Volume 6 Number 2
Table of Contents
Superlatives flew by, anecdotes spun out of control, public officials were skewered. It was like listening to three people vie for your attention at once: the wheeler-dealer, the no-nonsense production manager, above all -- the storyteller
In 1943, Dr.Selma Burke was commissioned by the Fine Arts Commission for the District of Columbia to sculpt a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her efforts are still seen on the heads-side of our ten-cent coin, the dime. But few people realize that this is the work of a female African American artist. I never would have learned this bit of trivia had I not stepped into the George Washington Carver Museum.
You wonder if King's vision of peace and unity among all people included the creation of a huge dividing line called Interstate 35 or the gentrification of minority neighborhoods because rich people have run out of space on their side of the highway to build fancy homes and golf courses.
The Millennium Complex aims to provide a safe, drug and gang-free environment for local youth by offering affordable recreational activities (namely bowling lanes, a skating rink, video arcades, a children's soft play area, a food court, and a small movie theater).
For ten years, Flatbed has been steadily publishing fine arts prints of high quality with unique style.
An upsurge of poetic activity has begun in East Austin, with many wonderful and diverse readings every week.
Most of us are not actively involved in the creation of our entertainment, but buy it from other people.
Ten years ago I interviewed long-time Austin pianist/vocalist Ernie Mae Miller for the oral history component of the Blues Family Tree Project.
Over the centuries, Us vs. Them attitudes have become deeply ingrained in our daily habits.
Boyd Vance, East Austin Vigilante by Carlos Garza
A couple of minutes with Boyd Vance and we were already off on some manic East Side reconfiguration session. Superlatives flew by, anecdotes spun out of control, public officials were skewered. It was like listening to three people vie for your attention at once: the wheeler-dealer, the no-nonsense production manager, above all -- the storyteller. Caught up in an unabashed verbal torrent, he conveyed twenty year's experience in theater, community service, and nonprofit arts work in ways as messy and exhilarating as the process itself must have been. He speaks authoritatively without being preachy, sarcastically without a hint of bitterness. Even his critical side comes across as just another facet of his good nature.
Ax-grinding is nowhere on his agenda. Instead, he projects an unusual combination of humorously accepting his community for what it is while having committed himself to change it.
Originally from Houston, Boyd Vance attended St. Stephen's Episcopal school, then gave Rice University a whirl for two years before moving back and pursuing a career in theater. Knowing full well the struggling actor shtick would completely cramp his style, he promptly landed his first audition at the Paramount as Gitlow in the musical Purlie, which launched him on a series of successful runs at Esther's Follies and Zachary Scott. Immersed in a highly West Austin theater scene while finishing up his degree at UT, he remembers vividly an occasion when he met the incredulous gaze of a black colleague upon asking for directions to the Carver Library on the way to an interview.
Yet unlike many of us who take stock of our sheltered existence upon venturing east of Interstate 35, Boyd Vance didn't just shrug pensively and go about his business. In what he describes as an "organic process" rather than a single walloping realization or turning point, he abandoned his acting career and poured his energies into his Progressive Arts Collective, which has grown into one of the major players in the East Side arts community. "The real deal is that a legacy of racism, gentrification, and lack of political power has left this area sparse and desolate. We see all this money being poured into isolated projects, but it's not really gelling as a community. In order to turn this into a major historical district and have people feel safe to come out in East Austin to places other than church, it's going to take a major political and sociological movement. But until we stop buying into this white system of power, until we stop holding on to whatever little power we think we have, it's not going to functionally happen."
To Boyd, most indicative of this internalized racism is the black and latino community's lack of support for local productions.
"We can always get white people to come see the exotic art, but around here there seems to be this attitude that if it's East Side, it's somehow not legit. They'll wait till the last night or not show up at all for a local show, but once they find out about some fly-by-night operation from out of town, they just flock to it. The problem is that because we have less art access, we have few tools to express our culture and few models and indicators of what cultural expression looks like in a positive way. In a sense, we've become art-neutered. There's a window of opportunity where whatever spark that's in there can be kindled, but a lot of times colored people make choices to impede that, and once you've passed that point it's extremely difficult to get back. And then even within our small arts community, artists don't seem to know how to communicate and be supportive to each other. We're stuck in this 'gotta get mine' mentality where anyone who 'makes it' feels obliged not only to leave the East Side, but to stop identifying with it in any way. Artists need to be nurtured by their environment so that we feel like wherever we're going, we've got a support system behind us."
Yet with the impending threat of gentrification (such as the recent bid to cover East 11th and 12th streets with strip malls and restaurants), even the potential to create such an environment could slip away indefinitely. The coming years will determine whether the East Side re-appropriates its neglected historical landmarks or allows itself to be further subjugated, co-opted, and folklorized. For Boyd Vance, the key to reclaiming the past while actively forging a community may ultimately lie in an initiative from nonprofits to convince absentee owners of ramshackle East Side historical properties to let them move in and apply for renovation grants from the Texas Historical Commission. To house a number of future cultural institutions in these landmarks would represent no less than the culmination of Boyd Vance's struggle (as he himself so succinctly puts it) "to integrate art into the community in ways that are supportive and not masturbatory."
