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'I love life': 93-year-old John Garza on the passage of people, endurance of places in Austin

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
John Garza is a crackerjack storyteller. He shared tales of the land where American-Statesman columnist Michael Barnes now lives.

When John Garza was a boy, his family lived in a simple house, built in 1922, on West Monroe Street in South Austin.

Three lots up from their house, his grandmother, born in 1885, lived in an even simpler cottage.

"Every day I passed, she'd be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch," Garza, 93, recalls. "She didn't speak much English and I didn't speak much Spanish, so I'd call out, 'Que pasó, grandmama?' She'd answer, 'El tren pasó, pero no pitó.'

"The train passed, but didn't whistle."

Although this customary exchange was just familial wordplay, back then she could have heard a train if it had whistled. Before the days of railroad "quiet zones," the Garza family's residences sat near the rim of the shallow East Bouldin Creek canyon. The busy International-Great Northern railroad tracks along West Bouldin Creek filled both canyons with big noise.

Garza's favorite story about his grandmother's house, however, concerns what was hidden in her backyard.

"She'd go down the steps behind her kitchen," Garza says, his words cloaked with suspense. "At the bottom of the steps was a box covered with a screen. She'd lift the screen and — scoop out cold spring water with a pail."

Consider that: A spring watered his grandmother's land. Yet it is no longer visible. Maybe the water table dropped from historical levels, or perhaps a later owner plugged it up as inconvenient.

I know for sure that it is gone because, for the past 24 years, I've lived on the very same piece of property where Garza's grandmother lived on West Monroe Street in South Austin.

Recently demolished, this 1922 house was where John Garza grew up on West Monroe Street. Garza's grandmother's house stood three lots to the east.

Meeting the Garza family

Almost as a rule, when I report on Central Texans who have witnessed a lot of history, I'm nowhere to be found in the article.

This time, the intrusion, with apologies, was unavoidable. Garza's stories about the passage of people and the endurance of places landed directly on my front porch, so to speak. 

I've seen a lot of changes in our neighborhood during the past 24 years. Garza has seen a great deal more during his 93 years.

Our house is a bungalow, so carefully designed and built in 1997 to fit into its historical surroundings, most people assume it dates back to the 1920s, when the Garzas lived in several houses on the same side of the block.

That's a tribute to the designer and the builder, restoration experts, who built it on spec.

Yet until very recently, I knew nothing about the Garza family, or that John Garza's brother, David, a retired university professor, still lives across Monroe Street from their childhood home.

This autumn, bulldozers took out the 1922 Garza house — not the grandmother's, which was long gone — in a matter of hours.

The loss, while discouraging, came as no surprise. During the past few years, a dozen tall, new homes have risen up right around us. A new home not far from the empty lot where the Garza ancestral home once stood was listed for more than $2 million.

And more will come. In just the past few weeks, two elderly Latinas who lived within a block of us died. Almost all the African American elders whose ancestors planted a freedom colony here in the Swisher Addition after Emancipation have died or moved on.

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Nearby, two legacy Black churches, one Baptist, the other Methodist, seem to be busy only during funerals.

The blue-collar Anglo elders are succumbing as well. A set of three elderly sisters who had lived since the 1930s in separate, but clustered houses, have died, as have many of their stories, which I tried to gather and acknowledge through the years. 

Yet once a neighbor learned that I was curious about the razed Garza homestead, she gave me the phone number of John Garza, her husband's brother.

John now lives in a 1928 house in Travis Heights, within walking distance of his childhood home, with his wife, Evelyn, on a hillside with terraced gardens that Garza shapes and nurtures every morning. 

Chipper and eager to chat, he invited me to sit in that garden on a mild autumn morning to talk about his many lives in Austin and elsewhere.

Once the 1922 Garza house was demolished, one could see remnants of the gully that ran down the north side of West Monroe Street from Newton Street almost to South First Street.

Growing up on East Bouldin Creek

Among other things, Garza witnessed the paving of narrow South First Street during the 1940s. He remembers a stand that sold cedar posts near the intersection of Monroe and First streets, more evidence of direct local links to the cedar choppers who, for decades, lived up in the hills that roll across the horizon to the west.

The main Garza house at 312 W. Monroe St. — at one time numbered 404 W. Monroe St. — had two front doors, but it was not always a duplex. Like many houses on our street, the cottage was shaded by a sheltering pecan tree. Most of those old arboreal remnants have been saved, but not a double-trunk oak next door that succumbed to a windstorm and pests.

A plain portico with air vents stabilized the cottage's symmetrical front. 

Once it was gone, one could see how the land dipped down behind the house. In fact, multiple elders over the years attested to the fact that a gully ran almost from Newton Street to the creek. During big storms, water still flows in great sheets over our back garden, no matter how many natural barriers we plant.

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In Garza's mind, the unavoidable reality that links his childhood home to his current one, historically, is their locations south of the river, which stood, for at least the first 70 years or so of the city's history, a world apart from the rest of Austin.

"My family talked about how, before the bridges, you'd swim across the river, or take a boat," Garza says. "They had a ferry. All these streets were dirt and rock. The street people would come along plowing it up or wetting it down with a water tank. First all kinds of dust, then all kinds of mud. Those were the days."

This portrait of Evelyn and John Garza was revived for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2007.

Another concrete fact of the neighborhood was that the highway to San Antonio — now South Congress Avenue — ran right through the middle of it. 

"We had a Model A Ford," Garza says. "We'd take the one-lane highway all the way to San Antonio. It might take a whole day to get there, because you had to get out and pump the tubes. When they came out with tubeless tires, oh boy, no more blowouts."

