“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXVIII– Hyde Park: “The Pride of Austin”

You can always tell that a brand is successful when it becomes a generic name. We all blow our noses into “Kleenex” and cover our cuts with “Band-Aids,” and in the South anyway, all soft drinks are “Cokes,” regardless of whether or not they are actually Coca-Colas. And in the limited confines of Austin, the Hyde Park neighborhood has become a brand name. Realtors advertise “Hyde Park-style bungalows” in trendy neighborhoods like Clarksville and Travis Heights. And many people like to think of Hyde Park as being everything from the UT campus up to, say, Koenig, and from Lamar to IH-35, when in fact the neighborhood technically only runs from Thirty-eighth to Forty-fifth and Guadalupe to Duval. Clearly there’s something about Hyde Park a lot of people want.

The area that now comprises Hyde Park was once a Native American camp site, filled with a forest of post oaks, but when the nearby State Lunatic Asylum was opened in the late 1850s, the Indians moved over to Mount Bonnell. The Anglos didn’t want to give the Indians a chance to reconsider, so they cut the forest down for timber and firewood.

The land passed through various hands from 1840 to 1875, when it was taken over by the Capital State Fair Association and became the site of livestock sales, agricultural displays, horse races, and a 300-foot-long grandstand. Some say the curve on East 39th Street follows one of the turns of the old horse track. The Fair went bankrupt in 1884, then moved to Dallas in 1886, where it has remained. The land then went through a period where it was used by the National Guard for drills and mock battles, and by evangelists and “Holy Roller” groups for tent revivals.

A group of investors bought the land in 1890, but when one of them was named Ambassador to Turkey they sold it to Monroe M. Shipe, an investor from Abilene, Kansas. Apparently Shipe wanted to convert the property into a rail yard for the M.K. & T. Railroad, but when that deal fell through he decided to develop Austin’s first planned suburb, to be named “Hyde Park,” presumably after the famous green spot in London.

Shipe’s advertisements through the years are quite telling:

“Hyde Park, The Pride Of Austin….

“On the banks of one [of ‘two elegant lakes’] is a magnificent opera house, the resort of the refined and cultured society of Austin, on the banks of the other will soon be erected a sculptor’s studio by Elisabet Ney, the celebrated German sculptress, grand-niece of Marshal Ney, who will also erect for herself a magnificent winter home. Her genius and artistic taste will make this little lake and that part of Hyde Park addition especially attractive to the scholar and lover of art.

“Hyde Park property will always command a good price because it will be the fashionable part of the wealthiest and most aristocratic ward in the city….”  (1892)

“This is, without doubt, the most perfect residence portion of the city of Austin, and is improving faster than any other part of the city.

“It is as smooth as a carpet and lies 185 feet above the river.

“The landscape is beautiful.–The soil is the very best….

“One of the best city schools is in Hyde Park. Here are letter boxes and free mail delivery twice a day….

“Hyde Park is Strictly for White People….

“Every man and woman in Austin who works for a salary should invest in Hyde Park now….” (1898)

“6 2-3 CENTS A DAY or $2.00 a month will pay for a lot in Hyde Park….

“ELECTRIC LIGHTS: An 8-roomed house can be lighted for $1.00 a month if a meter is used….

“DUST AND MUD: We are free from filth….

“CLASS OF PEOPLE: We sell only to respectable WHITE PEOPLE….

“$1.00 a day would pay for 15 lots, NEARLY A WHOLE BLOCK. There are many men in Austin who squander as much as $1.00 a day….

“HYDE PARK ANNEX…The prices range from $60 to $100 [per] lot. This you can pay for at the rate of 5 cents per day, or $1.50 per month, only the cost of a glass of beer each day. Two lots would cost less than one glass of whisky each day.” (1899)

“NO BONUS, PREMIUM, DISCOUNT OR ATTORNEY’S FEES TO PAY.

“The RENT you pay would almost meet the payments on a new home as good as you are living in….

“THINK OF IT. The price of TWO BEERS each day will pay for a lot….

“We sell only to WHITE PEOPLE….

