Windsor Park, the assumed name for a region of neighborhoods occupying much of central Austin’s northeastern quadrant, just might be the city’s most well-preserved history lesson on the post-WWII suburbanization of the United States.
Laid down from scratch, streets and all by local mega-builder Nash Phillips/Copus, the growth of master-planned subdivision projects in the city was so wildly successful that by 1967, one in every five Austinites lived in a home built by the developer, scattered across neighborhoods with names like Royal Oaks, Cherry Creek, Allandale North, Preswyck Hills — and, of course, Windsor Park.
The story of Windsor Park is thus also the story of Nash Phillips/Copus, and together these histories inform our understanding of postwar America’s rapid adoption of suburban living as the highest fulfillment of middle-class success.
The design of these master-planned communities speaks to the priorities of the people who sought after this particular version of the American Dream — you’ll find common midcentury must-haves like extra bedrooms, second stories, and separate dining rooms, but nearly none of the streets in the original Windsor Park and its expansions are built with sidewalks. Why on earth would you need those?
The growth of these neighborhoods was helped along by FHA loans and G.I. Bill benefits that allowed veterans and other hopeful homebuyers to pay less on a mortgage for a brand-new suburban home than they might on rent — as low as $60 a month, according to 1955 advertisements by NPC for homes in the new Windsor Park.
Of course, the same benefits that allowed for middle-class ownership in these communities effectively walled off areas like Windsor Park from populations considered to be less than desirable neighbors, but at the time, this was actually a selling point. Advertisements for the neighborhood describing it as “highly restrictive” are saying precisely what you think they are.
Though the name is now generally used for the entire area between I-35, Highway 290, Manor Road and East 51st Street, the original Windsor Park was a smaller affair — when ground was broken in 1954, the plan for the neighborhood comprised about 300 homes on 60 acres east of Cameron Road, which was unpaved at the time. By April of 1955, developer NPC saw 30 move-ins in 30 days. Understandably, Windsor Park 2 was under construction by the next month, with a third phase kicked off in the summer of the same year.
NPC neighborhoods like Gaston Park and Walnut Hills filled in the gaps on the northern and eastern sides of the region, and in the late summer of 1955, the first shopping center was announced — Windsor Village, a $2 million project designed by famed local architects Fehr & Granger.
Windsor Park captured the ideals of the time so well, it was the first stop chosen for a delegation of Russian builders who visited Austin in October of 1955 as part of a diplomatic tour meant to showcase the American way of life.
As NPC built the neighborhood, amenities followed in its wake. The Cameron Village shopping center, developed by former farmer and furniture seller Louie Gage, opened its doors in 1958. (Gage’s son Leslie would go on to become a crucial player in the establishment of Austin’s hike-and-bike trail.)
By 1960, the massive Capital Plaza shopping center was under construction, and less than three years later, Windsor Park 3 and 4 were on the boards. NPC’s portfolio of neighborhoods in the area by 1963 also included Royal Oaks Estates, Colonial Hills, and Windsor Park Hills 1 through 4.
But after decades of boom, something went wrong. It’s unclear where to pinpoint the exact cause of Windsor Park’s decline, but news coverage of the region between the 1970s and 1990s seems to suggest that the Cameron and Manor Road corridors respectively sandwiching the neighborhood on its western and eastern sides saw rapid development of inexpensive, remotely-managed apartment communities that, in the eyes of long-time residents, besieged the neighborhood from both ends with a previously-unknown criminal element.
Property and drug crime increased to the point that by 1993, residents of the neighborhood opposed the opening of a transitional housing facility for formerly-homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and drug problems — not, they said, because they didn’t want it in their backyards, but because the neighborhood wasn’t safe enough for at-risk populations to get back on their feet.
Whether or not this was a convenient excuse is up for debate, but the use of the argument alone seems to paint a picture of the area’s reputation.
It is not the rustling of oak trees that is music to Marilyn Daniel’s ears when she drifts off to sleep in her Northeast Austin home. It is the constant barking of neighbors’ dogs. Barking dogs discourage potential intruders, Daniel said. “I love it,” said Daniel, 46. “Other neighbors might not like it, but I think it’s great.”
Daniel lives in Windsor Park, near Manor Road and Rogge Lane, where residents fear that drug-related violence in the area will spill into their sculptured yards and homes.
Other residents, many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes, spend hundreds of dollars on sophisticated security systems and burglar bars that only partially calm their fears.
“Don’t you think it is terrible when the law-abiding citizens are the ones who are behind bars?” asked Daniel.
“I would just like a little bit more freedom,” said Mrs. Gordon Jones, 80, who moved into the Windsor Park neighborhood from Washington, D.C., seven years ago at the urging of her son. “I have to be sure to be in the house and get my garage door closed by the time it gets dark.”
Residents say brazen burglars, stray bullets and armed trespassers fleeing bungled drug deals make them obsessed with protecting their lives when they should be guarding their bird feeders from hungry squirrels.
Their fears are based on more than strange noises. In 1992, Austin police investigated 507 serious crimes in the census tracts around Manor and Rogge. Those crimes include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and auto theft.
That number dropped to 419 major crimes in 1993. Figures for the first nine months of 1994, the latest available, show a rate that is slightly lower than in 1993, a total of 292 serious crimes.
Also, 1992 was the year that saw the intersection of Manor Road and Rogge Lane make the Austin Police Department’s list of 31 major street-level drug markets. Sweeney Lane and Sweeney Circle, just two blocks north, also were on the list.
— Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 1995
Throughout the latter half of the 1990s, various neighborhood and community organizations struggled to rehabilitate the region’s image, with graffiti removal campaigns, neighborhood watches, and the implementation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Weed and Seed” program in 1998.
