The Beginning of the End
By Jay Hardwig
JUNE 29, 1998: Standing on the corner of 11th and Rosewood, the late morning sun falling slant-wise across his snap-brim hat, Tyler D. Bell is remembering the good ol' days. "There was Charlie's Playhouse, the IL Club, and here was the Victory Grill, and the place on the corner there," says Bell, looking around, pointing up and down the street. "And they had a place there, and a restaurant, and here was a club, right there was Shorty's Bar. In fact, I played one, two, three, four, five, six clubs right in through here. Just in walkin' distance. To come here was a thrill for me. When I [first] came here, people would be standing in line here out on the sidewalk."
Standing in line, on the street even, to see Tyler D. Bell play three songs at the Victory Grill. The year was 1949, T.D. Bell was the hot guitar-slinger in town, and Victory owner Johnny Holmes limited his star attraction to three numbers a night.
He looks out again, up and down 11th at the boarded-up shops and overgrown lots. The recently reborn Victory Grill provides a splash of color, but the scene in general is one of decline and decay, a far cry from the glory years when the street was the center of an Eastside entertainment district known as "the End." For a good 40 years - the Twenties through the Sixties - there was always something happening on East 11th, but now when Bell looks out on the street, he sees a whole bunch of nothing.
"It's a different feeling," says Bell. "I never would have thought anything like this would have happened, because it was so good back then for it to be like it is now."
What happened to the Eastside music scene is a long and complex story - politics, poverty, and desegregation - but also one that is far from over. For as surely as the street has crumbled, there are people trying to rebuild it, to recall and even reclaim its past glory, to make certain that, years from now, there's more to tell and more folks to do the telling. They know what has been, and they don't want to see it die, to slip unremembered into the root cellar of Austin history as the city embraces a high-tech and increasingly homogenous future.
Oh, but the lights were bright once. Most famous, perhaps, were the Victory Grill and Charlie's Playhouse, but originally the East Austin entertainment district, a corridor framed roughly by 11th and 12th Streets, from the interstate to Airport Boulevard, was home to countless clubs and restaurants. In the Twenties and Thirties, it was the Cotton Club and the Paradise; later years saw Slim's, the Derby, and the Clock Lounge; still later came Charlie's, the IL Club, and farther out, the famous Chicken Shack.
Any working musician from the era can drop a dozen more club names - Sam's Showcase, Good Daddy's, the Palladium, the Shamrock, Cheryl Ann's - some admittedly small and decidedly short-lived, but all part of an active and dynamic entertainment scene that supported a wide array of clubs and musicians for decades on end.
The district was called "the End," because it was once the end of Austin's streetcar line, and on any given Saturday night it would draw thousands of people and host maybe a dozen bands, with folks coming from the surrounding neighborhoods and as far away as Fort Hood to be among the hustle and shine of East 11th Street. And there was music, good music - local bands and more than a few big-time touring acts: Junior Parker, B.B. King, Little Walter, James Brown, Albert Collins, Etta James, Albert King, Gatemouth Brown, Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner, Fathead Newman, Buddy Ace, Lowell Fulsom, and Freddie King all graced the stages of East Austin at one time or another; many of them played regularly. Bobby Blue Bland got his start at the Victory Grill, coming in from Fort Hood to win Talent Night often enough that owner Johnny Holmes made him quit competing just so other folks would have a chance.
Some nights, T.D. Bell jammed with those that came through, trading licks with the likes of Lowell Fulsom and Freddie King. Other nights, he led his own band, T.D. Bell & the Cadillacs, a staple of the Eastside blues scene, a stalwart almost since the day in 1949 Bell quit his dollar-an-hour job at a Rockdale aluminum plant to come to Austin and play the blues. And play the blues he did - for another 25 years, a full-time musician until 1974, with most of that career spent on Austin's Eastside.
"Sometimes we'd play at Fats Green's place [on 12th and Chicon], and we'd walk out of there at midnight and walk right down the street to Good Daddy's and play there 'til 3:30-4am.
"This place here would be packed," Bell nods towards the Victory Grill. "Just standing room. In the Sixties, Big Mary used to have Blue Mondays right here. Start at about 1am, go to about 5-6am. There'd be more people getting fired off their jobs, hanging out here on Blue Monday. Some of 'em wasn't going to work. I've had many friends lose a job just by hanging out here for Blue Monday."
He shakes his head at the memory.
