When Lise Ragbir and her partner Michael Diani moved from the northeast to Austin, they sought out a diverse, creative community, similar to ones in Philadelphia and New York City where they had lived. They found it in Robertson Hill, an East Austin community in the shadow of the historic French Legation and the 11th Street corridor. “When we moved here in 2007 we intentionally sought a neighborhood we believed would reflect a range of histories and cultures,” said Lise. “Our research naturally steered us to East Austin before we settled in Roberston Hill.”
Lise, a writer, curator and UT art gallery director, grew up in Montreal. “We were latchkey kids who would stop in to my Italian neighbors’ house for a fresh-baked square of Sicilian pie on the way home from school,” she explained. “It was an environment I didn’t think was replicable. But here in Robertson Hill, I know my neighbors are ready to host us or invite us over to look at the frogs in their homemade frog pond.”
Homes in this area are a mix of new construction and renovated cottages from the later part of the 1800’s through the 1930’s. Residents have a captivating view of the Texas Capitol and downtown skyline. On a beautiful Austin twilight evening, we visited with Lise, her architect husband Michael, their three-year-old daughter Nella and Robertson Hill neighbors. Their Olive Street home is flanked by neighbors they consider valued friends, like metal artist Bonnie Ramsey, who brings Nella children’s books, has lent them a tiller for their garden and helped with their rescue dog Olive. Next door is Helen Lott, who has welcomed the family into her home for Christmases when they couldn’t travel back east for the holidays. The neighborhood has a pocket park named in honor of Lott and her family.
We met Sara Carr and her husband Eric Standridge, landscape architects and designers, who live on an adjacent street. “We spend a lot of time at The Backyard and hanging out on porches,” Sara shared. The backyard she refers to is Kenny Dorhman’s Backyard, a gathering place that is special to neighbors and visitors from all over. It’s part community garden and part live music venue, with food trailers, beloved art murals and stalls for artisans to sell their creations. “The music on Friday evening can be fantastical jazz, great soul, some hip hop…everything.”
Neighbor Harold MacMillan is the mastermind and driving force behind The Backyard, named for the legendary jazz trumpeter and East Austinite. It’s home to Austin Jazz and Arts Fest, East End Summer Music Series, Soulfest and the Backyard Blues Series. If Harold needs extra volunteers to greet visitors at the gate, tent legs for the concession stand or a clean-up crew, he puts out an all call and the residents are there.
Lise fondly recalled Freddy, a beloved, recently deceased neighbor and friend to everyone in the community, who used to grow kale in an old toilet in his front yard. “The range of personalities, ethnicities, generations, ideas and things like last-minute Prince dance parties exemplify all that’s good about Robertson Hill.”