A Wander Through Chestnut (Austin, Texas)

“Did you just take my picture?” she demands, face in my face.

“No,” I reply, “No one except Art’s.” “I saw you point the camera up the street at me,” she challenges. “A picture of Manny’s – just that – is all I took.” Satisfied, she walked back to join the others on the corner; a gathering place for those with time on their hand and a bottle to share.

Art drawing my portrait

Art drawing my portrait

All the while Art continues to sketch my likeness. He tells me as he sketches that he left a good paying job as a carpenter to live the life of a street artist. Black, he fits in, white, I stand out. That’s why he’s sketching me in the first place. Took notice of a white guy camera in hand talking with the street folk, as they emphatically state, one and all, “Don’t take my picture.” A prostitute (I may be stereotyping) walks by, well dressed, attractive, both Art and I notice her, “You’re lookin’ mighty beautiful,” Art tells her. She thanks him, and continues on. Another man joins us, looking on as Art sketches. I take his pictures as he watches. He offers to take mine, I decline, not sure why.

Later I tell someone – a white person – where I had been. “You’re lucky they didn’t mug you or something. That’s East Austin’s most dangerous corner” … E. 12th & Chicon. One reporter once called this corner “one of the largest open air markets in the city,” and she didn’t mean a farmers’ market either. Never once, however, did I feel threatened, even when one man harangues me for not giving Art any money for drawing my picture. Art, though, heard me tell the “Guitar Player” who offered to play for a dollar, that I had no money on me – told me that up front, before he gave the sketch.

Sam's BBQ, Austin

Sam’s BBQ | E. 12th St.

In this part of East Austin, just a block in another direction can put you in a different world, it’s like you walk through an invisible wall. One block to the east on 12th, I stop to take a picture of Sam’s BBQ, a decrepit, beggarly looking place. I find out later that in 1992 a fire destroyed the place, although looking the building, definitely living on borrowed time, I find that hard to fathom. There’s a story here, too, that says something about the spirit of those living here in East Austin: In spite of lack of wealth, or maybe because of it, they come together to help each other out. They did so here too, helping to rebuild Sam’s.

Camera to the eye, I hear, “Have you eaten here?” I walk over and meet Aaron. Not having answered his question, Aaron again asks, “Have you eaten here?” It turns out that Aaron is the nephew of Sam, now deceased, and chief BBQ-er. When I ask about the picture I take to be Sam, Aaron tells me, “That’s my brother Dan, he owns the place. Bought it from our cousin Sam in ’78.”

Aaron preparing my plate

Aaron preparing my plate

“Well, come on inside,” Aaron invites. I follow him in—and stop dead: Every wall is covered with hundreds of snapshots. While I have been gawking, Aaron, I find, has prepared a “sample plate” for me, piled high with moist brisket, short ribs, and a couple different kinds of sausage. “Aaron,” I spit out – the best I could with a full mouth, juices running down my chin – “This stuff is fantastic!” Aaron tells me that the meat is all prepared and slow-cooked according to Sam’s recipe and that the sausage is especially made for Sam’s following an old family recipe. “The brisket,” he says, “has won awards.” No doubt about it in my mind.

While we’re chatting, Aaron’s brother, Dan, comes in from the barbershop (which he also owns) across the street. He shakes my hand, chats a bit and wanders back out. Somewhere during all of this I find out that Sam’s is the BBQ place that the late Stevie Ray Vaughn hung out at when he wanted “real BBQ.” “His picture’s over there,” I think I see a picture of Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen too.

It is almost appointment time. As I finish up my plate, Aaron adds, “White folks eat here too,” and from under a pile of papers he pulls out a photo of a white couple standing with Dan, BBQ in hand. The couple? Bill and Hillary Clinton. “I’ll be back,” I tell Aaron, to which Aaron adds, “You can bring your own bottle.” I hadn’t noticed; unlike most of Austin’s BBQ joints, Sam’s offer no beer. “Not in this neighborhood,” Aaron replies to my un-remarked question. “We stay open as long as people keep coming in,” he adds as I head out the door.

The sign outside of Sam’s says it all: “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef!”

Although it is time for my appointment I find myself wandering down Chicon until I find myself at Rosewood and Nubian Queen Lo La’s Cajun Soul Food Kitchen. The notice painted on the wall reads, “Closed Sundays to feed the homeless God.” A sermon for the taking, I think. Upon a closer look, however, I realize that “God” goes with “Trust” painted on the other side of the window. Perhaps it is the two standing alligators, each wearing a crown, painted on the wall that confuses me. Lo La’s is not yet open. I decide to return after my meeting. (Interestingly, out of the blue, the person I am meeting asks if I’ve discovered Lo La’s yet? He suggests that I go in and meet Lo La.”