"Things were good up to somewhere in the late Sixties."
"Not every black in town went to the clubs or even liked the music," says local historian Harold McMillan. "It was devil music, old-man alcoholic music, Chitlin' Circuit music. But those that went had a good time of it."
Austin native and current Victory Grill proprietor Eva Lindsey grew up in the neighborhood, enchanted by the sights and sounds of 11th Street.
"At night there would be so many people up here - sort of like Sixth Street [today] - that people had to walk in the streets and on the sidewalk," says Lindsey. "I remember Ike & Tina Turner. I remember Tina dancing on the sidewalk and hanging out with the people in the neighborhood. I remember Dr. Hepcat [Reverend Lavada Durst], who was the first black radio announcer that I knew of. All those people helped to make this scene up here a big scene, and they were fun... and I couldn't wait to grow up so I could come up here at night."
By the time Lindsey grew up and came back from college ready to hit the scene, there was hardly a scene left. By the Seventies, the End had all but dried up; by the Eighties, it was damn near a ghetto, plagued by crime, drugs, and decay. The music scene had shriveled near to death; T.D. Bell had retired and gone into the trucking business; no one came around much at night anymore. By their own admission, for good reason or not, they were too damn scared.
There were many reasons for this decline, but chief among them, according to those who've put some thought to it, was desegregation. An undisputed triumph of the Sixties, desegregation unclenched the claws of Jim Crow [the figurative representation of racism], but as urban blacks fought their way to greater equality, a not-so-funny thing happened: Their neighborhoods began to crumble.
As those communities weakened, the black-owned businesses they once supported - the cafes, laundromats, and blues clubs - began to fail, no longer necessary in the brave new world of integration. Aided by commercial flight and institutional indifference, once self-sufficient black neighborhoods fell on hard economic times, a fact that only hastened their decline. Lindsey, Bell, and McMillan all point to desegregation as the beginning of the end for black East Austin.
And as the neighborhood goes, so go the clubs; as East Austin began to splinter and the blues scene moved west of I-35, Austin's own "Little Harlem" - as Johnny Holmes once described the Eastside entertainment district - began a slow fade. By the late Sixties, joints like the Victory and Charlie's Playhouse were losing audience; not long after, they shut their doors, and a district that once supported 10 to 15 clubs a night could scarce lay claim to one.
"Things just started going down," says Bell of those years, talking not just of the clubs, but of the neighborhood. "I don't know what you could call it, but there was more people just hanging out on the streets."
There were many reasons for this, allows Bell, but it soon got to the point where he didn't feel safe hanging out on the streets he once owned.
"Back in the Fifties [when] I used to drink a lot, I used to get off from Good Daddy's at 3-4am, and I'd be so fired up. I'd go and get in my car and go to sleep, with the glasses down. Nobody'd bother me.... You can't stay in there locked up now. Lord no. I wouldn't dare.
"It's not only here in Austin," adds Bell. "I've been in other cities like Houston and it's the same way. Those places that used to jump down there, they're dead. A lot of places torn down. I guess the same thing happened there that happened here."
It happened there as it happened all over the so-called Chitlin' Circuit (the national touring circuit for black musicians) from Houston to Memphis and beyond; historically black blues clubs were shut down and boarded up, their neighborhoods in ruin, their audience scattered in cities that didn't seem to give a damn, fear more common than hope in a landscape growing bleaker by the year.
But hope springs eternal as they say, and there are many who never gave up on East Austin, even when it seemed that the powers-that-be were hell-bent on doing so. Even now, East 11th ain't exactly pretty, but when Eva Lindsey looks out upon it from her perch at the Victory Grill, she sees opportunity.
"I see ruin, and I see growth," she says, taking in the scarred street and seeing promise in all those empty lots. "I see land values that are beginning to soar - that only people with money can buy.... It's not all poverty."
It's not all poverty now, but it wasn't much but poverty a few years back. The community was decimated, live music mostly a memory. Besides the enduring Eastside Lounge [see sidebar], which has provided live blues to the Eastside throughout its darkest hour, there were few places to see a show - the East Room and TC's place on 12th and Airport had music now and then, but nothing regular. A ballyhooed Victory Grill reunion, thrown by Tary Owens at the now-defunct Shorty's Bar in 1987, raised hopes and led to some Westside gigs for the veterans (Bell has been playing the Continental Club ever since with the Blues Specialists), but the anticipated redevelopment of the Eastside entertainment district has stalled.