To that end, Progressive Arts Collective's relentless activity has involved 12 productions, three exhibits, and four dance festivals in only four years. PAC actually started out as an altogether different entity. In 1993, Boyd and a group of fellow performers simply decided to establish a code of ethics to address the inevitable unprofessionalism which can result from novice local actors also juggling with families and part time jobs. But after a series of political struggles in which many politicians and arts groups came and went (or met their untimely demise), PAC evolved into a major non-profit organization, stepping in to meet the changing needs of the East Side community. In addition to its main productions, since 1997 PAC has organized a black history program for AISD, a "Fire Safety Comedy Hour" in middle schools for the Fire Department, and an AIDS awareness program in several Catholic churches. PAC also umbrellas individual visual and literary artists and has forged alliances with the Aztlan Dance Company, Tomás Salas at the Center for Mexican American Cultural Arts, and AUSPICIOUS, dedicated to providing cultural opportunities to latino youth, including model car workshops, d.j. spin-offs, breakdancing events, and a low-rider car show.
You can find Boyd Vance and the Progressive Arts Collective at the East 13th Street Heritage House, once the home of John Frazier and his wife Laura, major philanthropists in Austin for much of the last century. After the Fraziers, it has housed a number of key artists and organizers in the black community, including our own Harold McMillan, publisher of this magazine.
The Carver Museum by Tiffany Warner
In 1943, Dr.Selma Burke was commissioned by the Fine Arts Commission for the District of Columbia to sculpt a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her efforts are still seen daily by millions of people on the heads-side of our ten-cent coin, the dime. But few people realize that this interpretation of the well-known profile is the work of a female African American artist. I never would have learned this bit of trivia had I not stepped into one of Austin's hidden treasures, the George Washington Carver Museum.
In February of 1926, the Austin Public Library opened its doors above a room on Congress Avenue. A few months later, the building was moved to 9th and Guadalupe. The building remained at this location until 1933, when it was moved to East 11th and Angelina streets. When the building became accessible to patrons of color, the library was named after George Washington Carver, the great scientist celebrated for his studies and applications of the peanut to everyday life. Until 1980, the Carver Branch Library remained in the diminutive home-like building until a new facility was erected next door, to better expand on the treasures that were waiting to make a home, for a time, at the Carver Museum.
Now, meetings are taking place to consider a new expansion. The Carver has won a bond that was put to a vote by the citizens of Austin in 1998. The bond was set for 10.5 million dollars. With this money, the Carver hopes to build upon the desire to bring more art in all its forms into a facility where all may enjoy it. As the want to pique the interest of all who enter their doors grows, so does the need to educate the public on the importance of learning about some of the cities founding artisans, scientists and public leaders.
I was fortunate enough to have an audience with Ms. Bernadette Pfeiffer, the director of the George Washington Carver Museum. As I walked into her office, which was somewhat cluttered with paperwork and bric-a-brac, I noticed that everywhere I looked there were signs of a great and harried movement. An infectious motivation filled the space as I asked Ms. Pfeiffer what she believed would be the driving force behind receiving the bond.
"First of all," she explained to me, "the precise layout of the space had not been decided. The general public has been encouraged to participate in the meetings discussing the most beneficial way to go about using the bond and the space. The first of these public hearings, which was held in June, informed the Carver Expansion Team that there is interest in having a theater and visual arts space available, the same opinion that the Arts Commission had before hearings began. Before deciding what new programs to install into the Carver, basic amenities need to be considered, such as getting hot water running.
"There are no headlong rushes into any decisions, and those involved are interested in doing things right. For instance, as multi-faceted as the center would like to be, there will be concessions made to keeping permanent space available for some practicalities. A kitchen would best serve the center by making catering for events more feasible. As boring and ho-hum as a kitchen sounds in a fine arts facility, better planned receptions for artists and recitals would offer greater excitement for these social occasions and make larger turnouts more common. The mission for the Carver is not only to entertain but to enrich and educate the public about their history, and that means planning in such a way as to make coming to the museum more appealing to the patrons."
After the necessary structural demands have been satisfied, however, the excitement of new and expanded programs can be felt by listening to Ms. Pfeiffer, who has been directing the Carver for eleven years, speak of the aspirations "The little museum with big ideas" indeed has them. At present, the Coalition of Austin Black Artists has an exhibit up at the museum with a determination to show, promote and sell works of art while collaborating with artists locally, regionally and worldwide. Hopefully, with more space being made available, the Carver may expand on this idea by adding onto the already extensive historical archives of black Austin as well as surrounding black Central Texas. The focus on local artists of African descent does not exclude by any means the appetite for collecting outside of Texas and out of the United States. One day soon the collections of different African and Caribbean artifacts will be under glass alongside the stethoscopes and apothecary cases used by Dr. Carver.
I asked Ms. Pfeiffer how involved she believed the community would be after renovations get under-way, bearing in mind all the new activities that had been implemented in the way they wished. Choosing her words carefully and with affection, she spoke of the pride that the museum and library, she imagined, would give the people living in East Austin.
"The George Washington Carver Museum is the first African American museum to be organized in the state of Texas. A sense of pioneering, a new way of looking at ones own history in a historically hostile setting is a feat in itself. With the pride in this accomplishment, more participation is soon to follow, and more understanding should extend to other neighborhoods and communities, letting the rest of Austin better understand the differences that make this city wonderful. As the city grows it becomes increasingly important to allow the cultural aspects of our society to grow proportionately.
"The most important opportunity a community has is the education of its youth." Ms. Pfeiffer gave me something to think about before leaving her in her office, a hodgepodge of things to attend to.
