Revived talk of lowering Interstate 35 as it passes through downtown has also revived memories of East Avenue, the old, broad street that the freeway replaced in 1962.
Originally the eastern boundary of the city, this boulevard remained unpaved for much of its history. Across East Avenue, homesteads and farms stretched up into the highlands above East Seventh Street, then down to the Colorado River, once thick with spinach fields.
As early as the 1870s, East Avenue served as an informal ethnic boundary, despite large Swedish and Scottish populations in East Austin.
During Reconstruction, more than one freedmen’s town grew up near the avenue. Later, they were joined by two African-American colleges, Samuel Huston, right on the avenue, and Tillotson, in the highlands off Seventh Street. They merged to become today’s Huston-Tillotson University.
After it was paved in 1933, East Avenue was among Austin’s most attractive thoroughfares. It was lined with trees and split by a broad median that served as a plaza-like park and gathering place for African-American, Mexican-American and other families who settled on both sides of its quiet lanes.
Among the East Avenue landmarks were Palm School, now county offices, and its elegant Palm Park — soon to be refurbished if the Waller Creek Conservancy gets its way — the old Brackenridge Hospital, yet another college where the IHOP now sits on East Cesar Chavez Street, and the Bickler Academy, recently the subject of an historical column in these pages.
That white limestone 19th-century structure, built by a German-born educator, survived at least until 1962, when it was photographed as part of the opening of Interstate 35 downtown. Its detached cupola now resides in Zilker Park. Older readers were quick to point out, too, that it had served as headquarters for the Austin school district until the offices moved to upper Guadalupe Street, then later to West Sixth Street.
Palm Park deserves special mention. Once among the city’s most popular gathering spots, it fell out of favor — and repair — after Interstate 35 severed it from residential areas to the east. Now that people are flocking back downtown to live, and Waller Creek, which runs alongside it, is on the rebound, this park, with its Depression-era decor, has served as the site of recent benefit events.
Whether Interstate 35 is ever reconstituted into a low, landscaped boulevard-style freeway, lined with expected mid-rises, Palm Park will remain a reminder of the slower pace and landscaped charm of old East Avenue and the communities that coalesced there.
Sparking reader memories
Remnants of East Avenue survive, by the way, especially where Interstate 35 swerves to cross the Colorado River, something the avenue never did. Reader Tim Basham confirmed the lack of an East Avenue bridge by linking to an online copy of a 1939 Chamber of Commerce map of Austin.
Its analog, West Avenue, on the other hand, still serves near-downtown neighborhoods leading to mixed-use projects located where the water and power plants once stood.
Recently posted images of East Avenue on social media sparked stories among older locals.
“I was born on the corner of East Avenue and Eighth,” says Ronald Attal of his vast Lebanese Austin family. “Moved to Hyde Park when I was 1. I had many relatives still living there for years. Most of the Lebanese families lived on East Avenue, Seventh and Eighth streets. I remember it well! I would visit and climb the steps of the mound across from Brack. One could see most of the city from there. Great times.”
In fact, Mexican-American, Chinese-American and other immigrant families landed in approximately the same neighborhood, opening stores and restaurants on Red River and Sixth streets, as well as along the avenue.
Several readers expressed a preference for the pre-freeway avenue.
“I like it the old way better,” says Rob Davidson. Laura Hubbard adds: “What price progress?”
In 2001, Belinda Acosta wrote a long, lovely story for the Austin Chronicle about La Calle Ancha — “the wide street” — as East Avenue was called by Austinites of Mexican origin.
“When asked to talk about this place called Calle Ancha, the speaker’s face will change,” Acosta writes. “A fondness flashes in their eyes. However, capturing and reconciling the memories of Calle Ancha with the official history of a city that holds its cultural mythologies as immutable, was an invitation to all kinds of misery.”
From historic images housed at the Austin History Center and personal tales from older residents, Acosta calls up an almost rural setting, where horses grazed and folks lingered along the leisurely avenue. The City Market — site of early fat stock shows and Depression-era food giveaways — was at East Avenue and East Seventh Street, site of the current police station. Nearby stood the Market Cafe.
Matamoros Restaurant (“El Mat”) was at Sixth Street, while the Red and White Grocery faced the City Market. Samuel Huston College was on the east side of the avenue between 11th and 12th streets.
Acosta recounts the beautification efforts that started in 1919.
“These expanses of green, while not developed into parks as understood today, became the site of family picnics, places for ‘vatos to hang out with their guitars, looking for girls,’” she writes, “or resting places for those who’d finished shopping on Sixth Street.”
She includes the memories of Austin resident Joe Sanchez, who describes how people would play baseball while others watched from their porches.
Sanchez’s father was part of the crew that paved East Avenue. Latinos had migrated to East Austin from their homes near Republic Square Park (“Chili Square”) during the 1920s, when Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church moved east.
Acosta digs deep into the past of East Sixth Street and East Avenue, back when Sixth was a center for trade, shipping and socializing. She also records the long planning process for Interstate 35 and how it wrecked the residential, recreational and retail cultures along the avenue.
Acosta doesn’t minimize East Avenue’s role as an ethnic dividing line, later compounded by the comparative impermeability of Interstate 35. Yet she recognizes that it was also a shared space.
“It wasn’t just Mexicans in the area,” Acosta writes. “Germans, Lebanese, Greeks, Jews and blacks co-existed on and around the avenue, though from all indications, the existence was separate, but friendly.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history