When artist and musician Tim Kerr was approached about creating a mural that described the Red River Cultural District’s history — to be painted on what is believed to be the district’s oldest building, the nightclub Elysium — he knew immediately that the focus needed to be on the words detailing the past.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘Man, let’s (not) do anything to it. Let’s just leave it as is, and let’s just write the history in white paint,’ ” Kerr said. “Fill the whole wall with the history, and I’m pretty sure somebody’s going to stop and read it.”
Members of the cultural district’s merchants association as well as Soul-y Austin, the city’s business district incubator, commissioned the American-Statesman’s former longtime music critic Michael Corcoran to write the painted text about the history of the live music district.
Early Saturday, Kerr set up a power lift and got to work painting on the side of the black, corrugated metal building on Seventh and Red River streets.
“This building,” the mural begins in large type, before shrinking to continue, “was originally a mule barn used by the U.S. Army during WWI, housed various secondhand stores and then live music venues since the mid-80s when the Cave Club introduced industrial music to Texas.”
The installation of the mural coincides with Hot Summer Nights, a four-day stretch of free music that began Thursday, and marks the beginning of a series of improvement projects intended to preserve the celebrated home of the indie rock scene on the eastern edge of downtown Austin.
“We’ve got 13 live music venues and half a dozen really great businesses and cultural institutions here,” said Nicole Klepadlo, redevelopment project manager at Soul-y Austin. “So the hope is that these projects kind of help highlight the history and culture of the district and bring people that maybe have never been to Red River before to Red River as well as bring those people back that are here all the time.”
Other upcoming projects include a large neon sign bearing the district’s name, adding trash cans and planters and creating an art installation at the Cheer Up Charlies nightclub. Klepadlo said Kerr might also paint a second mural at 801 Red River that would showcase Texas musicians.
The city also has commissioned a survey of the alley between the Beerland and Sidewinder live music venues, which merchants have identified as a crime area. A possible solution could include closing the alley off to pedestrians, Klepadlo said.
The campaign comes at a difficult time for the district as rents in the area rise and public safety concerns dog merchants trying to keep their doors open. The district lies adjacent to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which saw a spike in drug activity earlier this year, such as K2-related illnesses.
A recent study of the district pointed to safety as its greatest threat to economic stabilization and health.
Jason McNeely, the operator of the music venue Barracuda and board member of the merchants association, said facing that common challenge and others is the reason the association came together.
“We (venue owners) want this district to realize its potential,” McNeely said. “We’re not trying to turn it into Rainey Street or turn it into something it’s not. We just want to create a safe neighborhood for people to come see music.”
That continuing story of the district will be laid out in the final lines of Kerr’s mural, which, in Corcoran’s words, reads: “History never gets old,” followed by a contribution by Kerr, that his old band, Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee, used to sing, “Time is time was NOW.”