"The younger generation can only really appreciate their history, being of African descent, by understanding that the history is in the making, starting but not ending with them. When a child enters the Carver museum -- or any museum -- they can only take so much with them from displays and pictures translating their heritage. The real and lasting impressions start at home."
If you have interest in helping the Carver, please contact the facility to sign up as a volunteer. The Carver Museum is located at 1161 Angelina Street in East Austin.
Earth Lessons by Piper Anderson
If you stand next to the statue of Martin Luther King on UT's campus and look toward the east, which is the direction that he is pointing, what you immediately see is UT and its stretching arms extending farther and farther east. You wonder if King's vision of peace and unity among all people included the creation of a huge dividing line called Interstate 35 or the gentrification of minority neighborhoods because rich people have run out of space on their side of the highway to build fancy homes and golf courses. Poor people who fear leaving their neighborhood even to go to a party just down on Sixth Street will soon be displaced from their communities, unable to afford housing there anymore. So what is King pointing toward? If he's pointing toward the community of people that he represented and fought for, then, in a few years they'll need to change the position of that statue.
I was not born and raised in Austin, but I have read and heard stories about the community that it used to be, filled with the culture and pride of people of color. Today there are only small, destitute reminders of that heritage. Today the East Side is a reflection of the poverty and derision that birthed my beloved hip-hop music. Look at the cover of The Message, an album by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. You see the group standing in a heap of rubble and debris -- it's their neighborhood. Rappers Delight was one of the first hip-hop albums recorded and sold. It epitomizes the original intent of the music: to give voice to a nation of people suffering under the oppression of a government. During the economic recession of the 1980s a black underclass was formed in inner-city communities. The media, the government and the upper classes ignored them, but there on the cover of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's album was evidence of their existence. The Message described the impoverished state of black people, giving voice to a community losing the battle for its vitality as drugs, the AIDS epidemic and changing economic structures hit all at once. Hip-hop began in the late '70s, in a New York City community just like the East Side, as the U.S entered a decade-long economic depression. For the first time a generation of black and Latino youth with a long history of musical and artistic vision were without the tools to create. But, as our history proves over and over again, survival creates the greatest opportunity for inventiveness, and slowly but surely an underground culture was formed. This is known today as hip-hop. Youth that couldn't afford instruments or music lessons took record players and old albums and made the music we call hip-hop. Break-dancing, graffiti and mc-ing complete the four original elements of hip-hop that are celebrated by millions around the world. So the East Side is home to hip-hop just like every urban community in this country. It was created for and by oppressed people to tell their story and to cope with the daily trials of living in poverty. The essence of it will always remain pure as long as there are people in the 'hood that hold on to the grassroots nature that created hip-hop in the first place. Which is why I know hip-hop is returning home. Its simply time. I've made the East Side my home, and I'm tired having to go to Sixth Street to hear my music and see my hip-hop family. Currently, the "Jump On It" summer concert series at Rosewood Park is where hip-hop on the East Side lives. It gives me hope to see a community event like that."Jump On It" is free to the public and presented by a community artist. Nook and "Off the Block" productions have been organizing "Jump On It" for the past three summers.
The East First Center for Culture Arts will be opening its doors at the beginning of August and promises to represent hip-hop to the fullest with curricula, concerts, theatrical productions, business development and community events. I'm excited about the potential that the center has for the East Side and for Austin's hip-hop community. Not only will hip-hop culture thrive at the center, but the inventive nature that created hip-hop in the first place will lead to an increase of economic viability. The culture center plans to develop a business and technology incubator that will give young entrepreneurs the resources and capital to start their own businesses. If that happens, perhaps we can save the East Side from being swallowed up by corporate interest. I have faith in the promoters of both the culture center and "Jump On It" because they represent the same type of minds that created hip-hop culture. They took nothing and made something. They used resources that didn't exist and made great possibilities for the future. The things that make great leaders are faith and vision. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of vision, so even as I stand next to his statue facing east and see UT and Interstate 35, I have to use his example and envision the rebirth of a community and the return of hip-hop culture to its rightful place: East Austin.
Film and the Millennium Youth Complex by Carlos Garza
The Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex has seen more than its fair share of political squabbles, management issues, and bad publicity since well before its inauguration in June of last year. Conceived by East Side teenagers and community leaders in response to the drive-by shooting death of 16-year-old Tamika Ross in 1992, the Millennium Complex aims to provide a safe, drug and gang-free environment for local youth by offering affordable recreational activities (namely bowling lanes, a skating rink, video arcades, a children's soft play area, a food court, and a small movie theater). Many are still puzzled that the uproar over Tamika Ross should have culminated in something more along the lines of Chucky Cheese than the YMCA. And even though the complex charges no admission and prices for attractions are very low, the issue remains of what role an essentially paying-facility can play in one of Austin's poorest neighborhoods.
Yet once one accepts the Millennium as an entertainment complex and not as a rec center or other type of community organization, it becomes clear that the new management team, headed by Vanessa Silas, is effectively addressing these issues and trying as best it can to offer the widest variety of services both to the immediate East Side community and beyond.
Silas stresses that the complex cannot be expected to organize its own sports and arts/crafts groups, but it can facilitate access to them by providing group specials for schools, churches, and day care centers, as well as hosting two community events per month for various non-profits. Upcoming events include a school supply giveaway, the "Zip It" national abstinence campaign sponsored by KNVA-TV and 104.3-FM, and a teen "No Color Line Saturday Night" social evening and dance combination featuring several schools. The Complex also hopes to attract instructional bowling leagues to train teenagers and encourage them to consider bowling scholarships as a way of financing their college education.
