Dozen Street Bar Preserves a Bit of What East Austin Was
With each day, East Austin residents greet new construction workers and neighbors as their community changes with gentrification. Since 2014, though, one thing has remained constant on the corner of 12th and Chicon.
Wednesday night is “Butter n Jam” night at Dozen Street Bar.
Formerly Club 1808, the East Austin dive bar snug between a New Orleans po’ boy shop and a skee-ball bar opened in 2014 as Dozen Street by Madi Distefano. Distefano had just moved to Austin from Philadelphia and was looking to open in a bar in an area that was more diverse than what she saw in Austin’s popular bar districts.
“I moved here and checked out the bar culture of Austin, I went down Rainy Street, Sixth and East Sixth, and South Congress,” Distefano said. “A lot of those properties were really expensive, first of all, but second of all, I would go to four to five bars in a row and not see any people of color and that really bothered me coming from Philly.”
Distefano soon settled on 12th and Chicon because she saw its diversity and because it was of the few commercial strips in East Austin that was zoned to sell alcohol. With a location in place, she realized that for her to be welcomed by her new community, she needed programming that could cater to East Austin residents old and new.
“If you’re going to have young white tattooed hipsters, and old black neighbors that have lived in their grandparents house two blocks away their entire life in the same place, you need music that could bring them together,” she said.
After speaking with musicians around town, Madi realized a night dedicated to funk, soul, and R&B was needed. That’s when “Butter N Jam” was born.
“I started Butter N Jam with a guitarist from Philly named Dave Manly,” Madi said. “He said Austin needs a vibe night because there are all these great musicians that do funk soul, hip hop, jazz rap, but end up backing these weddings and events, they don’t ever get to jam.”
Madi invited these soul musicians to play every Wednesday night at Dozen Street and named the event “Butter n Jam.” For those that participate, like M.C. C.J Edwards, “Butter N Jam” is about more than music, it’s a place for people to release.
“Butter N Jam is a vibe session. What we mean by vibe is creating a space, a safe spot, for people to come and breathe,” Edwards said. “It’s in the middle of the week, it’s an improvisational understanding of whatever story you go through. It’s like how people use church. You come there to release.”
Now “Butter N Jam” is in it’s fourth year, and locals are acknowledging it as one of the few East Austin events that caters to the native community.
“Dozen Street is one of the coolest things that happens in East Austin,” says, Harold McMillan. “They’ve managed to grow some community around musicians and locals, a little microcosm of what the neighborhood still has.”
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. As new bars pop up all over East Austin, McMillan acknowledged Dozen Street for their programing that honors the African-American history of the neighborhood.
“Regardless of who lives here, we need to continue to do programming like Dozen Street 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.”
Dozen Street recreates a little of what East Austin used to be in the 1960’s and 70’s, a dynamic hub for blues and soul music.
“The streets out here were smoking, every night was like a parade,” Austin blues guitarist Matthew Robinson said sitting in the backyard patio of Dozen Street. “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 which brought iconic music acts from B.B. King to Sam Cooke to East Austin on a tour through America’s segregated cities. 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.
“What we’re getting now in East Austin is like a theme park,” University of Texas Musicology Professor Charles Carson 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.
The change highlights why places like Dozen Street are so important. While Maid acknowledges that her bar could be viewed as part of the problem, she hopes her focus on inclusivity and eclectic programing mitigates some of the issues come with gentrification.
“I am a white business owner, I am here at 12th and Chicon, but it could be a lot worse, it could be TGI Fridays, you know what I mean,” Madi said. “I don’t know what I can do to stop (gentrification), nothing probably, but I actually have women, people of color, people in the LGBTQ community come up to me and say, ‘I just want you to know that this is the only place I feel comfortable going to by myself. I know I’m always welcome at Dozen Street."