Sixth Street might be Austin’s most famous entertainment district, but for more than a decade, the heart of Austin’s vibrant music scene has been down the block, in the cluster of venues that form the Red River Cultural District.
"Far too often, with locals, I think we take for granted the scene that exists from 11th and Red River down to Sixth and Red River," said Ryan Garrett, general manager of Stubb’s BBQ. "To have this stretch of live music venues: Mohawk, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Empire, Barracuda, Elysium, Stubb’s BBQ — you can travel the whole world over, and you’re never going to find a music district as unique as what we have here."
The district's business leaders want to protect their scene and have begun to recognize their collective power as a political force. Their efforts became more urgent over the summer, as the area was roiled by what Garrett, who has worked at Stubb's since 2001, calls "a very unprecedented and very dangerous stretch of violence."
The district's business leaders have demanded action from city officials.
"We're stronger together," said Cody Cowan, executive director of the cultural district’s merchants association. He said safety issues, such as broken sidewalks and "just the blatant disregard to meet the volume of need" for people experiencing homelessness in the area, motivated business leaders to see their competitors as collaborators when the city created the cultural district in 2013.
After three shootings and a stabbing in two weeks in late July, Cowan called an emergency forum. With less than 12 hours notice, Mayor Steve Adler; Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes downtown; Police Chief Brian Manley, Assistant Chief Justin Newsom and 75 business and community leaders from the Red River community convened at Stubb’s.
At that meeting, Garrett said, Manley pledged to work to curb violence, in part by assigning a dedicated patrol to monitor the cultural district, which includes the police headquarters on Eighth Street.
In mid-August, Manley redrew his department’s response map, sharpening the focus of the Downtown Area Command on the densely traveled entertainment districts. The department also transferred six officers formerly assigned to the Highway Response Team to downtown.
None of the recent violent incidents has involved clients of the Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, the ARCH, which is part of the district, located one block west of the main stretch of clubs, on Seventh Street. But as tent encampments spread around the perimeter of the shelter after the repeal of the city’s "camp, sit, lie" ban, bar owners say they believe the upsurge in violent activity is related to a criminal element that preys on people experiencing homelessness.
Cowan applauds the increased police presence, but Red River Cultural District leaders also are working with local nonprofits to try to make their clubs safe spaces, inside and out.
On Saturday, six clubs will host the inaugural Safer Venues Fest. The single-day event was originally conceived to introduce training, administered by music nonprofit the SIMS Foundation, on keeping patrons inside clubs safe, but it has evolved since the organizers began planning it about a year ago. Now, the aim is to raise awareness around safety issues — such as sexual misconduct and harassment — that artists, club employees and music fans might experience inside venues, while also addressing the situation on the street.
"We can’t afford to lose momentum and not take the opportunities that life is handing us to go, ‘Look, we can’t live like this,’" Cowan said. "This isn’t acceptable. Whether it’s gunshots downtown, whether it’s women being stalked in the street or flashed, or whether it’s there not being good policies in place for businesses, particularly creative businesses, that protect men and women against sexual harassment or rape — all of these things."
'Nobody is coming'
Amy Price, communications director of Front Steps, the nonprofit organization that runs the ARCH, likes to share a story of one of her early interactions with Garrett at Stubb's: "He came to a board meeting and he said, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth. I’ve been waiting for years for the cavalry to ride in — horses, white hats — to fix this. I just realized nobody is coming. Nobody is coming. The only people here are you, the bar owners, APD and the people on the streets. So let’s start building a fort and saving everybody.’"
During this summer’s heat wave, Stubb’s employees gave away frozen water to the homeless people on the block around the club before beginning their shifts. When their distributor, Sysco, caught wind of their efforts, the company offered to donate water. Garrett’s crew has also stopped by the ARCH to serve dinner.
Garrett said there needs to be more conversation among downtown stakeholders around the repeal of the city’s ordinances dealing with people experiencing homelessness. He thinks the proliferation of encampments around the ARCH hurts area music venues and businesses.
RELATED: Why Austin's homeless problem can't hide in the shadows
But he said his business is committed to being "part of the long-term solution to end homelessness in Austin." In late August, he joined the Front Steps board of directors.
"We’ve come out of a cave as a music community after not being engaged for decades, particularly my generation of music advocates," Cowan said. "We need as much help as we can to learn what’s going on so we can be tactical and creative and the help that we provide is towards public good to our community, both small and large."