Yet Silas intends to make it clear that a youth center can be for everybody and outreach seems to be foremost on her mind. The Millennium has already held, among others, information sessions on Medicare for seniors, weddings, gospel concerts, and even public hearings. But what seems to hold a particularly strong potential for drawing crowds from all over Austin, and perhaps for making a lasting cultural impact on the East Side as well, is the innovative programming the complex is pursing for its film theater.
Fortunately, the 164 seating capacity disqualifies it for first-run movies, making it the perfect intimate and affordable venue for curated screenings and small film festivals.
This summer, Sal Bati from the Austin Film Society worked closely with the Millennium to present AFS's annual Summer Free-For-All (Tuesdays from July 11th to Aug 15th), a series without a unifying theme or filmmaker which tracks down movies that have fallen out of distribution or plucks them from touring retrospectives. Focusing on films AFS has never before screened, the series usually spotlights the forgotten works of major auteurs. This year features Lilith, Robert Rossen's (All the King's Men, The Hustler) neglected masterpiece on madness and institutionalization; Akira Kurosawa's gangster film Drunken Angel, illustrating his influences from the West and marking his first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune; The Earrings of Madame de..., Max Ophuls' baroque exercise on the impossibility of love and a perfect example of his swirling, relentless camera work; Josephvon Sternberg's Anatahan, his last film (out of distribution for 13 years) and the only one in which he exercised total creative control; Jean Pierre Melville's Le Doulos, a reworking of noir American themes by perhaps the most accomplished noir director; and John Huston's Wise Blood, a commentary on religion and faith based on a story by Flannery O'Connor.
If the July 11th screening of Lilith is any indication -- additional chairs had to be brought into the theater -- the "Free for-All" marks only the beginning of the Millennium's successful collaboration with AFS and other local film organizations.
Flatbed Press by Sean Denmark
There's a somber quietness to Flatbed Press and Galleries. That's partially because the building, on East Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., which they just finished renovating last September into an art complex which now includes studios, theater offices, and New Texas Music Works, used to be a massive warehouse. The feeling of quietness also comes from the decor, which is sparse and unadorned. But this quietness is countered with a great sense of energy and production. For ten years, Flatbed has been steadily publishing fine arts prints of high quality with unique style.
Flatbed was founded by two UT professors, Katherine Brimberry and Mark Smith. Jerry Manson of Third Coast Press later became the third owner. The press was created from the print workshop model which has rejuvenated and dominated the American printmaking scene since the 1970s. In this model, master printers provide technical ability and collaborate with an artist whose primary medium is not usually printmaking.
Prints are made by applying paper to an inked plate. There are various ways of keeping the ink in the same place on the plate every time it is printed, thus making the same image on the paper. Flatbed uses intaglio, where ink is wiped into small furrows or holes in the metal plate made by scratching or with acid
There has always been gallery space at the East Austin site, but Flatbed has just recently opened a gallery there which they stock and operate. The exhibition of photographs currently on the walls, though worth a look, cannot compare to their 10-year body of prints. They have concentrated on Texas artists and younger artists of quality while still working with a range of artists, including many non-Texans.
Because their printmaking is all about collaboration, the work is naturally varied depending on the artist, but a certain style appears when viewing the whole of Flatbed's work. Smith said it's a Texas bravura that contributes to Flatbed's style. Brimberry, on the other hand, said that it's their desire for editions that push the envelope, not technically so much as through challenging message or content.
Michael Ray Charles is a good example of an artist who has created challenging work. The paintings of the UT professor draw from stereotypes of blacks from the history of American media to challenge our assumptions of race. His print "White Power" is the slap-in-the-face typical of his work; it's a cartoonish black figure gobbling up a slice of watermelon, with the words "WHITE POWER" boldly written backwards underneath it. In printing this image, Charles and Flatbed have added a beautiful worn and weathered look of an old poster.
Flatbed is proud to have worked with young Dallas artist Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose star is rising: he was included in this year's Whitney Biennial. I prefer "Happy Schtick" to his painted collages currently on display at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art. "Happy Schtick" combines his Garbage-Pail Kids doodling with more elegant and light-hearted forms that are still uneasy.
Austin's Kelly Fearing has been making prints since he was part of the Fort Worth circle in the 1940s. An ongoing project for him has been to transfer older paintings and prints to plates while changing them. Flatbed published a set of three Fearing prints with bird images that employ his typical gorgeous texture. They're larger than most of his works (Flatbed's prints are often large-but-not-too-large).
It's a sign of the success of their philosophy of collaboration that Flatbed can work with artists ranging in experience from Hancock to Fearing while offering something to each. In each case, no one else could have produced the prints, but they are a step in a different direction for the artist.
Flatbed often manages to distill the vision of the artist into a single, prominent image. The vision and image needn't be simplistic, as evidenced by their work with Houston sculptor Linda Ridgway this year. Her "Vine Suite" contains three prints of vines, each about 3 inches wide, 8 feet high, and made with a process including pressing real vines into the plate. By focusing on Ridgway's interest in natural forms, the artist's hand has been distilled out of the picture. There is substance to these works in their carefully selected and presented organic images, but Ridgway has greatly removed herself from the process by relying on the vines to make the image. A complicated vision is presented elegantly, but another notable aspect is the ambitious scale, a technical challenge for Flatbed. I admire them for producing a beautiful image even though it might challenge a collector when trying to find a space to hang it.