Think about that: one lane. Not one lane each way. There's still a one-lane bridge over Onion Creek on the Old San Antonio Road between Austin and Buda.

There was a lot of open land in and around Austin back then.

Garza: "During the Depression, they were selling land for 25 cents an acre in the Hill Country."

After serving in the Korean War, John Garza was discharged in 1953. In 2019, he took an Honor Flight for veterans to Washington, D.C.

Garza was born in Houston in 1928. The family moved back to Austin not long after that. 

"We had lots on the left and the right of our house," he says. "There was plenty of room." 

His father, Jesse Garza, built the house on Monroe where David, John's brother, lives now.

"Dad started at Fulmore Elementary School in 1908," Garza says. "He quit school during World War I."

Garza's mother, Luz Tripp Garza, came from San Antonio, but he's not sure how she ended up in Austin.

"My parents never talked about their past," Garza says. "We had relatives, but you didn't know if one was your uncle or your cousin. Nobody but them knew what went on."

Garza also attended Fulmore — now Lively Middle School — and walked the half-mile to and from his home on Monroe. 

"My dad's first grade teacher taught me," Garza says. "My dad educated himself by reading a lot. He served on a grand jury. He reached the 33rd degree in his Masonic lodge. He had friends everywhere, including right here on this street."

Garza spent many hours of his childhood outdoors, playing along East Bouldin Creek, which flowed less than a block from the family house.

"You'd lift up a rock and find tadpoles and crawdads," he says. "Now you go to a store to buy crawfish."

Some of the Garza land backed up to the segregated Black elementary school on Elizabeth Street. John befriended Dan Piper, the school's caretaker, who lived just east of the school. (All those structures are gone.) He remembers the Satterwhites, our former neighbors, who lived across the street from the Texas School for the Deaf, as well as other neighbors who have since died.

He recalls a filling station on the corner of First and Monroe and a nearby business run by a Black owner.

"Another man sold trucks right by the creek," Garza says. "It was a noisy place. That man also raced horses in Ruidoso, New Mexico."

John Garza mows his lawn at his current house in Travis Heights. Each morning, Garza works in his terraced gardens that attract butterflies and birds in considerable numbers.

Garza remembers well the 1935 flood on the Colorado River. 

"The dam busted, and water went over the Congress Avenue Bridge," he recalls. "Water went all the way up to Academy Street on the south and, it seemed to me, Sixth Street on the north. The Montopolis Bridge was washed out."

As a boy, he shopped at the Caldwell Variety Store on South Congress, owned by the Caldwell family I recently profiled. Garza also worked sacking groceries at the H-E-B when it was located at South Congress and Crockett Street.

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During the early 1940s, his father bought him a 1935 Ford Coupe with a rumble seat.

"He said I could buy all the gas I wanted," Garza jokes. "But because of rations during World War II, you could barely get enough gas to drive to Austin High and back."

He remembers hitchhiking to and from San Antonio, after the road had been widened to two lanes. Lunch during high school cost 75 cents and, if you grew tired of the cafeteria, boarding houses in West Campus served big meals on their lawns. 

Garza was drafted in 1950 and served in the Army's 40th Infantry Division in Japan and Korea.

"It was 40 degrees below zero in Korea," Garza says. "We had no insulation. Our underwear, caps, gloves, socks were made of wool. When they got wet, they weren't worth 2 cents. I remember crawling around on the ground at 4 in the morning. All the bombs and bullets were never as bad as the weather in the mountains."

After he was discharged in 1953, Garza attended the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill, but a form of PTSD proved an obstacle.

"I couldn't concentrate," he says, "after living like an animal over there."

Family, work, rest for John Garza

Evelyn Fojtik, 89, was raised among Czech American farmers in Jarrell north of Georgetown. John met her in 1954 at a house party in Rollingwood, asked for her telephone number and then called for a date. They married in 1957 and honeymooned in Mexico City. 

He took a sales job at Austin Chemical on East Fifth Street. During the job interview, his employer asked an odd question: "Do you think being a Mexican will hurt you?"

"'Hasn't hurt me yet,'" Garza told him, "'and I've been a Mexican my whole life.' Back then, there were a lot of people who didn't like Mexicans."

During the 1960s, Garza sold real estate in the new neighborhood north of the St. Edward's University campus. There, the developer had taken the street names from "Robin Hood."

"I sold them for between $10,000 and $20,000," he says, smiling.

Garza sold chemicals in Corpus Christi for three years during the 1970s, then moved to Round Rock, where his two sons went to nearby Round Rock High School. James "Jamie" Garza owns, which makes and sells textiles, ceramics and furniture in West Texas. John David Garza has done well in the technology business at Motorola and lives on 24 acres in the western hills.

One granddaughter, Estelle, attended Westlake High School as well as SMU, TCU and ACU, where she earned her Ed.D. She works as a college counselor. Her sister, Emily, graduated from Baylor University and sells real estate in Houston. Garza jokingly claims two dogs as great-grandkids, but a human great-grandkid is on the way.

In the 1980s, John Garza took a job as a security guard at UT. His post was the main gate at the UT Tower. Upbeat and friendly, Garza was so beloved by university staff, when he left in 2010, President Bill Powers and others threw him going-away parties.

John and Evelyn, who joked back and forth, even from other rooms, during my visits, moved to their Travis Heights house in the 1980s, while John's mother still lived in the 1922 Garza house on Monroe Street. 

The circle was complete. Back in shady South Austin. Family nearby. Living in another simple, sturdy, old house.

Happily, another Garza is on the way. The line remains unbroken.

"I love life, so I take it one day at a time," he says. "I thank God for everything, every day."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at