Cowan and Garrett are exploring ways to provide employment opportunities to ARCH clients. They’re working with caseworkers to find people to assist as security guards or banquet staff. Right now, most of the positions are temporary event work, but they hope to find longer-term opportunities. Cowan said the music community is a natural partner for Front Steps.
"Many of us have experienced homelessness," he said. "Many of us have experienced and do experience mental illness and addiction. This is not like, just a social concern for us, this is personal."
Patsy Dolan Bouressa, SIMS interim director, said she is thrilled by the partnerships that have sprung up between the ARCH and venue employees. When she first began working with venues, she sensed a misunderstanding of the shelter’s work and arranged tours for venue employees. The experience was transformative.
Adrienne Lake, senior talent buyer for Empire Control Room and Garage, had seen the crowds in front of the ARCH but had never been inside. "It’s a totally different vibe," Lake said. "It’s calm. It’s peaceful. The people who are taking advantage of the services will walk up to you and say hello. Everybody’s smiling."
Greg McCormack, Front Steps executive director, gave his cellphone number to venue staffers so they could contact him directly if they were concerned about an individual on the street near their businesses.
McCormack said 80% of people hanging out in front of the ARCH don’t use the shelter. Many of them are there for social reasons. They’re also there because they can be. "It’s a city-owned building," Price said. "The sidewalks are double wide. It’s one of the few places you can legally hang out."
It’s also one of the few buildings in downtown Austin with public restrooms and drinking fountains. Price said her group researched public bathrooms in the downtown area. "After 10 p.m., there’s none; 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. So much of what you hear about is people crapping and peeing in public," she said. "If there is not a single public restroom, what did you think was going to happen?"
On Aug. 8, the City Council passed a resolution asking for 10 to 12 drinking fountains to be added to the downtown area. "Part of the resolution says at least one or two (should be) on this block," McCormack said. "Seventh and Red River is a perfect place."
EDITORIAL: Austin can do more on homelessness. Here's how
Cowan said he supports those humanitarian efforts but said a crackdown on street crime in the district is essential. Business owners have identified the alley between shuttered venues Beerland and Sidewinder as an epicenter of criminal activity.
"We realized from our daily experience, this is a crime spot," Cowan said. "The things happening here are drug trade. It’s sex trade. It’s exploitation of vulnerable people, and it’s happening right in the main thoroughfare for both our business and in the main thoroughfare where people who are experiencing homelessness are trying to find refuge."
A Police Department spokesperson said the alley, "being an unoccupied and unused space, has at times attracted a criminal element."
McCormack’s office at the ARCH looks out onto the alley, and he agrees it’s a problem area. "It’s been five years the Red River Cultural District has been asking for something in that area, and I have no idea," he said. "It’s bureaucracy at its worst."
At the Aug. 8 City Council meeting, Adler acknowledged that on several occasions, including last November when a musician was attacked by a panhandler in the alley after a show at Beerland, city leaders promised to expedite construction of a fence to close the alley. "We told the community it was going to happen within 40 days or two months," he said.
A representative from the city's Public Works Department said work on the site would begin within three weeks and that construction will take 12 weeks. On Wednesday, contractors erected a temporary fence blocking access to Waller Creek from the alley.
McCormack said increased police patrols have made the area around his building safer, but the shelter could use more support. "What we know works, if you want to figure out what would help the environment outside, it’s APD," he said. "We’ve seen it. We did a 30-day pilot two years ago where APD was here 24 hours a day, and there’s enough going on here that warrants that."
During those 30 days, McCormack said, the crowd outside the shelter dropped dramatically, and staff and clients said they felt safer, particularly at night.
But McCormack understands the situation's complexity. The police presence in front of the shelter didn’t make downtown crime go away. It just moved it: During the pilot, he said, the number of calls to police from business owners elsewhere in the district went up.
A new code of conduct
The 11-by-17-inch SafeBar Alliance posters present a simple, reassuring message: "The bartender is your friend."
The posters, provided to venues that have gone through SafeBar training administered by the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, are part of an effort to combat harassment and sexual assault in Austin’s entertainment districts. "We care about your safety," they read. "If someone is bothering you or you need help finding a safe way home, please reach out to our staff."
