Austin culture: The hot stories so far this year

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These stories about Austin’s people, places, culture and history rang true with readers during the first six months of 2016.

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Her first foray into open combat saved a fire station. In the early 1970s, the Austin city manager wanted to move the fire station on Kinney Avenue in the Zilker neighborhood to the other side of Barton Creek. “If the fire station was out there, from one direction they’d be blocked by trains, from the other direction by floods,” says Shudde Fath, who turned 100 on Monday. “I’d seen them save a child who was choking and a neighbor’s mother having a heart attack.”
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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.

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Seven years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968, there was no public monument to his legacy in Austin. No statue. No park. No school. No street. No community center. Although it was relatively painless and inexpensive in April 1975 to change much of East 19th Street — the part that runs through East Austin from Interstate 35 to Ed Bluestein Boulevard — into Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the battle for public recognition was far from over.

 

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People thought they were crazy.Not that relatives, friends and coworkers actually believed that Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk III were unbalanced in the 1970s. Just that their life goals and their choice of location — Austin — didn’t make conventional sense.  “People thought I was going off the deep end,” says Vittori, co-director of the globally admired Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, about her early, idealistic search for the roots of human conflict. “A lot of what had fascinated me was how to democratize access to resources.”

 

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The cottage at 1203 South Third St. hasn’t changed that much since the 1930s.“There was a store that sold wood in the next block,” says Ken Ashworth, gesturing across West Gibson Street. “My mother sent me up there with a nickel to fetch wood. At age 5, it was my first errand.” Ashworth, former Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, described this one-bedroom — now expanded — house with its little wood-burning tin stove in his magnificent 2015 memoir, “Phantom in the Family: Tracking Down My Runaway Father.” It was the first secure retreat for his mother and his three siblings, abandoned by their mysterious father, H.L., who had as many as nine children with five or possibly more wives.
 
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In 1910, Antonio Rodríguez, a 20-year-old Mexican, was accused of killing Effie Greer Henderson at her ranch home near Rocksprings, close to the jagged southern slopes of the Edwards Plateau. A posse took him to the Rocksprings jail, but two days after the killing, a mob yanked him from his cell and burned him alive at the stake. His extrajudicial execution — one of many documented during the political violence along the border from 1910 to 1920 — caused an international diplomatic incident. Riots raged in Mexico City and along the Texas-Mexico border, just as Mexico was tilting toward a revolution that would send up to 1 million war refugees northward.
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Bit by bit, historians add to history. They exchange findings. And, along the way, they make new friends. And look at what Richard Denney and Lanny Ottosen, two history buffs working separately, found: Two burgs dubbed Montopolis. One on each side of the Colorado River. In an American-Statesman article published Jan. 31, 2015, I described a personal tour of today’s Montopolis neighborhood on a muddy, chilly day. My intrepid guide was Fred McGhee, author of “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood.” As we zoomed around the semirural district in Southeast Austin by car and on foot, McGhee, a noted activist who trained as a marine archaeologist, pointed out remnants of the old settlement’s past.
 
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Two Austin houses turn 175 this year. You know one — the French Legation — as the “oldest house in town.” Locals and tourists love this Creole-style home that rests on a steep crest; it was built for Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, France’s chargé d’affaires to the new Republic of Texas. A museum since the 1950s, it hosted a 175th birthday fête on March 5. You are probably familiar with the other handsome house — Boggy Creek Farm — because of its organic foodstuffs rather than its history. Yet builders likely finished both structures, the latter for settlers James and Elizabeth Smith, almost simultaneously in 1841 in what is now East Austin.
 
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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.

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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?

 

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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.

 

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Early one February morning, nine history buffs huddled on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake. They carried with them maps in paper and digital editions. Egos left snugly at home, they readily shared anecdotes and insights about the potential Colorado River crossings of the Chisholm Trail, the multipronged Texas-to-Kansas routes for vast post-Civil War cattle drives, some of which were funneled through Austin. The nine gathered outside the youth hostel on Lakeshore Drive where Tinnin Ford Road dead-ends. How many Austinites who park here to jog or walk their dogs pause to wonder how this short, southwest-to-northeast street earned its name?
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“Val M. Keating.” I certainly didn’t expect to stumble on those three words while looking into a Texas group that had reformed mental health care in the 1930s.  But there in black-and-white pages was a familiar name on a list of founding directors. That would be my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Alongside her name was an additional clue: “Texas Relief Commission.” All along I had known that Grandma Keating — a kindly but complex woman — had been a social worker. And that she had held fairly high positions in her field. Although I have researched diverse topics since the sixth grade, I had never bothered to find out more about her. A reminder: If you are interested in history, start with your family.
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When Jim Ritts ascends the Paramount Theatre stage on Saturday for the populist palace’s annual gala, he will have much to extol. During 2015, the director of the Paramount and State theaters toasted the older venue’s 100th birthday with a string of parties, a careful revamp of its façade, and the crowning addition of a vertical sign absent from Congress Avenue for more than 50 years.  Ritts can look back, too, on the first five years of his tenure, which saw steady audience growth for movies, comedy, music and special events, including the scene-altering Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest. And perhaps most importantly, plans for a key project that he has quietly promoted for years — a proposed 30-story tower to replace a derelict building at the corner of East Eighth Street and Congress Avenue — were made public recently. The tall “car-free” project will not only give the theater block a whole new look and feel, but also provide a floor of free offices for Ritts’ staff, along with extra cash to renovate the interiors of both theaters.
 
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When Gobi-Kla Vonan served as a junior counselor at the Austin Sunshine Camps, he welcomed a 9-year-old boy on the first day. “He had never been to Zilker Park,” says Vonan, now 21 and studying architecture at the University of Texas. “And he lived in Austin.” Right away, Vonan filled in the new camper about Sunshine activities. “We’re going canoeing and swimming,” Vonan said. “We’ll have big-group games and small-group games. And team-building activities like ropes courses. You are going to have a good time and learn a lot.’” A similar welcome scene has been played out thousands of times since 1928, when the Sunshine Camps — founded by the Young Men’s Business League and the Travis County Tuberculosis Association — were first set up in the middle of Zilker Park.
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When war broke out in Bangladesh in 1971, Mohsin Khataw was rebuilding jetties in Chittagong harbor, then part of East Pakistan. He was serving as project manager for a team of engineers from West Pakistan. “I was advised to leave,” Mohsin recalls of the bloody civil war between East and West that ended in Bangladeshi independence. “They said: ‘You are not very safe here.’ I had a team of West Pakistanis who begged: ‘Mr. Khataw, please go away.’ I couldn’t. … I can’t abandon my people. We were rounded up and put into prison. Very bad conditions.” When he was released on bail, Mohsin, disguised and pretending that he could not speak, flew through several Asian capitals before reaching his home in Karachi, Pakistan. “We did not know if he was alive or dead for nine months,” his wife, Amina Khataw, says. “If he even existed. When he came back, the airport was filled with people.”
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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.


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