Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Ever Changing South Congress by Cole McGarrahan

South Congress Exterior Walls and Bumper Sticker Collage  

From my multiple observational visits to South Congress, and previous visits over the years I was able to find lots of examples of the varying types of people that visit the area. People that I talked to were mostly very open and willing to have a conversation. I talked to a middle-aged couple that was from Oregon visiting friends. They really liked the South Congress “vibe,” and they were hoping to go see the bats. Another older couple that I spoke to was from Detroit, and were visiting their daughter who stayed in Austin after graduating from UT. They were on South Congress to go to a fish restaurant called “Wahoo’s” for fish tacos, and to get Amy’s Ice Cream, after their daughter had recommended the place to them. They thought that Austin was laid back and aside from the traffic and extreme heat, very peaceful and friendly. One thing that stood out to me was the line of people each time I walked by Jo’s Coffee, not people buying coffee, but people taking pictures in front of the side of their wall with the iconic spray painted line “i love you so much” (redone because of tagging).
            South Congress Avenue is a five-lane road, with free side reverse-angle parking available, and bike lanes on both sides. There is usually traffic, due to multiple reasons including street parking, tourist sight seeing, business, and regular transportation. Behind some stores and restaurants there is extra parking and some parking garages; but there is not enough parking for the amount of people that visit on a busy day. A lot of people park in the residential neighborhoods around South Congress Avenue, in front of houses. Some neighborhood streets have no parking signs, some have nothing and others have hand written signs saying, “Please do not take my parking spot.” These interactions between public and private spaces are ones to look out for in the future. This new reverse-angle parking is a result in complaints of little available parking on the street, and from complaints of residents. The streets with tow away zones have cars with parking permits for the residents. It is pretty rare to see residents out in front of their yards; however there are lots of green lawns and many plotted plants.
            In addition to street parking along South Congress Avenue, there are pedestrian sidewalks and freshly paved corners with new bus benches. Light poles and other freestanding objects around sidewalks often have stickers of all kinds, from advertisements to political stances, pop culture images, and local and popular band emblems. This type of interaction with the environment is common on South Congress. People often times feel the need to express themselves and their beliefs publicly, and often times they do this by what some would call obstructing property. Most, if not all buildings on South Congress have been tagged with graffiti. Most businesses clean up or paint over the graffiti, and others have done a type of graffiti of their own, which can be seen on buildings like Lucy In Disguise. There are lots of old buildings still being used for businesses and stores today; lots of these buildings have interesting paint jobs, murals and artwork on the sides of them. Newer buildings seem to have sides made up of large glass windows, where everything is open and visible.
I also talked to people who stood out to me; I noticed a lot of people with tattoos and ear gauges. I remember talking to a ‘hipster’-looking group that was upset about South Congress changing, mainly talking about the removal of the food trailers and small retail tents. They say that these trailers are a major part of the spirit of Austin.
I attended Travis High School, which is not too far from South Congress, I have been familiar with the area my whole life and I have witnessed many changes, a lot of which have occurred recently. I’ve had friends that used to live in the neighborhood, but were forced to move because of increasing tax prices. There have been many new developments, remodeling and new modern box houses put in. As far as I can remember in my life, South Congress has been a cool place with good food choices. One of my favorite places, Fran’s Hamburgers is now closed. The food trailers, which were around for about seven years, are almost all gone, and there is a vacant lot that will soon be turned into hotels. To me the new change is sad because I liked how unique it all felt. However, the trailers were always expected to be a temporary thing. South Congress is constantly changing its identity, and many people today feel like the removal of these trailers will completely change, or already have changed the identity of South Congress.
I ate at a few of the restaurants throughout my visiting. I went to Hopdoddy Burger Bar, which has a big menu of burgers, and burgers made out of lamb, beef, bison, turkey, sushi and black bean-corn. This restaurant gives off a modern, all-natural, upper-class feel. The hipster looking waitress was nice and my Buffalo Bill burger was pretty delicious. Another day I ate at Home Slice, which has always been one of my favorite places on South Congress. It is almost always packed at Home Slice, which is why there is a “More” section of Home Slice now that serves mainly people who want single slices and the late night crowd. I’ve gone a few times after partying downtown to get a slice around 2 am. Home Slice has much better pizza than the pizza made on Sixth Street in my opinion. Another late night option that I love is Magnolia Café, which is full of characters at all different times.
I also visited Prima Dora, which has a variety of ‘Austin things’ for tourists, and gift givers. They also sell Tempurpedic mattresses, which seems pretty weird or random to me. I didn’t visit this store solely for the purpose of this project. Two of my friends Merylin and Julie work there. They both claim to like working there, but think that the products that they sell are way over priced and they can’t believe half of the things that people spend their money on. They also love testing out the beds. Julie also says that most of their business comes from tourists and “artsy” women. I didn’t buy anything at their store.
The recent success in the past twenty years has definitely changed both the image of South Congress and the demographics of the area. The new ‘Disneyfication’ of the area, along with success in the City of Austin, has brought in an influx of new homeowners interested in living near downtown, and near cool and edgy ‘SoCo.’ The gentrification of the neighborhoods around South Congress can be seen from the new large houses, some modern and some re-modeled.
Census data for this area of South Congress show that over half of the population is white, with the rest mainly Hispanic, with a median average income level around 40,000 to 50,000 dollars. Most residents are in their thirties, but ages range highly. The two main neighborhoods are Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek.
From its construction in the 1830’s, the farthest South Congress reached was Colorado Street, until it’s growth in the 1850’s. By 1890, there were only eight buildings on South Congress. St. Edwards College was built in 1887, bringing in some people, but it wasn’t until it was re-chartered as a university in 1925 until it grew. The South Congress area was initially pretty empty, but growth of small houses turned into neighborhoods. After the construction of the South Congress Bridge in 1910, people had a more reliable way to get to South Congress. South Congress started developing stores and hotels in the 1920’s and 1930’s as part of the South Congress Preservation Plan (McGraw). Automobiles made businesses possible in the late 1920s, and South Congress grew more. The neighborhoods grew when Mexicans were displaced from downtown, even though most moved to East Austin, others moved into the South Congress area. After being paved in 1931, South Congress Avenue was thought of as a corridor of the Capital. In the 1930’s as neighborhoods grew, they brought in businesses like grocery stores, barbershops, tourist shops, gas stations and restaurants. In the 1950’s South Congress had many hotels, burger stands and one of Austin’s first shopping strips. In the 1960’s and 1970’s South Congress became the home to artists and musicians. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw a decline in the area, and a subsequent rise in crime with a marked increase in prostitution and thefts in the hotel and motel businesses. The 2000’s saw a kind of renaissance, and reimplementation of retail shops and tourist attractions after ‘cleaning up the streets.’
Being from Austin, I personally have witnessed changes in South Congress, some good and some bad. I believe that it will remain a center for businesses and consumerism for a long time, even with the loss of its soul, because Austin is growing inwardly at such a fast pace. I hope that South Congress remains a “cool” place to visit and hang out. It will be interesting to watch what effect the continuing growth will do the area.