Though she is quick to clarify that alcohol does not cause rape, alcohol is "intrinsically entwined in the vast majority of sexual assaults," said Elizabeth Donegan, co-chair of the response and resource team and a former Austin police sergeant who ran the department’s Sex Crimes Unit for nine years.
"These are well thought-out crimes," Donegan said. "They’re not just walking into these bars saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ They have thought this out, and they are looking and seeking out targets."
She said the training sessions are, in part, a bystander intervention program that teaches bar staff to identify predatory behaviors and gives them "ideas as to how they could intercept some of that behavior in a safe way."
Venue staff are taught to keep an eye on the guy — it’s almost always a guy, Donegan said — who keeps trying to buy women drinks, the guy who’s touching someone who doesn’t seem to reciprocate, the guy packing up a clearly inebriated person at the end of the night. Sometimes, simply bearing witness can be a deterrent, "letting that perpetrator know, on some level, that we see you and we know what you’re doing."
When Dolan Bouressa from SIMS began brainstorming ideas for free training to support Austin music venues, strategies to identify sexual predators were not on her radar. She expected to create a program centered on SIMS’ core mission: substance abuse and mental health issues. She did create a curriculum that includes Mental Health 101 and Substance Abuse and Recovery 101 (which includes how to administer Naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses), but in the wake of the Me Too movement, sexual harassment, discrimination and assault were front of mind for many in the music community.
In late summer 2018, Renée Jonard, who books shows for Hotel Vegas and Barracuda, stood up at an economic development meeting with venue owners and staff and challenged her colleagues to begin a serious conversation about sexism, sexual harassment and violence in the music industry. The bars already were dealing with sexual harassment allegations leveled against touring acts that led to show cancellations.
Adrienne Lake from Empire heard about Jonard’s call to arms. "We started chatting about it and saying, basically, that we would like to have some support and some sort of unification so that we could go forward and address these issues in a more organized and positive way," Lake said.
"There are people who want to take on sexism and create a more equal playing field in the music industry, but I haven’t seen anybody collaborate," Jonard said.
Sexual harassment training was outside of the scope of SIMS work, so Dolan Bouressa reached out to nonprofits that work on those issues. She was put in touch with Donegan’s team, which was looking for a way to bring the SafeBar training to more venues. Two venues in the district already have been through the training, and another one is scheduled for later this month.
"Patsy is on it," Donegan said with a laugh. "I think that this is an opportunity for bars to be part of the solution."
Though much of the training is focused on spotting predatory behavior in customers, developing a strong code of conduct for venues sets a protocol for what is acceptable, whether unwanted behavior comes from a musician playing the club, an employee or a customer.
"We’re sending a message, being conveyed by all employees, that this is what our rules are here in this establishment," Donegan said. "When we see this, we do this. So, it gives them an additional sense of empowerment."
Lake said her team at Empire has been "so happy, so excited to be able to be given the tools on how to address these things and to have some support."
The training sessions bring the music scene into the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team’s mission to create a coordinated community response to combat sexual violence.
"We can’t change the world, but we can change our world," Lake said.
'We can’t wait around for anyone'
This level of collaboration among business owners wouldn't have happened even a few years ago, Lake said. Everyone in the district worked in the music business, but they saw one another as competitors. They were neighbors, but not necessarily friends.
"It’s been really cool to see how far we’ve all come and to see us working together toward a common goal," Lake said. "I’m just proud of us."
Now, Cowan said, the district's leaders are "fired up."
"We want to be part of the solution, not just sideline coach about things," he said.
His group is advocating for the Austin Convention Center expansion approved by City Council this summer, a plan that could be sunk by a proposition on the November ballot. The expansion is tied to an increase in hotel occupancy tax revenue.
"There’s money for homelessness in that scenario, and there’s money for music, for people living on the margins," Cowan said.
The call to action comes at a moment of crisis for the district, where the independent music venues that operate on very thin revenue margins were already grappling with skyrocketing expenses. Cowan said there were 15 venues in the district when the group first started organizing collectively five years ago. Now there are nine.
"If there’s a final takeaway message it is: We can’t wait on anyone," Cowan said. "We can’t wait around for anyone to do this for us. It doesn’t feel like we have the time to do these things. It doesn’t feel like we’re up to the task. But if it’s not us, it’s no one. So as a community and as individuals, we have to seize control of our destiny and our needs and come together to build the best sort of livable experience for all of us in Austin."