When the For Sale sign went up, I knew it was my chance to say goodbye.
For months, I found ways to spy on the house on a hill. When running errands on a Saturday, I would turn my car on to Columbus Street, creeping to a stop when I got to a two-story clapboard farmhouse with a portable toilet resting in the front yard.
The house had undergone a painstaking and detailed renovation that had dragged on for five years. And now, finally, it was done, and it had a price tag that rounded up to $1.4 million.
To say I had mixed feelings is inadequate. I know this house, which was built around 1900, about as well as I know the shape of my own hands.
My stepfather and mother were married in front of the fireplace in the living room and raised seven kids there. I lived there from the time I was 8 until I left for college. And now it was a home again — but a home for someone else.
The house stands at the top of a hill in Bouldin Creek, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just south of downtown, with an average sales price in the first six months of this year of $623,817, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors.
It wasn’t just the house I was feeling nostalgic about. It was goodbye to the Bouldin of my childhood, which every passing year shed more of its shabby bungalows for shiny new homes, its coloring-outside-the-lines yards for manicured and drought-tolerant lawns. Though there are still middle-class families that have managed to hang on, they won’t be able to hang on for long.
For anyone who has moved to Austin in the last decade, you probably think of Bouldin as a funky and eminently walkable neighborhood of varied but pricey homes, a place you can still find remnants of “Keep Austin Weird” in the form of bizarre yard art.
For the unfamiliar, Bouldin is roughly bordered by Barton Springs Road to the north, South Lamar Boulevard to the west, Oltorf Street to the south, and South Congress Avenue to the east. Its downtown-adjacent location has everything to do with its popularity.
Visiting Bouldin these days by car isn’t easy because of the shrinking number of public parking spaces. But once you’re there, the entertainment options seem endless. South First Street, which bisects the eastern end of Bouldin, offers everything from a ravioli food truck to an authentic Mexican bakery, a few moderately upscale boutiques and a smattering of lawyers and accountants.
But this version of Bouldin only emerged in the last decade or so. The Bouldin of my 1990s childhood was grittier, more working-class and more diverse. (One of my favorite show-and-tell moments to explain the changes in South Austin to out-of-town guests is to point to the old movie theater on Congress Avenue near Live Oak and say: “That’s where they used to show pornos!”)
The eastern edge of the neighborhood began in the late 1800s as a suburb for African-American families. They were later pushed out by the city’s infamous 1928 “Master Plan,” which essentially forced blacks to move east of Interstate 35.
The city enforced that shameful decree by denying utilities and other city services to black people unless they lived in East Austin — and restrictive covenants barred them from other neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, by the World War II-era, Bouldin was predominantly white and working-class. Bouldin old-timers tell me that by the 1960s and 1970s “white flight” caused many Anglo families to flee for newer subdivisions to the south. Hispanic families either remained or took their place.
In 1990, 45 percent of Bouldin residents were Hispanic, 46 percent were white, and 7 percent were African-American. Sixty-nine percent of the households were occupied by renters, according to Census data. Austin at large was only 23 percent Hispanic at that time, making Bouldin a fairly brown neighborhood.
My memories of what Bouldin used to be are colored by this diversity. It seemed like every other house had a statue of a Catholic saint in the yard. When Tejano singer Selena died in 1995, it was a big deal among the girls on my school bus. They wore Selena T-shirts for months afterward and styled their hair just like hers.
Our neighbors were a hodge-podge of families who would probably fall into the socioeconomic category of lower middle-class. On our block, there was a homemaker and husband who made a living as a handyman. In another house lived two part-time state workers, and there were several retirees. Almost without exception, Bouldin wasn’t where the doctors and lawyers chose to live.
Bouldin started to change by the time I was in college, in the early 2000s. A one-story yellow house a few doors down from us was sold, torn down and replaced with something bigger.
And then that was repeated.
Over and over and over.
According to city data, the number of demolition permits issued in 78704, a ZIP code that contains Bouldin and surrounding neighborhoods like Travis Heights, went from 106 in the 1990s to 466 between 2000 and 2009.
That trend has only escalated since, with 929 demolition permits issued since 2010.
Demolition permits are an imperfect measure of change. These permits can be issued for the tear-down of a carport, for instance. On the other hand, someone can undertake a major renovation without getting a demolition permit if three of the four walls are still standing.
But the high number of demolition permits in 78704 shouldn’t surprise any of the longtime residents who’ve seen the character of their neighborhoods evolve.
By 2000, Bouldin’s Hispanic population had ticked down to 41 percent, and then sunk further to 32.8 percent of the population by 2010. Whites are now a majority, and home ownership among residents has increased by 10 percentage points since 1990, according to Census data.
Our house, roaches and all
How many children of 1980s Austin can afford to live in the neighborhood they grew up in without inheriting a large sum of money? Not many, I bet, because Austin’s home prices have escalated far beyond wage increases.