From Flatbed's first edition, a suite of prints by Jack Hanley including a black outline of a plague doctor against a mottled red field, to their current projects with Liz Ward with simple, but impossible to identify natural forms, this focus on a single central form can verge on monotonous, and one can get nostalgic for a little old-fashioned perspective.
Another ambitious project for Flatbed is the publishing on their first edition of lithographs. Lithography creates different effects from etching, up until now the only method Flatbed has used. Michael Ray Charles has created a print which fully integrates this different effect. They've started their lithography press with a bang; Charles' work is technically demanding, using layers and layers of color. And as far as artistic vision and sheer gumption goes, I think Charles has topped himself this time.
Looking at ten years of their work, I have no reason to doubt their continued excellence, but this new venture bodes well for Flatbed.
Go East, Young Man:
Poetry in East Austin by Sonya Feher
An upsurge of poetic activity has begun in East Austin, with many wonderful and diverse readings every week. The trend really began with Stazja McFadyen in October 1997, when she created the monthly "East End Black and White" reading series. Originally hosted at East End Coffee House on 12th Street, the series lasted until January 1998 when the proprietor lost his lease. It just so happened that Marla Fulgham, the owner of Ebony Sun Java House on East 11th, was at the last East End reading and offered McFadyen the chance to move the reading to her venue. The reading series was renamed "East Side Black and White" and in February of 1998 the new reading series began. It ran until October 1999 when Ebony Sun closed. The series featured local and traveling poets who'd come from New York, New Orleans and Southern California to share their words with Austin.
Another East Austin venue supporting poets is Gaby & Mo's coffee house on Manor Road. Scott Wiggerman began hosting the monthly "Queer Poets" reading last July as an extension of the reading series called "Cornerstone Poets." That series lasted until Cornerstone closed (are you noticing a trend here?) but eventually found a new home at Gaby & Mo's. Wiggerman changed the name of the series from "Cornerstone Poets" to "Queer Poets," he said "to reflect a more 'out' attitude and a fresh start." The past year has included features by a great number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual poets -- even one transgendered one. The readings have ranged from an intimate dozen to standing room only. They take place the second Tuesday of every month and include an open mic as well as a featured artist.
The Austin Poetry Slam moved its weekly series to Gaby & Mo's, hosting a slam every Thursday night beginning in October of 1999. The slam itself has been in Austin since 1995 but began its search for a new venue when the Electric Lounge closed in April of last year. The slam is a poetry competition judged on a 0.0 to 10.0 scale, just like the Olympics. It's an open mike with a twist. Slam has attracted many new poets and audience members since moving to Gaby & Mo's. This could be attributed to relocating to East Austin, to its being housed in a lesbian coffeehouse, or simply that more people began hearing about the slam. Whatever the reason, the slam loves its new home. Though the summer months get a little quieter, many weeks of the slam have filled Gaby & Mo's to capacity, with audience sitting outside on the deck to be able to hear the poetry.
Another East Austin reading series is "Estro Flow" at Cafe Mundi. The series hosted monthly events from March until June and is currently on hiatus, though they plan to continue in the near future. Piper Anderson, one of the hosts, says, "Each night there are new people experiencing poetry for the first time and loving it." As far as deciding who to feature, Anderson explains, "Since our audience is mainly young people between the ages of 14 and 30, we also like to invite older poets like our art mama Sharon Bridgforth to share their work. Sort of a way for the young to sit at the feet of their elders to gain wisdom and foundation on this poetic journey. Also poets who cross genres and represent both hip-hop and spoken word. Especially since each night the poets are accompanied by live music."
The Heritage House reading series on E. 13th Street is hosted by Ivan Miller and has been running since the fall of 1999, with no sign up sheets or features. It is a small reading with a steady following. Heritage House and Gaby & Mo's have both hosted Austin International Poetry Festival events. McFadyen and Larry Jaffe compiled an anthology, Heritage Blue: Poets Reading at East 13th Heritage House, with the proceeds going to preservation and restoration of the house.
Every host I spoke to agreed that one of their primary motivations when choosing their venues was based on an East Austin location. I think it's time to recoin that old saying to read, "Go east, young man." .
Mentality by Stazja MacFadyen
This Texas summer night
ten degrees hotter than Hades
I'm on my way to the East Side
gonna praise creation
with poetry birthday celebration
at my friend Marla's Java House.
We're gonna shine Ebony Sun
on the heat of the night
with chocolate-melting words
and musical love of life.
I'm on my way to a place
that doesn't exist in a state of black and white.
It's a mentality.
It's a mentality.
Where I'm going
Marla's house is overflowing
with every variety of human gold
every flavor of chocolate and vanilla soul
where angels lift us with voices
named Tanice and Barbara
and Harve' the Love Poet
makes elegant romance with a microphone
because passion never goes out of fashion
where Marvin and Floyd intoxicate
with their presence and birthday presents
where generous gifts unfold on the lips
of Heidi and Krysten
where Edward gives beauty every woman's name
Mary is a little lamb in soft spun verse
and Carolyn's words flow like mother's milk
from the bosom of poetry.
The Kingdom comes to Marla's house.
The Golden rule.
I'm talking about these golden souls of righteous mentality
making a place in the world
not wasting minds
not wasting words
not wasting love.
