Reader Cody Russell asks of our Austin Answered project: “What was Dirty Sixth before it was Dirty Sixth?”
We’ll break down the most common answers.
• The road east. Called Pecan Street for its first 50 years, East Sixth Street was the dirt road to Bastrop, hence the principal route toward the most-settled parts of Texas since the 1830s. This roadway stood generally above the high water mark when the Colorado River flooded badly.
• A second Main Street. Other than Congress Avenue, Sixth Street was the most densely commercialized Austin thoroughfare well into the 20th century. It hosted grocery stores, apparel shops, dry good spots, liquor stores, barber shops, furniture stores and movie theaters as well as saloons, restaurants and inns, including the grand Driskill Hotel starting in 1886.
• Melting pot. As Austin became more segregated in the early 20th century, East Sixth Street, along with Red River Street, was where African-American, Latino, Lebanese and Chinese merchants and customers could potentially mingle, although along one block, blacks kept mainly to the north, Latinos to the south into the postwar period.
• Bourbon Street. After World War II, as more residents and businesses moved out to the suburbs, East Sixth Street increasingly was lined was bars, clubs, brothels and tattoo parlors before inking was considered a near universal rite of passage.
• Music Row. By the 1970s, when liquor laws were liberalized, East Sixth Street was one of the primary magnets for live music, including the original Antone’s. At the same time, against all odds, the first new downtown residents moved into the upper floors of the vintage brick buildings.
• Electric Street. To borrow a term from composer Sterling Price-McKinney, East Sixth Street became wonderfully electric and eclectic in the 1980s. Waves of curious tourists, game day celebrants, old hippies, South by Southwest guests and off-duty military personnel joined poets, comedians, entertainers, street food vendors and, for a while, feuding street gangs on this Avenue of Dreams.
• Dirty Sixth. We don’t know who first applied the adjective “Dirty,” as popularized by hip-hop culture, to “Sixth.” Yet, as Central Austin spawned a half-dozen other, nattier nightlife districts, East Sixth Street acquired a reputation — embraced by some, reviled by others — for a certain level of intentional rowdiness.