The morning began not on E. 12th and Chicon but on another corner, E. 14th & Cedar. As I am drive around, not sure where I am going to begin my wander, I pass an eclectic grouping of buildings that at one time were something else, although I cannot imagine what … maybe a gas station and a restaurant? Whatever, they give meaning to “Keep Austin Weird.” I stop, get my camera out and start snapping away. Come to find out later that this collection is home to the Austin Metal Authority.

Across 14th I stop to take a picture of a hubcap fence. Fits right in with the Austin Metal Authority buildings. Turning I see what look’s like red okra, red okra? Sure enough, the garden’s owner, an elderly black gentleman, tells me, “Found it at a market in Lockhart. Don’t know if it’s too late to plant it. Putting tomatoes out too, along with the greens. Come back in a few weeks for some greens.”

As we chat, I am being watched by another group of Black men hanging on the corner, leaning on cars, going in and out of the Shopper Stop Food Store. Leary of my camera, they still, every one, nod in greeting.

As I begin to wander I find the variety of homes within a few blocks of this corner amazing—shotguns, contemporary. mega-modern, “New Urbanism,” and everything in between; some still with privies attached … “modernized,” I am later assured.

Chestnut Addition home

Chestnut Addition home

Having no idea the name of the neighborhood, I ask a man mowing. “Chestnut Addition.” When he was a kid growing up in the neighborhood, he tells me, it was called, “Chestnut-something else.” We talk about the neighborhood for a bit before he goes back to his mowing. “This started out as an African-American neighborhood. One of the few places in Austin in the 40’s & 50’s where Blacks could live. We had our own hospital nearby, Black funeral homes, banks,” he tells me. “Now, others are moving in, driving up property values. Some of the old-timers can no longer afford their taxes (he nods toward his friend’s house where he’s mowing) and are moving elsewhere. Sad! They’re tearing down everything that made this neighborhood and building bigger. Not just the white-folk.” We talk about how at one time the strength of the neighborhood was found in her families – several generations of families – that lived in the same home, or just around the corner from each other, and the churches. “Not so today … sad,” he says, shaking his head, as he turns to mow.

Chestnut Addition Chicken Coop

Chicken Coop

He goes back to mowing, I hear chickens clucking. Investigating, I find a young white woman watching her chickens forage about. She tells me that a few years ago she fell in love with this little shotgun house, and purchased it. She has no plans to tear it down. Wants to leave it just as it is. “Sad, what’s happening to the neighborhood,” she adds. I leave her to tend to her hens while I wander. The sadness descends upon me too; a neighborhood losing her innate charm – and perhaps, as some residents claim, her stability – in the name of some misguided notion of New Urbanism. That, however, is another story for another day.
—–

 
Lunch behind me, I head back to Rosewood and Nubian Queen Lo La’s place, hoping to meet Lo La in person.

She’s open. I enter. I am greeted by Mardi Gras beads hanging from the ceiling; knickknacks and inspirational messages lining the walls; a cool figure of James Browns smile at me along side the kitchen door—where I find Lo La on the phone. Breaking from the phone she asks, “What can I get you?” I tell her that the alligators and brightly painted yellow and purple exterior beckoned me in. She smiles, “The many colors of Jacob’s coat.” Lo La asks if I’m hungry. I tell her no and she goes back to her phone conversation. But before she does she poses for a photo and invites me to wander about, take whatever pictures I want. I do, find what appears to be a shrine of some sort on a table. On one wall, apart from all of the other items for sale, I find a dress that I think might have belonged to Lo La’s grandmother – I don’t want to interrupt her phone conversation again – and nearby a doll sitting in a highchair that looks remarkably like the Little Black Sambo in my childhood story book.

Lola

Lola

“Nubian Queen Lola” (Photo: 2010)[/caption]I find out later, that Lo La, who is Lola Stephens, moved here from Lake Charles, LA in 1980. And remember, “Closed on Sunday to fee the homeless God”? On Sundays you will find the neighborhood’s homeless right outside the restaurant, in the back yard, sitting around tables, eating food prepared by Lola. She says she lives by the admonition of St. Luke, “Give and it shall be given to you.” She knows the truth of it first hand. After renting what was once Nanny’s, a soul food joint, with scraped up donations and savings, and cleaning it up, Lola found that she didn’t have the funds to buy the equipment needed to open. Along comes a contractor who, looking for a good place to eat Cajun soul food, and knowing Lola’s desire, takes her on a shopping trip … and as they say, “The rest is history.”

With a “thank you,” I leave, knowing I’ll be back. Maybe lunch at Lo La’s, supper at Sam’s … and lots of neighborhood stories in between.

Frank A. Mills
Round Rock, Texas
August 2010

Click here for photos. [Photos are in the process of being transferred to this post.]

frank

The transformation of space is always on my mind as I wander about urban neighborhoods. As I wander I try to be cognoscente of the inherent art and narrative of the space through which I move. The assumption that space = art + narrative raises all sorts of questions ,... Read more

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