It's a reality -
a soul mentality.
Stazja MacFadyen is an Austin poet -- even though she now lives in Maryland. She publishes the Austin MAP of poetry events and was one of the organizers of the Austin International Poetry Festival, as well as host of many Austin poetry events.
Notes from the Woodshed by Paul Klemperer
A lot of what makes Austin unique in Texas and in the U.S. overall is the concentration of creative, unorthodox people we have here. Maybe it's because Texas has maintained a do-it-yourself frontier attitude, which staves off some of the corporate conformist tendencies that seem otherwise to encroach irrevocably across this great land. But that frontier attitude has taken different shapes in different locales, from new frontiers of big hair in Dallas, to new frontiers of toxicity in the Golden Triangle. (Don't get me wrong -- I love Port Arthur!) In Austin, people put themselves forward in the arts with a sincere chutzpah that is rarely seen in much larger cities. And unlike those other cities, our citizens support and encourage this chutzpah.
It is true that the soaring rents and other basic costs of living make it harder to be a slacker here than in years past. It used to be easier to pay the bills with a part time job while you worked on your quirky screenplay or CD of autobiographical folk songs. But people still use this town to gestate, appearing at various times and places with plays, musicals, new bands, independent films, even symphonies.
For musicians it has in some ways gotten easier to move through the creative stages, from nascent ideas to completed product. Advances in technology make it quite feasible to record your own CD; another home recording studio springs up each week. There are several companies that do everything in-house, from mixing to mastering to pressing to shrink-wrapping the final product. Just check the classified pages of the Chronicle and you can find them spread around town. Once the CD is out, there are many independent record stores to carry it, as well as chains, and a plethora of venues to showcase the live sound.
Yes, the creative spirit is going strong here, largely without much institutional support. One of the results of the burgeoning of independent creative productions in this growth economy is that, faced with high rents and production costs, East Austin has become somewhat of a magnet for the arts renaissance. Performance spaces include coffeehouses like Gaby & Mo's and Café Mundi, bars and restaurants like the Victory Grill and the Calabash Café, and a growing number of theater spaces like the Off-Center, the Blue Theater and the Vortex.
Which brings up a problematic issue, both for the short and long terms. What role will the arts play in the ongoing development of East Austin? The benefits seem obvious: existing spaces are being preserved and renovated, income is generated, publicity brings media attention to the East Side and builds a stronger connection between East and West Austin. Will this last?
The traditional development model for Austin has been something along the lines of Pac-Man. Greedy developers gobble up whatever area is the latest money-maker. Perhaps plans for Smart Growth will lessen the Pac-Man approach. Development of the former Mueller Airport area will be the biggest test case.
If sustained rational growth is possible in East Austin, the seeds planted by various arts groups may take root. If not, I see two scenarios. Independent artists get squeezed out by rapacious developers once again, as property costs go up, and all those in the low-income range feel the squeeze. Or arts-oriented venues get co-opted by developers until there are Starbuck clones from MoPac to Montopolis, and low income folks still feel the squeeze. In other words, white-owned arts projects may inadvertently act as a stage in the gentrification of East Austin.
If this is to be avoided, white-controlled projects in East Austin must add to the cultural mix, build on the existing cultures of the African American and Mexican American communities, rather than displace them. The influx of money and talent from Austin west of Interstate 35, even though it is mostly in the form of struggling independent artists, is still problematic. It is possible, and desirable, for individuals to develop their crafts, find their voices, participating in short term projects on the East Side, and simultaneously be contributing to a long-term sustained cultural development program that is not subject to the gentrification tendencies of profit-oriented developers. It is quite a challenge, given Austin's development history to date, but it isn't impossible, and would surely prove the oft-repeated sentiment that the arts are vital to Austin.
REALM danceproject by Beth McMillian
Everyone's got different bodies, different attitudes, and different reasons for dancing, but dance is a language universally spoken and understood. Picture yourself on the on the street in some far-off place. A local saunters by and mummers a greeting. You don't understand the words. What you do understand is the faint smile or wave of the hand that accompanied them. A wave of the hand is a dance in itself. A gesture that says something. That wave, along with the ambling gait of the person you passed on the street, is a tiny window opening between yourself and someone who is willing and able to connect with a stranger. People seeing each other. A little dance.
We dance for each other all the time. It's just not widely noticed.
At REALM danceproject, we don't dance to make pretty pictures. We're not skinny girls with flawless technique. Our moves may have names in Ballet Academy textbooks, but we have forgotten them, selectively. We look straight at our audiences and invite them into our performance. And we talk to them, dancing to our words. In parks, on Sixth Street, in nightclubs, in art galleries, and on sidewalks, people who would not consider frequenting a theatre see us by pure happy accident, effectively ambushed into watching a performance. Even as they pass us by, the time taken to skirt our space becomes a moment not consumed by thoughts of the place they are going to or leaving from. We interrupt their path and their train of thought by being where they did not expect us. Surprising them, maybe, into a direct experience.
By using a collaborative and multi-disciplinary process, REALM danceproject creates what no one person could ever conceive, and we do it regularly. We all have a story, and together we make up another one. We do "this dance thing," and we do it this way because we are interested in our collective story, which is only a part of THE collective story that includes much more than you or I would ever experience on our own. We have things to explore that are outside of our own familiarity or understanding. When someone comes into our creative world with an experience that they explain and a point that we would never otherwise have thought to make and asks us to help them communicate it, it makes all of our understanding a little larger.
