Being Texan

Slabs, Donks, and Swangas: An African-American Car Club Seeks a Home in a Changing Austin

Spending Texas Relays weekend with the Hands Full of Cash car club.

A slab at Capital Plaza, on April 6, 2019. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young
A slab at Capital Plaza, on April 6, 2019. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

Rain is in the forecast on this Saturday morning at the end of March, but Rogerick Davis washes his silver- and red-trimmed 2002 Ford Explorer anyway. Parked in a bay at the Carwash on MLK Boulevard in East Austin—a place he describes as a monument to the city’s car culture—Davis foams down the 24-inch chrome rims to prepare his SUV for Texas Relays weekend. The Explorer turns heads, especially with its back window decal that reads “Hands Full of Cash Car Club.”

The Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays track and field meet, hosted annually by the University of Texas at Austin, draws thousands of athletes from high school and college programs throughout the country. But for the state’s African-American community, the Relays are nearly as well known for the satellite social events that take place that same weekend.

During the Relays, the city fills with a uniquely Texan style of vehicle called slabs. Popularized in the mid-aughts alongside the rise of Houston hip-hop, “slab” stands for “slow, loud, and banging.” The wheel rims are the defining feature. Called “swangas,” they’re inspired by 1983 and 1984 Cadillacs and stick out from the wheel up to 24 inches, like chrome elbows. The most traditional slab drivers prefer Cadillacs, although you’ll see the style on other models. You can also identify a slab by its “candy paint,” a glittering metallic base sparkling through a shiny translucent coat. Drivers add fifth and sixth wheels onto trunks, which pop open to reveal slogans like “I’ve Got the Juice” in neon.

A man polishing one of his swangas. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young
A red, candy paint Cadillac slab, complete with a neon sign and fifth wheel. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

Although Hands Full of Cash does have one Cadillac (Robert “FatBoi” Edwards Jr.’s ’85 Fleetwood), most of its vehicles aren’t considered slabs. Most members drive more modest models like Buick LeSabres or Chevy Caprices, albeit outfitted with custom interiors and massive rims. The club brings together like-minded hobbyists and functions much like a service organization. Last year the group hosted three car shows to raise funds for charity.

“When it comes to Texas Relays, there’s so many people that are just trying to chill out without being pushed around,” says Davis, HFC’s founder and president, in the week leading up to the Relays, speaking with a drawl that’s earned him the nickname Kountry. “There’s nowhere for us to go where we can just stay. The police come, they push us out, and we’ve gotta find somewhere else to go.”

The now-closed Highland Mall was long the epicenter of Relays car meetups. Hundreds of candy-colored cars would assemble in the parking lot on Relays Saturday. The shopping center’s management was often less than hospitable to the crowds of young African-Americans that the gatherings attracted—one year the mall, citing security concerns, simply closed early in the afternoon to keep them out. Come nighttime, the cars would cruise downtown. Sixth Street bars haven’t been much more accommodating—some close their doors during the Relays, likewise expressing worries about security, as well as the need to recover from SXSW just two weeks earlier. With thousands of people in town for the Relays, this lack of hospitality—especially notable in a city with a dwindling African-American population—has resulted in most of the car enthusiasts ending up in gas station and drug store parking lots.

A donk. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

Austin’s car culture has changed significantly since HFC formed in 2012. Many of the club’s members have relocated from East Austin to neighboring towns like Pflugerville. Gentrification and redevelopment have claimed many longtime meeting points and led to some clubs disbanding. Highland Mall shut down in 2015 and was turned into an Austin Community College campus. The Capital Plaza shopping center along Interstate 35 became the new gathering spot for custom car lovers during the Relays, but its lot feels cramped by comparison. So other popular spots like the Carwash, with only six cleaning bays, get overrun by cars.

The presence of many more slab drivers in town for the Relays exacerbates the issue, but the lack of community acceptance for any of the car community’s favored gathering spots is a year-round problem. HFC and other clubs have long met at East Austin’s Givens Park each Sunday, but city ordinances limit the festivities by not allowing cigarettes, alcohol, or loud music. Noise complaints often bring police, and then the cars scatter.