Late last year, police and prosecutors came to Northeast Austin to try to generate interest in Weed and Seed, a U.S. Department of Justice program designed to give residents unusual control over their own destiny: They set the agenda for fighting crime on their streets. They decide which community-based programs they want in their neighborhoods.
The district attorney’s office said it chose Northeast Austin for Weed and Seed because it has strong neighborhood associations, a high crime rate — the area has 6 percent of Austin’s population but 11 percent of its violent crime — and because many residents felt their neighborhoods were in danger of being overrun by crime.
The neighborhoods signed on, and in March, everything east of Interstate 35, north of the airport and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and inside the sweeping arm of U.S. 183 became Austin’s first Weed and Seed site.
But the real work began late last year, in school libraries and churches where representatives from five Northeast Austin neighborhood associations — St. Johns, Coronado Hills,Windsor Park, University Hills, and Pecan Springs/Springdale — began taking a long, hard look at what was wrong with their community.
Drugs. Gangs. Graffiti. Vacant houses and vacant lots. Not enough parks or after-school activities for children. Poor neighborhood image. These are the things we need help with, they told their public servants.
Then they worked out a plan. Police agreed to hit the high-crime areas with undercover stings, increased patrols, whatever it took to get the worst offenders out.
The neighborhoods promised to recruit residents for crime watches, neighborhood patrols and the community programs they plan to pay for with the federal money.
They also agreed that property owners needed to be held more accountable for reducing crime. Bringing the owners and managers of the most crime-ridden apartments, convenience stores and homes into the fold, they decided, was one of the best ways to quickly reduce crime.
— Austin American-Statesman, Aug. 1998
The 1999 closure of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, just south of Windsor Park across East 51st Street, brought more anxiety about the future of the area, despite plans in the early stages for the transformation of the space into a large mixed-use community — arguably an evolved form of the same master-planned urban design approach that laid out Windsor Park in the 1950s.
Almost 70 years after a grassy hilltop became the center of Central Texas air traffic, an advisory group of city and state planners, along with neighborhood groups, is devising a new community at the airport site.
The groups envision neighborhoods co-existing peacefully and thriving alongside small retail shops, commercial offices and a large complex of state buildings. If done successfully, the redevelopment of the Mueller site could energize East Austin, reshape the city’s relationship with the state and set the standard in urban development.
In the meantime, neighbors who live around the airport say they are waiting for more details. Their apprehension primarily stems from a fear of what they don’t know because final plans for the redevelopment project probably won’t be ready until September.
Questions linger about how the city will guide a development project that may not be completed for 20 years. The city hasn’t decided whether to create a separate redevelopment authority to oversee the project.
Construction crews are scheduled to tear up runways within three months of the airport’s closure. Neighbors say they are concerned because they know very little else. In particular, they wonder about security at the site shortly after the last light is turned off.
“No one wants a gangland or homeless city because that will hurt the value of our neighborhoods more than the airport has,” said Fred Blood, a resident of the Wilshire Woods-Delwood One neighborhood.
— Austin American-Statesman, June 1998
You might say some of the neighborhood’s fears were realized — the Mueller community wouldn’t break ground until 2007, and despite its current size and scope, the development is still in progress.
Despite rising property values in the neighborhood as the rest of East Austin gentrified, crime was still a concern in the area by 2011.
Jeanette Swenson said that home burglaries in her Windsor Park neighborhood were so common that for a while, “everyone was expecting they were going to be next.” Often in broad daylight, burglars were entering homes in the Northeast Austin neighborhood east of Interstate 35 near U.S. 290 through open and locked doors, garages and windows. They were stealing electronic devices, computers, bicycles and other items, said Swenson, president of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association.
Austin police Lt. Nick Wright said there were 34 burglaries in the neighborhood in December, and police were predicting January would have as many as 45.
The area is an easy target for burglars because, in Wright’s words, it is a “spaghetti bowl neighborhood” – with lots of curving roads with easy access to I-35, U.S. 290 and U.S. 183. The older homes have lots of trees and shrubbery, providing plenty of cover for daytime burglaries.
“It’s a very easy neighborhood to escape from,” Wright said.
— Austin American-Statesman, June 2011
But Mueller’s growth continued to have an effect on the neighborhood across the street, with lower-than-average home prices encouraging investors to buy and flip Windsor Park’s aging, but attractive original midcentury homes, the architecture of which will seemingly never go out of style.
As crime rates continue to drop in northeast Austin, home prices have steadily increased, but it’s still one of the few spots in close proximity to the urban core where you can find a well-kept 3-bedroom home in the $300,000s. In spite of its origins, Windsor Park remains one of the more diverse neighborhoods in the city — probably a far cry from the suburban dreams of the 1950s, but all the better for it in the end.
Where you’re eating: Habesha, an Ethiopian eatery with traditional family-style dining and flatbread in lieu of forks — perhaps not what you expected to find in this neighborhood, but that’s kind of the point.
Where you’re drinking: Though its official name has gained a “K” at the front due to a copyright dispute from another, probably lesser bar, Nomad Bar remains the neighborhood’s watering hole of choice, located on Corona Drive only a stone’s throw away from the original Windsor Park — yes, in a strip mall, but somehow still as charming as they come.
Best coffee: Well-loved East Cesar Chavez Street patio cafe Cenote opened a Windsor Park location late last year on Cameron Road, and although you’ll find breakfast favorites, sandwiches, burgers, beer, and wine on offer, you’re probably here first and foremost for their coffee. It’s good.
Where to stay: Airbnb and HomeAway listings for a variety of charming midcentury homes in the area range from $100 – $400 per night, depending on the number of rooms and how far in advance you book. It’s certainly more fun than the Embassy Suites.
Leave a Reply