At the beginning of 2016, the Golden Age of Downtown Austin augurs nary a hint of dinting nor dulling. From North Lamar to Interstate 35, constructions crane swoop across the landscape. On the streets, workers, residents, and visitors walk, bike, and drive to jobs, homes, shops, restaurants, and parks. The total energy of one of the most prosperous regions in the country is, by the laws of gravitational economics, concentrated right here in this urban core and, man, there’s a wild bustle to it all.
But, lo, this current period of dynamic fun n’ games was a long time in the making. And many of the same weirdo problems we face today have been bugaboos that generations of City Councils in their various forms have tried to take their respective whacks at. Now, thanks to the miracles of technology and open government (and the greater miracle that I can still afford an internet connection after the recent holidays), we can peer back in time at the political landscape of a century ago.
Behold above, a small sample of the Austin City Council agenda from Jan. 13, 1916. Long before the ongoing Waller Creek revitalization project, Mayor A.P. Wooldridge and his four white guy colleagues on the dais rassled with infrastructure issues on that flood-prone stream. The Council gave unanimous approval to designs for bridges to cross the stream from 1st Street (now Cesar Chavez Street) all the way up to 29th Street. Whether those bridges still exist or why existing bridges needed to be replaced to begin with are questions for another day. For the time being, one can only wonder why no one back then gave any thought to boring a colossal concrete flood-control tunnel 70 feet below the creek’s surface through which to channel tens of millions of gallons of water into the Colorado River, a friendly gesture that would’ve given the City a head start on that aforementioned revitalization project. Since this was pre-Capitol View Corridors, it would’ve saved us all a giant headache. Slackers.
As our current Council continues its graceless plod towards new regulations on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, with the full backing of Big Taxi, it’s worth remembering that not too many people were in a hurry to get Big Taxi in the first place. One hundred years ago in February, Mayor Wooldridge n’ The Boys received a petition calling for an ordinance “for the purpose of properly regulating local street transportation of persons for hire by ‘Jitneys’, automobiles, busses (sic), and other motor vehicles.” The petitioners claimed to have the signatures of 1,239 qualified voters — not bad for a city of, at the time, roughly 35,000 souls. But there were a few problems. Turns out that upon further review, city officials determined many signatures weren’t valid. Meanwhile, perhaps because they were spooked by a heavy-handed propaganda campaign launched by private interests, several hundred authors of valid signatures wrote in to request their removal from the petition. I cannot tell you when Council finally adopted a regulatory framework for taxi services, but I would guess that when they did, many people who called for cabs that night are still waiting patiently for their rides to show up.
Hey, here’s an item that demonstrates one big difference between the Austin of 100 years ago and the Austin of today: Land prices. In 1916, the City purchased the lot on the southeast corner of Red River and E. 11th streets for a cool $250. Today, TCAD values that land at just over $4.5 million. Now, as a professional journalist, I leave the math-doings to better minds, but I’ll take a rough crack at this and declare that if the City were to finally decide to sell this land today, it would stand to make a seventwentyteen-jillion percent profit.
Now, let’s scoot ahead a few years in our travels through the archives to take a moment to remember that this town hasn’t always been a model target of good-hearted snark. Often, in fact, even to this day, lots of municipal behavior deserves some degree of hot-fire derision. Like this piece of crap from Oct. 5, 1933:
Here we find a petition, “signed by thirty-eight citizens and property owners in the vicinity of the 1700 block of East Avenue, protesting the erection of a Negro business establishment at this location.” Certainly, these kinds of shenanigans should be expected when perusing the political archives of a southern city during the age of Jim Crow. However, I offer a counterpoint: What a bunch of dicks. It’s impossible to tell whether the business in question was technically in Downtown since this was before East Avenue was converted from a tree-lined boulevard into the concrete death-wall of segregation made manifest known as I-35, but it hardly matters. It’s also impossible to know what became of the petition since many similar items in Council agenda items end in similar referrals to some city agency with the ambiguous tone that a professional snarkster is eager to believe is a passive-aggressive way of saying, “This is garbage and the paper it’s written on is hardly fit for my doodles of Herbert Hoover with devil horns.” At any rate, this mess is a powerful reminder of how bad things were, how much worse they got (with the construction of a literal barrier to integration), and how much better things could yet be with the proper amount of progressive leadership.
My dream is for one day to have my friends’ grandkids trawling through the viz-deck archives of tomorrow’s Holo-Council and finding the hilariously antiquated transcripts of today’s leaders arguing against plans like Reconnect Austin.
Downtown Austin’s best days are still ahead of us, gang.