In 1978, journalists Bruce Hight and David Frink collaborated on seven stories in the Austin American-Statesman, published every day for seven days between May 8 – 14. The title of the series was “Downtown: On the Brink,” and this week of warnings told the story of a declining downtown Austin — highlighting both the early signs of its decay, and the more dire possibilities the city might face in the future if those signs were ignored.
The problems Hight and Frink identified were many — traffic, crumbling buildings, bad sidewalks, declining downtown retail, and so on — but perhaps the biggest culprit of all was growth, plain and simple. As urban dwellers left downtown in increasing numbers for the peace and quiet of newly-constructed suburbs, communities quickly emerged around the margins of what were once Austin’s original boundaries, bringing with them shopping centers, malls, and new reasons to spend time away from the central city.
The survival of any downtown area worth remembering depends upon constant infusions of human energy, and this seven-part manifesto was primed to deliver a shock. Here’s a look at the full series, with a few annotations from me here and there.
(Click these images for a larger view)
There you have it — seven days of downtown’s woes and dreams. When you see the problems facing the city circa 1978, alongside the solutions and other improvements experts supported at the time, you start noticing that a little more than half their ideas are actually still great in the modern age. Affordable housing, entertainment, large sidewalks, improving Waller Creek, and so on — for better or worse, these are all issues we’re still talking about four decades later.
Unfortunately, the less good stuff hits like a train when you realize the experts appear to be placing big bets on convention centers and parking garages to revitalize the city. With the gift of hindsight, we know that some of the challenges downtown’s currently facing are due, at least in part, to the ideas we chose to prioritize 40 years ago, and even more still to the ideas we chose to ignore.
But even with many of our problems still intact, I think it’s safe to say downtown Austin is no longer on the brink — at least not like it was back in 1978.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at the 1978 downtown revitalization plan developed by the city in response to many of the same issues covered in the Statesman series seen here. Stay tuned!