drive?
On Sept. 3, 1968, Robert Brooks, then 21 and president of the St. Edward’s University Students’ Association Inc., boarded Air Force One with Lyndon Baines Johnson, president of the United States, for a flight from Austin to Washington, D.C. The native Austinite had gone along with his father, Max Brooks, an architect and Johnson family friend, already at work on plans for the future LBJ Presidential Library. Onboard, the country’s leader, who had announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election, pulled the younger Brooks aside and asked for his advice about the polarized Vietnam War homefront.
Lisa Byrd has paid heed to East Austin history. She also has seen how the story can go astray. “There were freedmen, for instance, in Austin prior to Emancipation,” Byrd says. “Austin was a mecca in part because there already was a free black population. At one time, African-Americans made up 30-35 percent of the population.” The outgoing director of Six Square, formerly known as the African American Cultural Heritage District, grew up in Philadelphia. Being from somewhere else helped her bridge the gaps in the city’s shared memory about East Austin. She has observed the narratives ever more carefully since she was appointed in 2005 to the African American Quality of Life Initiative, a response to police mistreatment of the city’s black community, as well as to studies about local health, education and employment disparities.