When my former employer, an internet-only radio station from Cincinnati, decided to relocate to Austin’s South Congress Avenue in 2009, the first thing I heard about our new studio location was that it had formerly been an X-rated theater. My favorite thing about the building was that it still had the original marquee on the exterior, but I had little knowledge of the actual history.
When the seven-hundred-seat location opened in the summer of 1939 as The Austin Theater, it was a genuine movie palace playing first-run movies. By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood around it had deteriorated, and the theater survived as Cinema West for 21 years, serving what a newspaper advertisement for its 1977 opening weekend dubbed “Austin’s sexually sophisticated adult community.”
For many younger Texans these days, it’s hard to fathom a time when South Congress wasn’t a trendy stretch of beloved local restaurants and boutique retailers. But those who have been around since the nineties know that this now-iconic area once had a much different reputation.
When construction of Interstate 35 was completed in 1962, the importance of South Congress as a primary artery into downtown lessened considerably. The previously bustling neighborhood transformed over time into a seedy area frequented by prostitutes and drug addicts. If you’re having trouble picturing what that would have looked like, a documentary that premiered at the virtual edition of the SXSW Film Festival this week has you covered.
Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San José is the first feature film directed by Liz Lambert. (An earlier version of the film was released in 2005.) By 1995, she had quit her job as a lawyer in Manhattan and returned home to Texas, buying the San José Motel at 1316 South Congress for $550,000 with little more than hope and a prayer for its future success. Her initial plan was to close the property, spend a year renovating the run-down units, and then reopen with a new and improved space. Lambert quickly realized it would take much longer. The motel had been renting dilapidated rooms by the week; many guests were used to calling the San José home for an extended period of time. Others visited by the hour. For nearly three years after her initial purchase of the property, she continued to run the day-to-day operations without any real changes, because a lack of funding left the project in limbo. And while she nagged guests for late payment and interacted with an evolving cast of characters, she captured it all on film (sometimes through the plexiglass safety window at the front desk, hence the title).
The film features minimal narration, which is simultaneously fascinating and irritating. I would’ve liked more context than just combining the check-in security footage with what must have been hundreds of hours worth of interviews Lambert shot while talking with the tenants. Even with that drawback, if there is one thing that is instantly clear from watching the film, it is the incredible empathy Lambert exhibited toward the motel’s clientele.
It’s clear that the San José was a bridge that helped some Texans get to the next chapters of their lives. For those who couldn’t earn enough money for a deposit on more permanent accommodations, or those who faced addictions that made full-time employment difficult, the motel kept them from having to live on the streets. Lambert’s compassionate nature is obvious in the footage, and it made me respect her more as a person, not just for her renowned business acumen. For a brief time within those walls, the San José was home to a gloriously motley crew that seemed to find their chosen family.
The story that stuck with me the most was that of Diana Barnes, a single mother struggling to pull herself and her teenage son, Gary, out of poverty. The San José was not, by any definition of the word, nice, and at times the area was actually unsafe (in one scene, Lambert pulls a T-shirt soaked in blood out of a trash can). After Barnes was struck by a vehicle outside the motel, she got on the radar of a social worker who helped her start the process of finding an apartment. And, despite all of the daily responsibilities of property management, it was Lambert who drove Diana and Gary with all of their belongings across town to start a new life.
We also meet an eighteen-year-old boy who becomes the motel’s de-facto housekeeper to raise money for college; a Sixth Street busker; a young father who sends what he can of his meager earnings to his kids in another state; a struggling musician who earns a record deal during his stay; and a woman who discusses her short-term sobriety while acknowledging some of the less-than-legal experiences she had inside the motel.
All of the long-term residents were forced to relocate once a bank loan finally did come through, paving the way for renovations to begin in earnest. The resurrection of the property in 2000 as the Hotel San José helped to kick off a renewed wave of gentrification that eventually made South Congress the stylish destination it is today. A night at the property as it stands now can run more than $500. In the early years of Lambert’s ownership, that could have kept a roof over your head for several months, albeit in far less ideal conditions.
With her filmmaking debut, Lambert has taken care to ensure that music is almost as important of a component in the documentary as the footage itself. She entrusted the original score to local musicians Stephen Barber and Charlie Sexton, and also delivers a well-curated soundtrack that features Fiona Apple, Wilco, Leon Bridges, and Lucinda Williams, whose iconic “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” pays tender tribute to the former residents of the San José over the end credits.
Without Lambert’s vision and desire to give the San José a new lease on life more than 25 years ago, it’s very possible that South Congress Avenue would look a lot different today. The Austin Motel (which also benefited from a Lambert makeover in 2017) and the Continental Club are among just a handful of other buildings in the tourist-laden stretch off the Congress Avenue Bridge that have endured in some capacity through decades of change.
I wish that Lambert had grappled in the film with her own role as a gentrifier—after all, she played a part in making this neighborhood unaffordable, and it must’ve been bittersweet to form relationships with the motel guests she eventually displaced—but Through the Plexi-Glass doesn’t go there. Lambert recently spoke candidly with Texas Standard, however. “Of course, I have mixed emotions about it,” she said. “. . . Anybody you talk to in Austin loved Austin, you know, ten years ago or that time right before some other person got here. And we can’t stop that change. But what we can do is be very sensitive about it and very thoughtful about it.”
While this area of 78704 keeps filling up with national brands offering designer glasses, canvas shoes, and $12 pints of ice cream, it’s more important than ever to consider the effects on Austin’s most marginalized residents. Austin continues to be at the center of the state’s contentious debate over homelessness, affordable housing is still in short supply, and home prices continue to skyrocket. In the official press release for the recent SXSW premiere, Lambert is quoted as hoping that the “film will help feed conversations around thoughtful city growth and how we can better look out for those who are at risk by the impacts of change.” Hopefully the movie will become more accessible after its festival screenings, so that those hard discussions can more easily occur.