In early 2018, ahead of last year’s Relays, HFC decided to begin a dialogue rather than disperse. “We started talking about bridging the gap between car clubs and the city. We’re not bad people,” says Jonathan “Take Off” Allen, an HFC member and a teacher who wears a jeweled Super Mario chain and drives a white Explorer with upholstery made to look like the pages of a comic book. He mentions that Givens Park is known to have a drug problem, and to be constantly littered with trash, but he wants people to understand that isn’t because of the car clubs. “Let’s get the community together and show that this car club isn’t the bad guy,” Allen says.

HFC invited police, city officials, and others in the car community to a clean-up event at Givens Park, which in turn led to the club serving as the unofficial ambassadors for all the area car clubs. Negotiations began for a city-sanctioned meeting spot during the Relays. The city suggested Travis County Expo Center, but HFC rejected it as too far from the center of town. Talks stalled but will resume for 2020. In the meantime, the club seeks to build trust by keeping the lines of communication open. When law enforcement gets calls about car-related disturbances, Officer Justin Berry will often text Davis or Allen to see if they can help defuse the situation.

“From day one, these Hands Full of Cash guys have asked what they can do to improve police perception of them,” says Berry, vice president of the Austin Police Association. “Unfortunately for us, we deal with the one percent that are breaking the law. But most of them are very respectful. It’s their hobby, and there’s a lot of pride in it.”

A boy in front of his family's slab. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young
A "burnout." Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

Capital Plaza was peaceful this year on Relays Saturday. Drivers brought their children, and parked cars all had doors open to invite strangers to peek inside. A procession of vehicles cruised for hours, photographers snapping pictures while trunks blasted Houston rap. It wasn’t all slabs—there were just as many “donks” (identified by their gigantic tires) and cars customized to match their owners’ personalities. Renee “BabyGirl” Perry, who suffers from lupus, painted her ’94 Caprice purple to match the disease’s awareness ribbon, while Glen “Nashboy” Nash chose a Texas Longhorns theme for his ‘93 Lincoln Town Car.

Throughout the afternoon a couple cop cars rolled through but didn’t stop. Every few minutes a car would “burn out,” spinning its wheels in place and sending up a cloud of noxious smoke that drew both coughs and laughs. “We call it controlled chaos,” Allen says.

“Capital Plaza’s been shut down before. I was surprised we got to stay that long,” Davis says after the event, seeing its success as a sign of respect from both the public and police. “Maybe the word is getting out. There’s more photographers than usual. People want to know what’s going on.”

Unfortunately, that night the intersection of Airport and MLK boulevards was a mess. A frustrated employee had roped off the Carwash earlier in the evening, but by midnight someone had removed the barriers. A hundred cars packed into its lot and crowded into neighboring strip malls. Soon MLK itself became a gridlocked party. Unsuspecting drivers found themselves stuck between trunk-rattling sound systems, one man screaming into his wheel as he waited for police to arrive to unclog the street by shining flashlights into windows.

A cleaning bay at The Carwash on MLK Blvd. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young
Hands Full of Cash Car Club president, Rogerick "Kountry" Davis. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

Hands Full of Cash members describe the Carwash as a landmark vital to their community, even if the frequent late-night hangouts there are considered a nuisance by neighborhood residents. Davis and Allen acknowledge the need for police intervention due to noise complaints or when roads get blocked off, but they also suggest that Austin could learn from Houston, a city where they say car culture is allowed to thrive. “It’s where it all comes from, so they deal with it in a different way,” Davis says. While it’s far from certain that it would have prevented the Saturday night scene at the Carwash, a city-sanctioned event elsewhere might have helped alleviate the car community’s impact.

Givens Park on Relays Sunday was a hopeful sign for what greater cooperation between the city and car clubs might yield. It couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the Carwash. Hands Full of Cash arrived around noon to claim their area. Orange construction fencing roped off a patch of grass, marking a boundary for children to safely run around in. Chicken and ribs smoked on a small grill. By mid-afternoon, custom cars covered every inch of concrete. The crowd numbered in the hundreds and was almost entirely African-American, friends and families relaxing on a spring afternoon, admiring paint jobs that sparkled in the sun. By the time HFC left at sunset, not a single police car had entered the park.

“They understand,” Davis says of the police. “We did the cleanup to get them involved and for them to understand what we’re asking for,” Davis says. “We just want this park to be ours for the day.”

The Hands Full of Cash Car Club at Givens Park. Photograph by Jackie Lee Young



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