“RAILROAD fare paid by us to any person wishing to invest who lives within 200 miles of Austin.” (1904)

There is some small comfort to be derived from the knowledge that our great-grandparents also lived in the days of the dicey real estate promotions, but while they never got a chance at an Orlando vacation in exchange for an afternoon of hard-selling at “Lost Deer Estates,” they also never got bothered on the phone during dinner by a recording of some huckster pretending he was continuing a constructive conversation from the previous week. Still, I’m glad I don’t live in an age when the beer-to-real estate ratio is low; I have enough to feel guilty about as it is without despairing that I drank away my chances at becoming a land baron.

Appealing to a potential buyer’s racial prejudices, sense of thrift, and snobbishness wasn’t enough, so in 1891 Shipe built a five-mile electric streetcar line that ran up Guadalupe, went east down 40th, north up Avenue G, and west along Forty-third, before going south down Avenue B. He also extended North Congress up to Hyde Park, where the street was referred to as “Speedway,” because it was such a straight, flat surface for buggy races. He planted foliage to provide the streets with shade in the day, and in 1895 erected the first of the city’s distinctive “Moonlight Towers” to illuminate them at night.

Shipe also developed the Austin Rapid Transit Park in the southwest part of Hyde Park, on the site of what is now the Baker Center campus of the Austin Independent School District. Here were shallow lakes for boating, lawns for picnicking, and a pavilion for dances and shows.

By 1896 259 lots had been sold and the Hyde Park Baptist Church built its first sanctuary. In 1904 Shipe changed his pitch and began marketing to the middle class. Not long after this, the Avenue B Grocery opened, and it’s still in business to this day. Another early business was the Hyde Park Cash Grocery on Forty-first, which at some point hired a kid named “Fatty Fariss” to sit in a tree outside the store and serve as a human billboard. Fatty stayed up there fourteen days, living off the food people threw him. Yes, almost a century before TV execs came up with “The Biggest Loser,” Austinites were entertaining themselves by making fun of the overweight.

Monroe Shipe died in 1924, the same year a building boom started that filled Hyde Park with the bungalows that are its trademark. Still, the neighborhood lost none of its aristocratic attitudes. As late as 1941, the “Junior Rocket,” the newspaper of Baker Junior High, published the following directives on the proper behavior of boys: “A perfect gentleman must be mannerly and orderly in all places. By all means don’t go around snatching girls’ purses, after all she does receive personal notes now and then. When on a date, he must throw out his beloved chewing gum, and for heaven’s sake if there is anything a girl dislikes it is the unpleasant odor of onions, so leave off the onions for supper. A boy must not act silly or smarty, he must have high principles, moral stability, and punctuality. Although he shouldn’t act like a sissy, he must be gentlemanly…Advice from a girl.”

So, apart from the occasional petit larceny and gender confusion amongst its youth, Hyde Park was a veritable paradise in those days.

The streetcar line was decommissioned in 1941, and the postwar housing shortage led many home owners to convert their houses into multi-tenant rental units. Hyde Park began to lose its luster. When the Baby Boomers started going to college in the ‘60s and early ‘70s many of the old houses in the neighborhood were torn down and replaced by some truly hideous apartment buildings.

UT officials got itchy to expand the campus north, but fortunately young couples had started moving into the neighborhood and restoring the houses, and in 1974 they formed the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, though Hyde Park didn’t get its National Register status until 1990. The 1980s and ‘90s saw renovations and real estate prices increase, but it was also during that time that the “Hyde Park Rapist” preyed on the neighborhood. Friction also developed between residents and the Hyde Park Baptist Church, as the latter tore down older structures and erected huge church and school buildings and parking garages which the former said were not in keeping with Hyde Park’s look and atmosphere.

For the last forty years one musician after another has been trotted before the public to be proclaimed “the new Bob Dylan.” Likewise we in Austin are always hearing this neighborhood or that named “the new Hyde Park.” Of course, many people can’t afford Hyde Park, but still aspire to its small town homeyness and high dollar cachet, so they go for the closest fashionable thing. Still, nothing beats the original, because for over a century Hyde Park has represented the gold standard of what Austinites look for in a neighborhood.

—July 13, 2006

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