Bike Tour Highlights Austin’s Preservation Successes and Challenges

Posted on: April 19th, 2011 by Guest Writer

Written by Ellen Davis

View of Austin skyline from Long Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo: Ellen Davis)

View of Austin skyline from Long Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo: Ellen Davis)

The 2010 National Preservation Conference in Austin was outstanding, but the best part for me came during the three-hour bike ride around Austin. At the beginning of the ride, we passed through an old Hispanic neighborhood downtown. This neighborhood is the site of the city’s new Mexican American Cultural Center. Unfortunately, this cute neighborhood is located right on the edge of Austin’s growing convention center district.  Most of the houses have been demolished to make way for commercial structures and the few remaining houses are in very poor condition.

We took our first rest break in an area of town called Clarksville, which was founded by freed slaves. There are not many African-Americans living in Clarksville today due to gentrification of the area. In fact, the Sunday after the conference ended, the Austin American-Statesman featured Clarksville in its real estate section. A 1,344-square foot 1920s cottage in the neighborhood was on the market for $429,900. An 836-square foot cottage was on the market for $299,900. We enjoyed drinks and snacks with members of the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, which was built in 1871. One of my fellow Texas Scholars is trying to raise funds to restore the church, which has been the cornerstone of the community.

Bike Tour rest stop at German Free School, headquarters of the German-Texas Heritage Society. (Photo: Ellen Davis)

Bike Tour rest stop at German Free School, headquarters of the German-Texas Heritage Society. (Photo: Ellen Davis)

Our second rest stop was at the headquarters of the German-Texas Heritage Society, which is housed in a limestone building that was constructed in 1857 as a school for the children of German immigrants. Our tour organizers even had homemade apple strudel brought up from New Braunfels. The building’s tree-lined property is a beautiful oasis in the heart of downtown. We also stopped near another historic limestone building that bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the buildings on the campus of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where I work. I wondered if the two were designed by the same architect.

Seeing the historic buildings that remain in Austin made me realize how beautiful a city it must have been before the state government expanded its presence in the city and many of the historic buildings were destroyed to make room for nondescript office buildings and parking garages.  The tour underscored for me a statement that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on the day of the bike tour − the National Trust chose Austin for its 2010 national conference because of its preservation successes and challenges. We certainly saw both in the course of the tour.  The tour also was a great example of how bike tours can be used as a way to promote heritage tourism and get people excited about historic preservation. I would like to commend the people who worked hard to make the bike tour possible and encourage anyone who plans to attend future National Trust conferences to consider signing up for the bike tour!

Ellen Davis is a National Trust member who lives in Georgetown, Texas. She blogs about her neighborhood at aroundoldtown.blogspot.com. She attended the 2010 National Preservation Conference through the Statewide and Local Scholars Program.

Would you like to attend the National Preservation Conference on a scholarship? We are now accepting applications for this year’s conference, which will take place in Buffalo, New York from October 19-22. The deadline to apply is June 1, 2011.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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