By Michael Cororan
Red River Street was at the eastern edge of Austin when the street plan was laid out by Edwin Waller, Austin’s first mayor, in 1839. It became a main north-south thoroughfare because Red River is the only street north of Pecan (Sixth) Street and east of Congress Ave. that wasn’t uphill. Red River was home to wagon yards before automobile businesses like Raven’s Garage (605 Red River) opened in the 1920s.
The diverse neighborhood was nicknamed Germantown after the colony of immigrants who settled around 10th and Red River in the mid-1800s, with the German Free School and Aloes Wulz Grocery anchoring the community. Ida Pecht, the daughter of German immigrants, grew up on Red River between Hickory (8th St.) and Ash (9th St.) She married Andrew Zilker in 1888 and bore him four children. The family had planned to build a mansion on Barton Springs, but after Ida died in 1916, a distraught Zilker donated the land to the city as a park.
For most of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the strip was dominated by used furniture stores and junk shops with names like Williams Do-Rite Swap Shop, Fairyland Antiques, Dutch Meyer’s Trading Post, Red River Rats, Hurt’s Hunting Grounds and J.B. Branton. Most of those buildings are nightclubs today. Snooper’s Paradise, the inspiration of Doug Sahm’s Austin anthem “Groover’s Paradise,” at 705 Red River was later the location of country-western clubs, gay bars, hip hop clubs and rock bars. As the Cave Club, the location introduced industrial music to Texas in the ’80s. It’s been home to Elysium since 2001.
Although Red River began to be known as Austin’s live music district in the ‘90s, with Emo’s and Stubb’s leading the way for the Mohawk, Beerland, Club DeVille, Room 710 and others, this strip was where the earliest Austin hippies went before the Vulcan and the Armadillo opened. Red River gave birth to psychedelic rock in 1966, when the 13th Floor Elevators debuted their first single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” at the New Orleans Club. Janis Joplin sang just steps away at the 11th Door that same year. Those nascent Austin clubs were where Symphony Square is today.
Red River had an edge, but the flow was inclusion. During the era of segregration, black-owned businesses were next door to white-owned ones on Red River from Sixth to 15th Streets. This was as close to the East Side, both spiritually and physically, as you could get in downtown Austin.
Sam Lung, whose Cantonese father moved to Texas in the 1890s to work building railroads, opened Austin’s first Chinese restaurant at 1128 Red River in 1946. The menu of Lung’s Chinese Kitchen gave instructions on how to use chopsticks, as Austin’s ethnic/exotic food scene was born.
The Red River walk has always had a bit of an outlaw swagger. In the early ‘90s, the BYOB Cavity Club installed a half-pipe for skateboarders. Miss Laura of the Blue Flamingo turned her drag bar into a punk club, with the action spilling out onto the street. At 900 Red River, Chances was that rare lesbian bar that booked indie rock bands, like 16 Deluxe, Glass Eye and Sincola- a wild hybrid that brought different cultures together. That open clientele policy continues at Cheer-Up Charlies in the same former car lot office location.
Red River was where you could buy a stack of Playboys as a teenager and nobody would ask for an ID. Each shop had its own personality. Donald’s Used Furniture used to keep a 500-lb bale of cotton in the store. Dutch “the Mayor of Red River” Meyer proudly displayed a gruesome framed photo showing Mussolini just minutes after he was killed.
The 1915 Waller Creek Flood washed away a whole block of houses on E. 7th St., but that’s nothing compared to the early ‘70s wrecking balls that wiped away all of Red River from 10th St. to 19th St. (MLK today) as part of the Brackenridge Urban Renewal Project. Many of the displaced businesses were black-owned, causing detractors to term the project “urban removal.”
Simon Sidle, a son of freed slaves, helped establish Red River as “antique row” when he opened his first shop in 1917 at 807 Red River. That block, currently the site of Stubb’s, had housed a shop by dressmaker Marguerite Skillings in the late 1800s, with master shoemaker Martias Lohmuller setting up a couple doors down. The distinctive rockwork was done years later by Chester Burratti’s Mexican crew, many of whom camped on Waller Creek where Stubb’s outdoor stage is. When namesake Chris “Stubb” Stubblefield saw the homeless encampment behind his new BBQ joint in ’96, he declared it to be Hell’s Half Acre, “which makes it right for us.”
Perhaps no business exemplifies the maverick spirit of the long, flat street than the One Knite, Austin’s most notorious dive bar. Opened in 1970, the O.K. corralled the local blues scene long before Clifford Antone opened his namesake club on Sixth Street in 1975. The Vaughan brothers, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Gilmore and many more got their starts at the One Knite. W.C. Clark quit his job in Joe Tex’s band and started a group with Angela Strehli when he experienced the One Knite scene. It was all about the blues, as one British band of note found out in 1971. Pink Floyd had just played a show at the Municipal Auditorium and the members wanted to unwind with a jam session. The music drew them to the One Knite, but when they said they didn’t know any Jimmy Reed or Freddie King, they were turned away from the stage and sulked in the dark side of the room. The Armadillo World Headquarters, which also opened in 1970, was getting all the press, but the scruffy One Knite, where Banditos bikers sat next to LBJ’s Secret Service, was where the Austin club scene, the one that lives on today, was being born.