The median home price has increased 45.25 percent in the last six years, while median family income has increased only 5.42 percent, according to the Austin Board of Realtors.
Austin neighborhoods such as Allandale, Barton Hills and Bouldin are shedding their middle-class identities.
In 1983, when my stepfather paid $110,000 for his Columbus Street house, it came with other lots on both sides, giving the property a lot of elbow room. We had our own pocket park where we built forts and hosted family baseball games. There was room for a full swing set and sandbox. Inside a grove of trees, we fit two cement benches and a bird bath.
Like most of our neighbors, our family couldn’t afford improvements beyond basic maintenance, though my stepfather, who worked an administrative job in the University of Texas public relations department, had renovated the house before we moved in, bringing the plumbing pipes that hung outside the house inside. My mother was a nurse who stayed home with my two younger brothers for several years.
I remember the house had sliding doors that never worked properly. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer — and we always seemed to be in a losing battle against the roaches. It also had an intercom system that never worked, so it became customary to stand at the bottom of the stairs and shout things like “Dinner’s ready!” at the top of your lungs.
But it was our house, roaches and all.
When it came time to sell the property in 2010, a real estate agent convinced my stepfather to sell the lots separately to maximize value. It was a smart financial strategy — and he walked away with a substantial profit.
But it means there are three homes where there once was one, and it blurs my memory of what once was there.
A few years ago, I had the chance to visit one of the homes that stands on one of those lots thanks to a tour of homes designed to showcase the work of local architects.
The house was modern, with straight lines and concrete floors. There was a balcony on the second floor that overlooked a tree I used to climb as a kid. What little yard there was left had been converted to plastic grass.
It was a completely surreal experience, to see all those people pay $40 to traipse through a house that for me will always be where we parked cars, stacked firewood and stored our bikes in a rusty storage shed. The house is now valued at almost $1 million by the local tax appraiser.
That Miranda Lambert song “The House That Built Me,” kept rolling around in my head when I was writing this essay. Here’s how the song starts:
I know they say, you can’t go home again.
I just had to come back one last time.
The first time I heard that song, I was getting a pedicure at a Florida nail salon. Suddenly, I missed Texas so bad I fought back tears and held a magazine over my face.
Over the years, the song continued to make me ache with nostalgia. But now it carries new layers of meaning for me as Austin is being transformed by an infusion of wealth.
I moved back to Austin from Florida in 2014. When my husband and I started house-hunting, I initially clung to the idea that I could live in 78704, the ZIP code that Bouldin is in. My parents may have sold the house, but my sense of ownership persists. For affordability reasons, we ended up buying in 78745, the ZIP code immediately to the south.
When I do visit Bouldin, like during the city’s annual July 4 fireworks show, I can feel the unhappy glares of Bouldin residents eyeing my vehicle.
I want to tell them: I was here before you.
On an April afternoon of this year, I returned to Bouldin as an invited guest. The Realtor for the Columbus Street house responded to an email saying it was OK for us to see it. I rounded up my mother, stepfather and brother, so we could stand in those rooms one last time.
The shape of the house was the same, but it was painted a creamy white instead of the army green it was before. The new owners kept the same front door — but painted it a cerulean blue — and the original floors. There was a front porch where a room had once been, and carefully tended landscaping.
Some of the changes were immediate and obvious: a wall where there once was an office; a new bathroom on the first floor. The living room and dining room were the same shape and size.
But the kitchen had become a showstopper. Instead of our cramped, plain space with brown cabinets and white appliances, it was now something out of Better Homes and Gardens, with a large marble countertop island, glass-front white cabinets and a soaring ceiling. Sliding doors allowed light to pour in from the backyard.
The footprint of the second floor was mostly untouched, though it had been modernized with gleaming bathroom fixtures and clawfoot tubs. The bedrooms seemed tiny, and I had a hard time believing there were once three beds squeezed in to each of those bedrooms.
I lingered a moment in my old room to soak in the memories. Most of my time there, I had this room to myself, since my sisters weren’t adopted until I was 16. I could picture everything as it used to be: where my bed went against the wall, where my boombox was, and my dresser. The windows were in the same spot and it felt like home.
It meant so much to me to see this better version of the creaky farmhouse. We were lucky, in a way, that it was so old. Though the house is not under any sort of historical designation, its age probably prevented it from being torn down.
The house eventually sold in June, after the owners had lowered their asking price by about $100,000.
I wanted to talk to the new owners, who appeared to be a husband and wife, according to appraisal district records. I knocked on the door in mid-November to ask for an interview. They weren’t home, but when I turned to leave a note in their mailbox I noticed a child-sized toy kitchen on the porch.
So, there were kids in the house again. A new chapter was unfolding.