The reopening of the Victory Grill in 1995 has so far been the most significant step in that revitalization. When Eva Lindsey and R.V. Adams reopened the club, they envisioned a cultural center as much as a music venue, a place that would not only bring live music back to East Eleventh, but host plays, poetry, and mentored workshops as well. More important than the music they've brought in - and they've brought in some damn good music - is the renewal of the "Spirit of the Victory," in Lindsey's words, a spirit of "gathering and celebration" that has too long been missing from East 11th.
While money is still tight, the Victory seems to be on safe footing now. Last November, Lindsey and Adams realized a longstanding dream when their club was formally recognized as a historical landmark, admitted to the National Registry of Historic Places. And just this month, the club received its beer license, a change bound to help the bottom line. Adams, meanwhile, is also moving forward with plans to reopen the grill and hopes to be serving short-order lunch and dinner before the end of the year, as well as late-night grub on show nights.
Harold McMillan is another fellow tied up in that history - a little obsessed by it, even, although Austin wasn't his first home. As director of the DiverseArts Production Group, he sponsors an assortment of cultural programming, from the Women in Jazz concert series to the recently wrapped Austin Jazz & Arts Festival to Carl Settles' after school Revolution of the Bluez project. He also publishes DiverseArts' Austin Downtown Arts magazine and is the main man behind the Blues Family Tree Project, a humanities research archive that collects oral histories and concert tapes from Austin's jazz and blues scene.
Like Lindsey, McMillan sees promise in East Austin, but calls his a "guarded optimism." He's well aware that hope breeds disappointment, that revitalization is a slow and uncertain process. He cites the case of the Eastside Circuit, conceived a couple of years back as an itinerant concert series based on a then-burgeoning strip of Manor Road. Since its inception, the Eastside Circuit has lost four of its five venues: the East Eden Coffee House, the Manor Road Coffee House, the Discovery Incubator, and Cafe Armageddon have all closed their doors - only the Victory Grill remains.
South of the 11th Street corridor, live music in East Austin has had better luck. There are several active Tejano clubs, and the recently opened East First Garden Theater promises to bring a diverse lineup east of I-35. While McMillan continues to produce shows at the Victory, calling it "one of the best rooms in town to listen to live jazz," he's cautious when talking about an Eastside music "scene."
While there can be little doubt that the nightclub circuit is hurting, both McMillan and Lindsey point to evidence of a scene in a broader sense - any environment where people gather to appreciate music. Both talk warmly of the Eastside Lounge, and McMillan talks of the jukebox joints on East 12th - the Aristocrat Inn and the White Swan - as part of a lower-profile music scene. Lindsey mentions the "scene" given birth each Sunday as Austin's Eastside churches get gone spiritually:
"You can go to any church on any Sunday east of 35, pretty much - particularly at the smaller churches - and find an Aretha Franklin," asserts Lindsey. "You'll find [great musicians] all over the community. The talent is incredible."
It's a good point: Any discussion of music on the Eastside that leaves out the churches is telling only half the story, if that.
Still, it's commercial redevelopment that is seen as the key to bringing prosperity back to the neighborhood: You can shout to God all day, but it won't bring in the folding bills. And the biggest hurdle to that redevelopment is what McMillan calls East Austin's "boogerbear": fear. People are still afraid to come to the East 11th area - black folks as well as white - and until that fear is overcome, revitalizing the district will be an uphill battle.
"Folks who are cosmopolitan, world traveler types, who will walk through the French Quarter in New Orleans shitfaced drunk at 3am, are afraid to walk a block in black East Austin," notes McMillan with chagrin.
He says he feels perfectly safe on East 11th even in the dead of night, that the fear is born more of ignorance and stereotype than any real danger.
"People are afraid of poverty," Lindsey says when asked about the neighborhood's rough reputation. "Black people don't want to go back to it, and white people are afraid of it. It's pretty much that simple. And that's what you've got right in this corridor. A decimated area that looks like poverty."
But poverty, she adds, is not dangerous in and of itself.
"I've been here four years," Lindsey says of the Victory, "and never had an incident. Not a car broken into, nothing.... I [do] see kids out here hustling, but I don't see the kind of mayhem that gets described. I never see that, and I've been here all night sometimes."
Lindsey feels that a little more effort from the police department would go a long way towards clearing out the hustlers and changing local perception of the street.