Current explorations include a project with adolescents on parole at the Texas Youth Commission (who are writing, choreographing, and designing a performance for April 2001) and a meditation on the F-word (Feminism).
If you want to become involved with REALM danceproject or check out future performances, call Rachael at 467-8157 or email me at email@example.com.
Time to Deliver by Marvin Kimbrough
All the girls were named Johnnie
All the boys were called John
All over the east side of town
Where the black folks lived
Johnnie's and John's
All the mothers loved him
The children were taught to respect him
Illegal father of illegitimate children
He was not
But Dr. John was the only white doctor in town
Who delivered black babies in the 1950s
Marvin Kimbrough grew up in East Austin, and later taught and served as Chair of the Humanities Department at Huston-Tillotson College (retired June 1999). She was a member of the Catfish Poets.
Word on the Street by Micah Magee
My bike has been stolen, so I'm walking home, passing house after house. Neighborhood streets lay empty and quiet, residents are locked in with their air conditioning. I'm alone with the passing cars and the blue flickers reflecting off living room walls and I'm wondering why I'm the only one out and where all the noise went in this neighborhood and blaming it (naturally) on the general trend between people to develop intimacy through mediated experience instead of direct interaction.
Like our traditional first date: picked up in the pickup, small safe glances across the expanse of the front seat, small talk on safe subjects, sailing through the concrete, on our way to a bad romantic comedy. Eating afterward, cleanly, without cooking. Repeating dialogue, laughing. As conversation develops, discovering a strong shared nostalgia for Scooby Doo. The possibility of a second date at her house, drinking beer and watching syndicated reruns. The vague hope that the event signifies the End of Loneliness, a budding romance framed by the psychological afterglow of the story on the screen.
We often become acquainted vicariously through careful observation of reactions to second-hand experiences. When the subsequent dialogue lends itself to shared explorations and discoveries beyond previous individual understanding, this can be an entirely sound basis for a friendship. It depends on your relationship to what you're watching. Most of us are not actively involved in the creation of our entertainment, but buy it from other people. And as always, this is where things become troubling.
To appeal to a broader base, the most successful stories told in the mainstream fall within simplified experience, clouding instead of expanding the metaphors available for understanding life, contaminating the foundations of interpersonal relationships. This is not likely to be rectified by commercial culture itself, as alienation promotes a psychological reliance on collective commercial memory which can be very profitable. The continued exponential success of media giants depends to an extent upon the systematic breakdown of local community structures, beginning at the base level of personal intimacy which, as an engagement that generates no revenue and perpetuates itself, competes directly with corporate entertainment.
Alternatives exist. Networks of people live here in town, working to dismantle the hold of commercial culture on everyday life and rebuild an active community that understands itself without the haze of corporate filters. They live here in town; they are not underground, just under-represented. They need your help. This section of Austin Downtown Arts deals with efforts to reassert cultural autonomy in our community, from guerrilla theater to non-profit news distribution, building a healthy alternative to the first date and (hopefully) getting some self-produced noise back in the neighborhood.
Words have to happen between people before they can happen on the street.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
Ten years ago I interviewed long-time Austin pianist/vocalist Ernie Mae Miller for the oral history component of the Blues Family Tree Project (BFT). The idea behind the BFT is to connect local blues, jazz, and gospel performers to their lives in pre-integration Black East Austin. Since Austin Downtown Arts is looking at the cultural life of the East Austin of 2000 in the this issue, I thought you might enjoy reading what Ms. Miller had to say a decade ago about growing up in East Austin, just off 11th Street. Excerpts from our conversation follow. By the way, Ernie Mae has been a professional musician in Austin since 1949.
Well, during that time I used to live in that neighborhood. In fact, we lived right behind the Black Cat Inn, and B.B. King used to come there and play. I think it was 25 cents cover charge, but I didn't have to go there. In fact, my kids were real young and we just sat out on our back porch and we would listen and hear it all going on, 'cause it wasn't sound-proofed in that place. Nowadays it's gone, gone, gone. But B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland and every weekend or something some of those guys would be in there.
Oh yes. I sure did [go to the Harlem Theater]. Sometimes they would have talent shows up there on Saturday. It wasn't a real big thing, but every now and then they would have one and I used to play on that. And Margaret Wright, she played up there too. And that was the only movie...well, we could go to the Ritz theater. We had to sit upstairs. We would go. But anyway, the Harlem Theater, in it's day, was very clean, very nice. We enjoyed the Harlem theater. I wish there was another theater in that area. And I hope some day that both those streets, 11th and 12th, will really be changed and get back. We really did enjoy that. We'd go to the movies! Before you were 11 years old, the movies only cost you five cents and I think it was 15 cents for adults. That was really our movie house.
My grandfather [lived] on Navasota street, L.C. Anderson. L.C. Anderson High School is named for [him]. Our home is over there on Navasota. It's a grand old house and I even want to fix that up and keep it. But I don't know what the neighborhood is, the situation will be in the next few years. Of course, I don't ever believe in stopping progress. That's what has to be done to keep everything alive. I'm just saying that when nothing seems to be done about these places -- and something needs to happen. Sometimes progress might help them. But they don't want to change their ways. We have to change, everything changes.
