It’s Time to Talk About Sixth Street in Austin
The recent shootings have generated a lot of talk about what’s happening on one of the nation’s most famous drinking drags.
*Update: Alleged gunman Endicott McCray was arrested by U.S. Marshals Service in Atlanta on Wednesday. McCray is facing a charge of first-degree murder.
Just after closing time early Sunday morning, havoc erupted on Sixth Street in downtown Austin when a man began firing shots into the crowd, leaving one dead and four more injured. The suspect, 24-year-old Endicott McCray, who reportedly got into a fight with his brother-in-law and pointed the gun at him, remains at large.*
The incident generated headlines across the world, and rightfully so. According to police, the woman who died, Teqnika Marie Moultrie, was visiting friends in the city with her wife. They decided to go downtown to Sixth Street, a world-famous tourist destination and entertainment district. After they left Voodoo Doughnuts, located in the heart of Sixth, shots rang out and Moultrie was struck in the head by a bullet. She died at the scene. That someone enjoying an ordinary night out on the town could so easily become a victim of senseless gun violence is a terrifying nightmare made real.
This tragedy is certainly deserving of the attention it received, but for many who live in Austin or are familiar with the downtown scene, it sadly doesn’t come as a surprise. Sixth Street has felt like a volatile powder keg for at least fifteen years. This is not meant to diminish the very real grief and pain being felt by the families affected by Sunday morning’s events. What happened is unacceptable. But as details continue to unfold and the manhunt continues, maybe the shooting presents an opportunity for us to talk about the overall state of Sixth Street.
I’ve lived in Austin for 25 years, and for more than half of that time, I’ve felt embarrassed that so many out-of-towners form their impressions of Austin based on this strip of street. The visitors to our fine city walk out of their hotels and straight to a place that locals have nicknamed “Dirty Sixth,” a moniker meant to convey both literally and figuratively how unseemly this corridor is. Many of us that live here avoid the area. When we talk about the future of our arts and culture scenes, how music and tourism can improve and thrive in our city, we tend not to mention Sixth Street’s former or current reputation. We even largely resist talking about the problems of Sixth on a political level.
But instead of ignoring this pox on our house, perhaps it’s time we stopped turning our heads the other way and started trying to rebuild Sixth in a way that positively evolves this ever-shifting city. Below are a few ideas, to at least start the conversation.
No, let’s not turn it into Bourbon Street
The Forbes story that made the rounds this weekend advocating for changing alcohol and noise ordinances was ill-timed and, to my mind, severely under-thought. The notion that we need Bourbon-style open-carry alcohol/to-go cups is wrong. How is more public intoxication better for Sixth and the city? Inside bars, there’s some degree of regulation: bartenders can refuse the over-served, arrange for rides for the too-drunk-to-drive, keep a modicum of order. Street-drinking turns the onus of control to the cops, who already have an unenviable task on their overburdened hands. There’s no way there’s less violence or less fights with alcohol in the street. There’s more opportunity for underage drinking and more opportunity for people to drink right up until the moment they reach their car and drive themselves home.
The Forbes piece also suggests extending drinking hours. Bars would love it; police would not. Plus, you’d simply be pushing the 2 a.m. rush-to-the-streets to a 4 a.m. rush. For the most part, Sixth Street patrons, by the nature of their age, probably don’t have anywhere to be the next morning. They’ll drink longer and harder right up until whenever the new last call is.
We need more business diversity
At the heart of Sixth’s problem is a lack of diversity in the businesses lining the street’s five most important blocks, from Brazos to Red River. The old-timers wax nostalgic about a time when the area offered more than just shot bars and dance clubs. There used to be a live music venue next to a shot bar, next to a coffee shop, next to a restaurant, next to an art gallery, next to a salon, and on and on. But over the years, rents increased and it became more viable to build your business around high-volume alcohol sales than music or food. (And, related to point one, if drinking hours were extended, rents would likely continue to escalate since you’d be lengthening the highest part of the bell curve for alcohol consumption, thus making bars the most economically viable business to survive consequent booms in the downtown real estate market.)
A handful of places do offer some diversity—the Alamo Drafthouse (a movie theater), the Parish (a music venue), Esther’s (a comedy club), Parkside (a high-end restaurant), to name a few—but they’re definitely outliers. And there are a smattering of other live music venues—from Dirty Dog and Flamingo Cantina to the Vulcan and Maggie Mae’s—but there is a counter-argument to be made that the clientele of those places might actually be turned off by having to brave Dirty Sixth to patron the music clubs and thus opt to not visit those places as a result.
Reconcile SXSW and Spring Break
For some locals, the only time Sixth Street becomes a destination is during SXSW. Festival organizers lock down many of the downtown bars as official venues, in part out of fear of losing those places to private parties, corporate unaffiliated buyouts, and pirate showcases. As a result, people who pay a lot of money for badges and bracelets are thrown into the cesspool of non-SXSW-related Spring Break revelry.
