East Austin’s Music Scene Evolves to Face Realities of Gentrification
Music permeates the night air on the corner of East 6th and Onion in East Austin. Drowned out hip-hop beats and punk guitar riffs flow out of Volstead Lounge and Hotel Vegas. Yuppies wearing vintage band tee-shirts stream in and out of bars. It’s the epicenter of a vibrant East Austin music scene that locals aren’t saying is better now than it was before gentrification.
“I don't think you can put it like that, better now or better before,” Austin blues guitarist Matthew Robinson said sitting in the backyard of Dozen Street bar in East Austin. “I’d say its evolved, each section of it.”
Robinson had just performed in Dozen Street’s Monday night blues jam, reminding him of what East Austin used to feel like when he grew up there in the 1960s and 70s.
“The streets out here were smoking, every night was like a parade,” he said. “You had blues, soul, jazz, scientists, poets, everything. It’s a little bit like that at Dozen Street now. You never know what you’re going to get here.”
The lively east side Robinson remembers was energized by the Chitlin Circuit, an initiative that brought iconic music acts from B.B. King to Sam Cooke to East Austin on a tour through America’s segregated cities. Locals and venue owners believe East Austin is again a dynamic place to play and see live music, but its gentrified roots have shifted the scene away from natives and closer to East Austin’s new residents.
“There weren't music venues on the east side before gentrification,” said one venue owner, Topaz McGarrigle. “Gentrification, if anything, brought live music back to East Austin.”
McGarrigle and his mother, Eileen Bristol, own and operate Sahara Lounge, an eclectic East Austin music lounge that is described by locals as “the way Austin used to be” on its website.
What exactly East Austin “used to be” depends on who you talk to, but it’s a image U.T. Musicology Professor Charles Carson feels other new music venues in town are leveraging to promote business.
“What we’re getting in East Austin is like a theme park,” he said. “They kind of fixated on the weirdness and now they’re using that to curate their bars to people who can afford a $14 drink, but are a whole different demographic than those who created the scene.”
Carson believes this has shifted genre as well. “The venues and bars that are opening are shifting towards a whiter audience. More indie pop, less soul,” he said.
Harold McMillan also criticized clubs in East Austin. He said they could place more effort on honoring the historical neighborhood but saw the shift in genre as a symptom of the new East Austin. McMillan is the owner and director of Diverse Arts, an arts organization that works to promote, celebrate, and preserve art from African-American culture in Austin.
McMillan did acknowledge that gentrification has allowed East Austin to accommodate venues such as Dozen Street and Sahara Lounge that do honor and attract the neighborhood’s native music community.
“Dozen Street is one of the coolest things that happens in East Austin,” McMillan said. “They’ve managed to grow some community around musicians and locals, a little microcosm of what the neighborhood still has.”
Dozen Street also hosts “Butter and Jam” on Wednesdays, an open mic soul music jam. Jon Deas is on the keyboard every week. Even if the community around him is changing with each show, he finds unity getting the chance to play music every week.
“I can’t speak for the older guys who used to play blues down here,” he said. “But we’re here to just hang, jam, and share our art and talent with the community, no matter who it may be.”
McMillan stressed the importance of the rest of East Austin diversifying its arts programming as Dozen Street does.
“Regardless of who lives here, we need to continue to do programming that honors the African American past of this community,” he said. “People need to be reminded of where they are because the past of this community isn’t going anywhere.”
Although McMillan acknowledged there is work to do, East Austin has shown its focused on preserving its history. In 1998, the historic Victory Grill was added to the National Register of Historic Places, in large part because of the efforts of Eva Lindsey. The club is open today, but only on a part-time basis and has to be booked special events.
Lindsey’s father worked at Victory Grill as an electrician and Lindsey took over management of the Victory Grill in the 90s. Preservation offers her closure with the reality that East Austin’s past is far in the rearview now.
“I think those days are behind us,” she said. “That’s why I’m really glad I saved the Victory Grill, for me saving is all we can do.”