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I just spent 30 years excavating Austin’s unexpected strata

After marking a Statesman milestone, reflections on a deeper vision of the city

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Michael Barnes goofing around in Rome in 1990, the summer after he started writing for the American-Statesman. Barnes would like readers to note the remnants of red hair tied in a ponytail. [Contributed by Joe Starr]

Reader: “You must see Austin in a different way.”

Me: “How so?”

Reader: “When you look at something, you see what was there before, or what happened there before.”

Me: “I never thought of it that way.”

Just how did I learn to view Austin in layers? A lot of credit goes to the distinct privilege of spending the past 30 years reporting on an almost daily basis for the American-Statesman about the city’s people, places, culture and history.

As I marked the anniversary of my first Statesman article, a theater review that ran June 15, 1989, I thought it would be worth considering the myriad ways that Austinites like me have learned what places in the region looked like — and what happened there — before the city began to change at such a mind-bending pace.

Several helpful social media accounts, for instance, are dedicated exclusively to this subject (for example, the Facebook group Austin as It Used To Be). Some are tinged with nostalgia, others with outrage. Yet they share with their followers not only key historical images, but also the valuable personal memories they preserve.

You want the dirt on an old dive once hidden in the scrub cedar off Bee Cave Road? Or an old diner that served unforgettable chopped steak on Burnet Road? Or a dazzling nightclub on East 12th Street that closed decades ago?

Just pose your query on social media, and scores of strongly worded comments will appear within hours. Fair warning: Don’t take all of them too seriously.

Just knowing what things looked like, however, is only part of seeing the city’s past through its present. What happened in any given spot? Not just within living memory, but going back to the city’s founding in 1839 and beyond?

That kind of long-range memory requires a little more digging and a lot more historical context. Some leisure time should be devoted to the dozens of carefully researched and written books about Austin and Texas.

With a newsroom colleague, Dave Thomas, we recently shared 53 of the best samples of this genre. Alas, within weeks after the publication of the list, two of the icons of Texas writing, Bill Wittliff and Don Graham, passed away.

Once you’ve caught the history bug, it’s definitely worth spending time in Austin’s many libraries, archives and museums. Also, the internet provides a bonanza of mostly free digital tools for exploring genealogy, census records, property data, newspaper morgues, photo collections, the full texts of uploaded books and manuscripts and, my favorite, maps.

One of our most recent treasured finds is Newspapers.com, which, for a fee, provides thorough and clearly presented copies of newspaper stories going back many decades. If you can’t afford the graduated rates, ProQuest.com offers a reasonably similar experience for free with your Austin Public Library card number.

Still, one can only go so far with printed or digital data. To really get to know the city’s physical history, one must go into the field.

Start with walking. For many years, I was primarily a pedestrian, in part because I did not, as a graduate student, own a car. I have always liked life on foot and ever since have chosen to live within a mile or so of the newsroom, the land within 3 or so miles of the state Capitol, the pre-World War II boundaries of the city.

This slow mode of transportation meant that I got to know just about every block and, in some cases, every structure and park and road in many parts of historic Austin. Each presented itself as a mystery. Who had lived, worked, played, studied, prayed or shopped there? What made up their daily routines, and which crises upset those quiet rhythms? I had to find out.

And although I’m pretty shy, I forced myself to ask people about their houses or gardens or neighbors or schools or places of worship. I also quizzed them about their families and friends, education and work histories, favorite restaurants and bars.

I found out that Austinites are open to these extended quizzes most of the time. In fact, openness is — or has been — the primary defining characteristic of the Austinites I’ve encountered.

One group, however, has made all these inquiries infinitely easier to turn into newspaper articles, then later into books. I’m talking about the city’s history buffs. They are everywhere. Many of them are not trained historians. Few of them ever made a dime from their research. Yet they share a deep fervor for accurate renditions of the past, especially as it applies to the community around us.

Even more so, they like to get out into the field and get their boots muddy or dusty. An informal group of a dozen or so Austin history buffs — almost completely unburdened by status, ego or credit — will plan an outing simply by starting an email thread that leads to an early-morning search for Camino Real de los Tejas remnants in Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, or the Chisholm Trail crossings along the Colorado River.

Some are passionately interested in hard-to-detect remnants of the distant past. Others look with open eyes at the region’s complicated social histories, including divides along the lines of race, gender and sexuality.

The history buffs have names. I won’t try to list them here, because inevitably, I’ll miss a few. Their names, however, show up in the stories collected here and in the two volumes of “Indelible Austin,” the collections of my historical curiosities published by Waterloo Press and available online, as well as in bookstores and gift shops. A third volume is due out in the fall.

The startling exchange with a young reader that kicks off this column did take me by surprise. Now I can’t unlearn it. Like a fair number of other people, I do see almost every Austin spot — and many in the suburbs and exurbs — as a succession of places with a series of personal associations.

I wish the gift of that kind of deep vision for everyone.

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