When I was coming up it was just, it was an integrated neighborhood. And there was Schaefer's grocery store. They were right on the corner; now there is a business on Navasota and Rosewood where the fork in the road [is]. But the Pisca's used to live there. And then further down on 12th street it was a neighborhood -- just everything was, it was integrated. They finally, the whites finally sold out to Negroes in some of those places, but everybody got along just fine up there.
That changed. I'd say it started changing in the '60s really. They started putting up little old motels. Well now, there used to be a Deluxe Motel there after those Pisca's moved. And they had a very nice, kept such a beautiful yard, roses and pretty flowers and everything. Then they bought and had this Deluxe Hotel. But then it perished. It did pretty good for a while. Then it got kind of rundown and it wasn't kept up like it should; so, like all things that are not kept up, they fall to pieces. But now there is a little business corner there. They are trying to do a pretty good job. Across [from] the old Moten home, across the street right at the fork of the road of Rosewood and 11th Street, that's been a historical home. And we used to go to Anderson High School right up on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Everything was just really lovely. I thought when I was a kid that was a very good neighborhood. Now the neighborhood further down has gone and a lot of nice new homes and all, but they don't have any, it's not as congenial as it was. I mean we had everything right there. We really didn't have to go to town. It was just a real...we just all got along perfectly up there.
I remember the Victory Grill. 'Course it wasn't integrated at that time. We all used to go there and we thought that was a real swank place! And you'd go and you had food on the first level there, and you'd go down some little stairs downstairs and they had a nice little club down there. [Johnny Holmes] would, especially on weekends, he'd have bands and combos and it was nice. It was really a lot of the jazz and a lot of musicians played all over 11th Street. There were more places. But it was pretty nice.
Verities by Paul Klemperer
There's an old quote from Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip: "We have met the enemy and they is us." That truism comes to mind more often the longer I live on this planet, and particularly here in the ol' U.S. of A. In many ways we are a nation built on the "Us vs. Them" mindset. Perhaps that is an inevitable part of social change; people divide along the faultline of change, some looking forward, some looking back. It is also the result of power struggles over land in a nation built on colonialism. Them that has the land want to keep it from them that wants to take it.
Over the centuries, Us vs. Them attitudes have become deeply ingrained in our daily habits. At times it seems only reasonable. When I open a utility bill or stop to put gas in my car, I am part of the Us group of struggling working shmoes being haplessly gang-raped by Them burly corporate gorillas. When I am almost killed driving a mile to the grocery store by some emotionally unstable yuppie in an oversized SUV, I am part of the Us group of laid-back Austinites dodging Them selfish money-grubbing fast-trackers that have bloated our population over the last decade.
So, the Us vs. Them perspective is often accurate and can be useful in organizing an interest group to fight for a beneficial goal. The fight to preserve Austin's green spaces and water quality is one example. The fight to recognize the role of music and the arts in Austin's economy is another example. Both of these examples distinguish an Us group trying to conserve the land and culture from a Them whose developmental agenda will arguably benefit only a small portion of the overall population.
But the Us vs. Them perspective can also be reactionary and short-sighted. This is where Pogo's aphorism becomes important. If we always react to problems and new situations as Us vs. Them, we soon find irritants and enemies everywhere. And, as the psychoanalytic crowd is fond of reminding us, we tend to dislike in others the things we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves.
Take road rage, for example. I think of myself as a basically considerate, friendly driver. Certainly I am not as dangerous as the majority of numbskulls out there on Austin's increasingly clogged roadways. But I have been getting angrier and more impatient along with everyone else as the traffic congestion grows worse. I recently realized that I still clung to the idea that you could drive in this town the same way as you could 10 years ago, and that just isn't true. Nowadays it really is dangerous to drive here, and it takes twice as long to get where you're going. You can blame it on the idiot in front of you, but that person is really more a victim than a perpetrator. I'm not sure what the real solution is, but applying the Us vs. Them attitude and giving in to the subsequent road rage doesn't make the roads safer -- or your blood pressure lower.
Another example, and one which ties in to this month's magazine's theme, is the growth plan and changes in land use for East Austin. The development legacy we have inherited divides East and West with I-35 as the demarcation line. More affluent white Austin insulated itself long ago from lower income black Austin. Historically, the money was hoarded on the West side, entailing a host of Us vs. Them situations. In the 1980s, the University of Texas became a Them when it seemed to want to gobble up residential East Austin for its own ends. Then there were slumlords based in West Austin who showed little interest in increasing the property values on the East Side. City planners and moneyed developers rarely included East Austin in their grand schemes, except as a site for industrial storage and/or dumping.
But in the 1990s the population boom made land in East Austin highly desirable for its proximity to the downtown area. Historically, a low-income area that rises in value has meant gentrification. Poor folks are squeezed out as property values go up. This certainly could be the case again, entailing a number of Us vs. Them scenarios. Will it be white vs. non-white, rich vs. poor, as in the past? Or have we learned enough from past mistakes to begin to break down these divisions?
One positive sign is the increase in small businesses, arts collectives and community-oriented organizations which are basing themselves in East Austin. Traditionally these projects utilize labor, creativity and dedication more than large capital investment. Can they play a significant role in revitalizing East Austin, and will the rest of the city embrace these changes? Will it be a case of the "Us" of community involvement vs. the "Them" of capital-intensive technology, or can Austin break through the divisive Us & Them mentality that plagues so many larger cities? If we can create a new model of cooperative development, it could be an example for other cities across this divided nation.
Meanwhile, would the numbskull in that obese SUV please learn to drive?