When SXSW first started expanding down Red River—and later, east across the highway—some worried showcasing-hopping would suffer. Instead it offered festival-goers a much-needed alternative to Sixth and spread the financial joys of a successful SXSW week to other bar owners outside of Sixth Street. If you’re being generous, one could argue it probably saved SXSW itself.
Admirably, SXSW organizers have consulted with the biggest and best crowd-control/crowd psychology consultants to help formulate ways to better coexist with Spring Break crowds, but ideally SXSW would loosen its grip on Sixth even more. Let Sixth be Spring Break central. Let those bars live or die on that particular holiday alone, and maybe without an annual SXSW cash-influx, we’ll see the places that aren’t viable year-round close, allowing rents to stabilize and the opportunity for more diverse businesses to take their place.
City leaders should double-down on area evolvement
Earlier this year, Mayor Steve Adler announced the creation of the Austin Music & Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, a directive for city leaders to examine how to better serve Austin’s live music community, from the venues to the musicians. So far, city leaders have been largely silent on Sixth Street issues, despite the fact that expanding the music clubs and art venues on Sixth might shake up the crowd a little and could consequently promote the Austin music and culture scene. These musicians and artists could then be better able to tap into regular work in the area and scoop up some of those tourism dollars—in short, do the very thing the resolution aims to accomplish.
Perhaps there should be rewards or financial incentives for Sixth Street businesses that want to focus on original music and arts. At the very least, a work-group should be created and gathered to discuss these very things.
There should also be some reinvestment dollars into the civil services—fire, police, other city departments—that serve and protect the area. In 2014, a resolution was adopted by the old City Council addressing concerns with Downtown Entertainment Districts and expressly laid out “whereas large crowds fueled by alcohol pose significant health, public safety and transportation issues” and called for “updated emergency management plans.” The resolution tasked the city manager to engage stakeholders and city departments and come up with suggestions for code changes that would bolster safety and law enforcement downtown. A staff report was compiled and recommendations were made and presented to the council in July 2015, recommendations that have yet to be implemented. Can money from hotel and occupancy taxes be allocated to bringing those recommendations to fruition?
Examine various competing interests
In a 2012 Community Impact interview, Bob Woody, the president of East Sixth Street Community Association—the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Sixth” and a stakeholder on both East and West Sixth Street (home to another stretch of bars that runs from roughly the west side of Congress Avenue to Lamar)—said he “prefer bars with lots of transactions.” He went on to say:
What I want to do is to open a hospital in East Austin and I want [a prospective customer] to be born there, and I want him to drink on East Sixth Street until he moves on to drink at West Sixth Street. I’d also like to open a graveyard on far West Sixth and have him buried there. So I want to have him to cradle to grave. I’m kidding about the hospital, but you see what I’m saying. You’ve got a little more professional workers on West Sixth versus a college student on East Sixth.
When the East Sixth business model is based on “fast transactions” and college students—so much so that one of the players who has an interest in a competing destination designed for customers to essentially graduate to—how can we expect anything other than the Sixth Street we know now?
What about the ARCH?
How much of the atmosphere on Sixth is a result of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter (ARCH) one block away on Seventh Street? A lot has been written on the topic, with some—including the Austin Police Association—petitioning for the center to be moved from downtown to others making the point that even the homeless population the shelter is meant to serve feels unsafe near the facility.
There is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that the shelter adds to the air of danger that pervades a certain part of downtown. In my own experience, I walked from Stubb’s on my way to ACL Live at 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday night, and the sheer volume of obviously-inebriated probably-homeless folks lining the streets, sleeping in doorways, and aggressively panhandling was kind of shocking. I did not feel safe. Not because they were homeless, but because they were obviously intoxicated and some of the people I saw seemed unpredictable. Maybe they’re there because Sixth is a hub of downtown activity and not because the ARCH is a block away. I have no way of knowing. But it seems to add to the general unsettling vibe, especially as the night grows longer.
Also, if you’re on Sixth for a night out and see a large collection of folks languishing in a what is supposedly one of the most prosperous cities in America, is it now that much easier to care less about the area and treat it as poorly as it looks.
Look to other revitalized entertainment districts
Part of the life cycle of Deep Ellum, a once-thriving music/arts/entertainment hub in Dallas, mirrors what is happening on Sixth Street in Austin. It too became too notorious, and multiple storied businesses in the area shut down. But over time, the area successfully reinvented itself, with a commercial and residential real estate boom that began lifting the area as many as four years ago. High-density developers continue to be drawn to the neighborhood. The way city leaders and developers have cultivated Deep Ellum could provide a sort of blueprint for how Sixth Street can change or be restored to a Historic District worthy of that designation.
But the broader question remains: how much more violence, how many more nights like the one this past weekend, how many more YouTube videos of fights on Sixth must happen before we deem the area too dangerous, too unpredictable to continue on as is? At some point, doesn’t business suffer? Doesn’t all of downtown suffer? Doesn’t the city’s global reputation suffer?
This much is clear: it’s time we start talking about these questions—and, if we don’t like the answers, start making change happen.