East Pecan Street, now called Sixth Street, has remained a prominent corridor in downtown Austin since the city’s incorporation in 1840. Its historic, Victorian-style buildings have mostly remained the same, but the street’s social function has continually evolved.
Almost 20 years ago, January 30, 1999 was a notable night in the history of both Sixth Street and the Austin music scene. The punk club Bates Motel was closing, and the Kiss Offs were the last band of the night. As they finished up their set, the crowd grew restless. To protest the impending closure, some people had planned to bust up the club on the way out. Someone had an axe. We know this because the lead singer of the Kiss Offs shouted, on video, “Hey! That guy’s got an axe!”
Archival footage of the incident has survived on YouTube, a fairly amazing artifact considering that widespread cell phone cameras wouldn’t exist for almost another decade, and YouTube itself wasn’t a thing until 2005.
According to KUT producer Delaney Hall, there was even more weaponry on hand: “basically the entire crowd destroyed the club following the show . . . there were sledgehammers…there were flame-throwers.” Cops came and broke things up rather peaceably, considering the circumstances. The former club, located at 317 East Sixth Street, is now the Blind Pig.
The Austin Chronicle’s music writer, Michael Bertin, wrote a bitter lament boldly titled The Year It All Went Wrong on December 31, 1999 to eulogize the closure or relocation of several notable clubs downtown, including Bates Motel and Steamboat, both on Sixth Street; along with Liberty Lunch at Second and Guadalupe Streets. Sixth Street had recovered from the days of its seediest reputation, and formed a cool niche where music could flourish in low-key clubs. Now, it seemed they were being replaced by bars that could pay higher rent, and sell more alcohol at the cost of more intimate shows.
The closure of Bates Motel and Steamboat signaled the end of an era for one club owner quoted in the story: “…now, everybody down there is more into being shot bars and drinking destinations instead of entertainment destinations. It has turned into a kiddie drinking zone.”
Sixth Street was reinventing itself — and it wasn’t the first time.
135 years ago, and 115 years before the Chronicle lamented the death of Sixth Street, a writer named “Old Citizen” wrote the Statesman to complain that Old Austin was passing away. That’s right — people have been complaining about Austin changing too much since at least 1884.
In 1881, Austin’s population was only about 11,000 people, but East Pecan Street was already one of the main streets in town. At the time, the Sanborn Map Company published detailed maps of buildings in American cities to determine fire insurance rates, and these maps are one of the more valuable historic resources for understanding the evolution of the built environment in many cities.
In maps produced by the company in 1877, Congress Avenue and Pecan Street were the only streets fully detailed, and show that Sixth Street was almost completely built out from Congress Avenue to Red River Street:
The author of the letter to the Statesman, was concerned that buildings at Sixth and Brazos Streets were being cleared at the time to make way for the construction of the Driskill Hotel, a six-story Victorian building now considered one of the most recognizable historic structures in Austin. Although the area around Sixth and Brazos Streets was “the most ragged looking block on that thoroughfare,” this destruction was too much for Old Citizen. They wrote:
“Thus one by one the old landmarks leave us and only a few of the original landmarks remain. A few years hence the citizen of 30 years ago will be a comparative stranger in the home of his youth with no familiar objects to greet his eye save the eternal hills on which the capital city sits enthroned as queen in her royal beauty and the sparkling Colorado at her feet.”
Almost as funny as complaining about Old Austin’s demise 100 years before its generally-accepted “cool” period, is the fact that Old Citizen was dead wrong, at least about Sixth Street. The block between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street did not fare well, but on the whole, Sixth Street has kept the same buildings dating back to the 1870s and 1880s.
Next to the Driskill Hotel, Old Citizen would have likely lamented the buildings cleared to make room for the Littlefield Building in 1910, not to mention the Bank of America Center, built across the street in 1975 as the city’s tallest building for nine years after. Also lost was the John Bremond Dry Goods Store, parts of which were built as early as 1847. In the 1970s, when a preservation fight took place over the building, supporters argued it was the oldest commercial structure in the city. (The developers argued it was actually built in the 1870s, and thus not historic at all.) The developers won, and now it is a loft/parking garage hybrid, with a Gold’s Gym on the ground floor.
But between Brazos and Red River Streets, you’ll find that Sixth Street has almost the exact same buildings it did in the Victorian era! It was designated a historic district in the 1970s, which has helped lock in the preservation of its remaining buildings. The city’s historic district application shows intact buildings in grey — you can see that what we consider “Dirty Sixth” is essentially Old Citizen’s Sixth, as well:
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sixth Street would remain a key commercial corridor — but its clientele would change in a way Old Citizen might not have expected.
In the early 20th century, East Sixth Street became an essential shopping district for black Austinites and other minorities. Department stores on Congress Avenue, such as Scarborough’s, were either exclusively for whites only or had humiliating policies to discourage minority customers — oral histories from black Austinites recall stores where blacks could buy clothes, but not try them on, or where they couldn’t try on hats, or where they could shop in the basement but not the upper floors. If you had a connection to a white household, you could get better treatment, but on the whole it was a racist, demeaning system.