It's a good bet that will happen, sooner or later. Boogerbear or not, the East 11th corridor is poised for redevelopment. The Austin Revitalization Authority holds deed on much of the land in this area, and the wheels of city-sanctioned redevelopment are grinding along, however slowly. Many on the Eastside see redevelopment and an accompanying gentrification as inevitable. As Eastside Lounge proprietor Ira Hill puts it, "They've expanded south, they've expanded west, they've expanded north. Only place left is east."
With a downtown neighborhood not 12 blocks from the Capitol, he's probably right. The hope of Lindsey and McMillan, and scores like them, is to do their part to shape that development, to make sure it will be mindful of the artistic legacy of the area - that it will build on top of, rather than clean over, East Austin's cultural past.
For her part, Lindsey imagines an arts and entertainment district that will not only preserve African-American heritage, but will also bring some sorely needed economic opportunity to the neighborhood. In addition to her work at the Victory, Lindsey runs a business called the Institute for the Preservation of Arts, Culture, and Entertainment (IPACE), aimed at cultural preservation on Austin's Eastside.
"I think it has very significant value in the self-esteem of a people to know that everything that we brought to the culture of this city doesn't get archived in the library," she says. "I believe that the revitalization of a people is more than building buildings, putting money in, and painting streets. I look at it as educating people."
As director of DiverseArts, McMillan obviously agrees, spending a good part of his time producing concerts that showcase the African-American arts heritage. McMillan hopes that Eastside redevelopment leads to the rehabilitation of the residential community as well, heralding a return to the sense of community that prevailed in pre-integration black East Austin.
"What I envision is an important historic area of the city that Austin in general is proud of," posits McMillan, "[an area] that has businesspeople and tourists of all different kinds of colors and economic levels.... It can be another 'showcase' neighborhood - safe, attractive and with all the amenities including live music."
Big talk, and a long way from coming. McMillan and Lindsey realize that it is more hope than the here and now - that East 11th is a long, long way from being a showcase neighborhood. But the history, heritage, and increasingly prime real estate are already there, as are some tireless community advocates, and when redevelopment finally happens - and there are few in the neighborhood who doubt it will happen - they want a voice in how it proceeds.
Outside the Victory Grill on a Thursday afternoon, the talk is a little less restrained. A young street poet named David is declaiming for tips, spitting verse about hope, hate, and revolution through broken teeth. It is evident that he's just as tired of the bureaucratic shuffle as Lindsey and McMillan are, except he's not pulling any punches. Strident stuff, but he finishes with a smile.
"People all around this town think the way I do," he says. "It's startin' to come together like a jigsaw puzzle."
He starts to sing: "We're not gonna take it, no, we're not gonna take it. We're not gonna take it anymore."
He moves on down the road, turns the corner, and disappears into black East Austin.
There was little talk of revolution at the Eastside Lounge on the soggy summer evening of a recent visit, however. Talk was more about whether Jordan and the Bulls could hold off Bird and the Pacers (they could), the best way to beat the heat (cold beer, of course), and the tear-'em-up blues of Hosea Hargrove and the Enter City Band. The place was packed, perhaps the jumpinest place in town on this Sunday night, and the parking lot filled to overflowing with easy laughter and backslappin' camaraderie of folks who've known each other a long time.
Hargrove and his band tore through three sets of roadhouse blues, not all of it great, but a long ways from bad at any rate, and by the end of the night the only place more crowded than the bar was the dance floor. At a table in the corner sat Tyler D., his head crowned by a bright red ballcap bearing his initials, cold beer in hand, and both eyes on the show - a show that's likely not a far cry from a few he's played himself in 50 years of Eastside work.
A good show, and if Bell had his way, or Lindsey or McMillan or a host of other Eastside activists, there would be more like it, up and down the Eastside, a choice of live music seven nights a week - a bona fide scene that would recall the days of the Paradise, Derby, and the Playhouse, with folks spilling into the streets, laughing, talking, and tapping their toes, happy, safe, and bathed in 12-bar bliss.
Back on the street corner, in the late-morning sun, Bell takes another glance at East 11th, the street that was once the lifeline for a whole community, and reflects on a future he may not be around to see.
"I think if we had more nicer clubs, and we could get these people off the street, sitting around, standing around all day and all night... if they clean the streets up, it might get a little better. I think that's what it will take."
He points towards the Victory Grill, and allows a little hope to creep into his voice.
"This here may bring people back."
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