(originally published in Dec. 2008, but valid today)
Singer-songwriter Charlie Faye had finally felt at home in a place all her own. In April, the 27-year-old native New Yorker moved into the longtime musician enclave of cottages on Wilson Street in South Austin, where her rent is $495 a month.
“I’m sure there are plenty of people who would never want to live here,” said the petite country-blues singer. “It’s a bit of a slum, but I wouldn’t move from here to the trendiest downtown loft if you paid me.” Besides the affordability, what she really loves about the dozen cottages gathered around a common walkway and courtyard is the sense of community.
Fellow resident Jess Klein, also a singer-songwriter from New York, said she’s never lived in such a musical environment. “We have these spontaneous potluck dinners, and we pull out our guitars and sing until two o’clock in the morning sometimes, and nobody tells us to keep it down.”
Carved into the concrete on Faye’s front steps was the name “Charlie,” which she took as a good omen. But only two months into her residency, she was deflated to find that the cottages were earmarked to be razed and replaced by the Flats on Wilson condo project. Ely Properties, which manages the cottages for owner Mitch Ely’s Cobalt Partners, offered residents $50, then $100 to re-sign leases that ended on Sept. 30, 2008. Everyone took the money except Faye, even though her six-month lease was up Oct. 8. “I had just found this magical community,” she said, “and I wasn’t ready to give it up.” Norma Rae meet Charlie Faye, a compulsive list-maker who filled her notebooks with things to do, people to call and e-mail and the occasional set of song lyrics.
There used to be places like this all over town. There was the “Willie Hilton,” a cluster of shotgun shacks off Academy Drive co-owned by Willie Nelson, the “Red River Motors” bus/ hovel complex near Rainey Street, and the Ark Co-op in West Campus, where the vending machines were stocked with cans of beer. In the ’70s and ’80s, Austin was rich with communal places where musicians and artists could afford to live and create without having to work straight jobs. But they’re almost all gone.
Faye first approached the Dawson Neighborhood Association, which already had approved the condo project, and told the members about the history of “Hillbilly Heights,” as the cottages are nicknamed. She became very unpopular, she said, at Ely Properties. “I heard that my nickname there was ‘the Piranha,’” said Faye, who threatened a valid petition to save the cottages. Among those rumored to have lived in the facing rows of 1940s cottages, which were moved to the 2600 block of Wilson Street from just east of the University of Texas campus in the late 1960s, are Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lucinda Williams and former Faces bassist Ronnie Lane. Friends confirm the residencies of Williams and Lane, but when the Historical Landmark Commission did research into the property after Cobalt filed for a demolition permit, no one could find proof that Vaughan ever lived there. Although the list of former residents, including Carolyn Wonderland, Amy Boone of the Damnations, Will Sexton, Roger Wallace and members of the Gourds did not rate “the necessary extraordinary significance to warrant landmark designation,” the Commission recommended that the cottages be relocated rather than demolished.
Faye started meeting in July with City Council aides and members of the Planning Commission, trying to drum up interest in her salvation effort. She was galvanized, she said, to find that she had a lot of allies in city government. “We support affordable housing for everyone,” said Planning Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan, who also is a member of the Live Music Task Force. “But because musicians give so much to the community, they should get special consideration. We can keep and grow existing local businesses better if we have a healthy music and arts community.”
At the meeting for a zoning change request in August, Sullivan chastised Cobalt representatives for not offering a plan to assist those who would be displaced by the condos. Soon after, Cobalt and Faye reached a deal in which the singer would get six of the cottages, the maximum number before the project would be classified as commercial, and $31,000 to move them. Until that happens, tenants are on month-to-month leases. For his trouble, house mover Oliver Billingsley will take possession of the remaining six cottages, to move and eventually sell. Cobalt consultant Mike McHone (who said he found no evidence of Faye’s “Piranha” nickname) said the money Billingsley will receive is about what it would have cost to demolish the cottages.
This all might not happen for several months, McHone said, as the condo project is still in the review and approval process at the city. A date to break ground has not been set. After making the deal with Cobalt and Billingsley on Oct. 16, Faye (whose real name is Lauren Faye Burgreen, but everyone calls her Charlie, the name she performs under) still needed a place to eventually move the cottages. “I don’t have any money, but I do have good credit, so I thought I might take out a loan” to buy land, she said. Klein has a friend who works for architect Lars Stanley, who heard about the Wilson Street dilemma and got University of Texas architecture professor Stephen Ross in touch with Faye.
Earlier this year Ross and three associates, including filmmaker Richard Linklater, started the Design Build Alliance, a nonprofit group to build low-cost housing in Austin. A model is Auburn University’s Rural Studio, which gets students involved in designing and building housing for folks in impoverished Hale County, Ala. Design Build Alliance co-founder Jack Sanders is a graduate of the Rural Studio program. Faye smiled broadly when she recalled meeting Ross at the cottages about six weeks ago. “He just came out and said, ‘I get it,’” she said. “He was on board right away.”
What Ross found was a vibrant colony of like-minded souls. “I was struck with how the residents ‘claimed’ and inhabited the place,” Ross said in an e-mail. “Charlie and I were sitting on the steps and up walks (guitarist) Scrappy Jud Newcomb, then (singer-songwriter) Walter Tragert. Screen doors were open. Everyone knew each other and seemed genuinely happy to encounter each other. Almost like a big happy extended family.” The next week, Ross set up a meeting with Design Build Alliance treasurer Linklater. “We sat down and Charlie and I explained (the project to relocate the cottages),” Ross said. “Rick always asks very good, pointed questions. This time, before even asking any questions, he said we should do it.”
On Nov. 18, Ross and Design Build Alliance co-founder Chris Krager met with Faye, Klein and others to look at 21/2 acres of land for sale in East Austin near Red Bluff Road. A coffeehouse and a possible health clinic/community center also are in the plans for the musicians’ village the alliance has in mind. The land, which abuts the Colorado River, is listed for nearly $700,000. If that location doesn’t work out, Ross said, Design Build Alliance will keep looking. The plan is for Linklater to fund the project, then be repaid without interest, at a break-even rate. When the cottages are relocated, the current resident musicians will have first dibs and pay about the same amount of rent they’re paying now. “We have all pledged to make this happen,” Ross said.
The Wilson Street cottage relocation is the third project for the alliance and easily its largest undertaking to date. Recently, Design Build Alliance purchased a lot in East Austin and is building a duplex for the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, which will make it available to longtime residents of the neighborhood who earn less than 50 percent of the median income. Ross said the hope is that the Wilson Street cottages venture will be a model for other affordable housing projects. And Faye’s fight might inspire others to stand up for what they believe in, even when they’re vastly outweighed.
Born in New York City, where her father had a dermatology practice, Faye found her activism streak while attending Oberlin College in Ohio. While in college, she worked as editor of The Objector, the newsletter of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. But no cause has stirred her to action, she said, like the struggle to rescue what she calls, “not only a part of Austin history, but one of the last few affordable places in town for musicians to live.” If all goes to plan, there will be spiffy new condos at 2610 Wilson Street next year. But Charlie Faye will still be living in the rundown 600-square-foot cottage that once had bulldozers in its future. Like her treasured 1952 Gibson J-45 guitar, Faye’s home is timeworn and ragged. But no place has ever resonated so deeply with her. “I don’t like new things,” she said, wearing vintage cowboy boots and a peasant dress, sitting on her Salvation Army couch. “I like things that have some soul.”