But over on Sixth Street, the merchants included blacks, European immigrants, Jews and Arabs, and they sold to everyone. At the time, a streetcar line ran down Sixth Street into East Austin, and then up to Chicon and 12th Streets, which provided easy access for shoppers. Janie Harrison, a black woman who grew up in East Austin in the 1920s, described East Sixth Street as a “black mecca.” Her dad was a barber on the street in the 1910s, and Harrison recalled getting ice cream sodas at a black-owned drug store across the street from her dad’s shop — that shop is now a shot bar.
This page from a 1917 Austin business directory lists all the city’s barbers, and of Austin’s seven black barbers (designated by a (c), for colored, next to their names), all were located either on East Sixth Street itself or only a block off of it:
Other barbers operating on East Sixth Street at the time included immigrant and Hispanic names like Moritz, Ledesma, Patelsky, and Garza. Even the German-run barber supply store, Burnham and Fehr, was located here:
It’s hard to date how long Sixth Street remained a “black mecca,” but the destructive effects of Jim Crow laws and other trends would shift the demographics of the street again after World War II.
1950s to 1980s
Sixth Street declined after World War II for similar reasons as other flagging downtowns all over the country — new department stores on the edge of town. In Austin, Capital Plaza opened with a Montgomery Ward, soon followed by Hancock Center with its Sears, both in the early 1960s. The city’s final streetcar line was torn up in 1940, and the mass adoption of automobiles paradoxically made it easy to get to the edge of town, but harder to get downtown, where parking was limited by comparison.
The new department stores didn’t discriminate against anyone shopping there, and thus Sixth Street became less important to the black community. Gradually, the big general stores and department stores on Sixth Street were replaced by payday loan outfits, pawn shops, or worse. Here’s how an Austin American-Statesman article described the street in 1975:
“The Sixth Street ‘scene’ back then consisted of transvestites and massage parlors and friendly little conjunto bars and boarded-up buildings and the Cat Man’s shoeshine parlor, and a fat lady who sat by the door at Brooks’ Lunch and put your dollar into the cigar box on her lap when you came in to hear the blues.”
The 1970s also saw some key battles in the street’s historic preservation. At the time, developers sought to clear vast swathes of Sixth Street for redevelopment. As noted above, they succeeded in developing the south block of the street between Brazos Street and Congress Avenue, but didn’t make it any further. At one point, the Driskill Hotel was supposedly hours away from demolition, before being rescued by a group of civic leaders and investors who formed a corporation to buy and renovate it.
As the ’70s proceeded, activists and historians fought block-by-block to prevent development-related demolition on Sixth Street, and the nine-block stretch from Lavaca Street to I-35 was finally incorporated as a historic district in 1975, making its alteration much more difficult.
Some Sixth Street retailers held out as late as the 1980s, well after its general character was defined by porno theaters on one side of the block and porno stores on the other. One shop that held out for some time was Gellman’s, a large department store at 201 East Sixth Street, right next to the Groves-Morley building.
Seen above with a new facade in the midst of the Great Depression, Gellman’s was a proud and successful store for decades. But by 1985, we see Stephen Gellman at City Hall arguing against historic preservationists that his building was not historic, and could be torn down. The Austin Industrial Development Corporation, basically an urban renewal agency, proposed to issue bonds to buy Gellman’s, tear it down, and turn it into an office building. The item at City Council was to authorize the bonds, and the debate turned on the historic value of the building.
Gellman, whose family had run a store at that location for almost 70 years, was reduced to arguing that there was no historic value to the structure — but the preservationists won the council vote, 3-4, so bonds were not issued. Gellman appears to have cashed out and closed the store in 1985 anyway.
1990s to Today
In the late 1980s and ’90s, Sixth Street gradually rose from its reputation as a virtual Skid Row and gained a dedicated nightlife scene. There had always been music clubs, but in the ’90s, they managed to gradually gentrify out the porno stores and prostitution. In 1989, the city began closing the street to cars on the weekends, which continues to this day, for the most part. The Statesman reported that the first experimental weekend was “like a middle school dance,” with people just awkwardly milling around.
In the 1990s, many of the street’s shuttered stores found themselves repurposed as bars. Gellman’s eventually reopened in the ’90s as the Hang ’em High Saloon. Now it’s Buffalo Billiards, although Gellman’s 1933 façade is still clearly visible above the sign.
By the end of the ’90s, the newly walled-off Sixth Street was packed on weekends. The punk music scene gave ground to a more mainstream general party environment, and there were some good reasons for that.
For one, money is important — in 1999, both Bates Motel and the Steamboat lost their leases to bars that could pay higher rent. On top of that, more downtown residents and hotels have made noise a prominent issue, with decibel levels measured and enforced far more than they were in the ’90s. Finally, as the Chronicle pointed out in 1999 and seemingly every six months or so since, Austin is getting more expensive all the time, making it harder and harder for musicians to earn a living.
But the drinking scene seems pretty stable, all things considered. Other parts of Austin, like Rainey Street, and East Sixth on the other side of I-35, received their original “cool factor” from bars, some of which subsequently gave way to residential construction. On Sixth Street proper, however, the historic designations make it difficult-to-impossible to redevelop anything.
Still, if the last 135 years have taught us anything, it’s that Sixth Street keeps changing. Who knows where it might go in the next few decades?