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Austin's Sixth Street: An American Mezcla

Reggie Royston
National Geographic News
May 3, 2001
 
There's a Spanish term used to describe an uncanny combination of
seemingly distinct things: mezcla.

Perhaps no other word
best characterizes the stew of culture that makes up Austin's Sixth
Street—the heart and hub of the Lone Star State's capital
city.

Chicano bodegas, tattooed students, rambunctious guitar
players, and historic Longhorn residences all add hue to this colorful
Texan neighborhood.



On Gustav De Leon's side of town, the flavor is reminiscent of home. "It's like a little town in Mexico," he said, while making eggs in a newly opened east Sixth Street restaurant. He has been dreaming of running this establishment for years.

"It's a real quiet neighborhood. Nice to have a restaurant here. We're going to have home-made tortillas and tamales…and happy hour."

Even the seal on the floor of the Texas capital, the seat of the former Republic of Texas, heralds the city's historic diversity, born from five territories: Spain, Mexico, France, the United States, and the Confederate States of America.

Populated by just 800 settlers in 1839, Austin now is one of the fastest growing cities in America, with someone permanently hitching a rope to this city's post every 24 minutes.

Ghosts Among the Guests

Like the Colorado River, which winds its way majestically through town, Austin is a town rich in history.

Oak trees sprawl in front of homes decorated in a blend of French-style ironwork, Spanish facades, and fluted columns. One of these historic mansions is the Driscoll Hotel, whose famous guests included Amelia Earheart, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and Richard Nixon. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird had their first date here.

Texas cattle baron Jesse Driscoll built the estate in 1886, but later lost it in a high-stakes poker game. These days, his ghost, as well as those of others, is said to haunt the Driscoll.

"We have numerous ghosts in the hotel, male and female," said David Highfall, who's been tending bar here for 19 years.

"One day I set the bar up. There was no one around. As I looked around, the water was on. I cranked it off…I felt this chill, and the water just opens itself up all the way like three big cranks," Highfall said. "I'm alone, but I'm not."

Throbbing Art Scene

Past Interstate 35, Sixth Street becomes another world.

Throngs of young people, many from one of the seven colleges in the city, dip in and out of the many tattoo, body piercing, and scarring shops here, looking to augment the natural. Their adventurous spirit and that of thousands of musicians looking to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Ray Vaughn give west Sixth Street its modern vibrancy.

"Scarification has always been a form of art and now we're bringing it back," proclaims one young acolyte, proudly baring his arm to reveal the latest trend in body art—cut-raised skin in the form of wings.

This cultural corner even has its own king.

"I'm the king," says Gerry Van King, the crown royal of Austin's rambunctious music scene. "I'm a funkster, baby."

Van King has been playing Sixth Street six nights a week, every week, for more than a decade. In this place, amid the city that is known as the Live Music Capital of the World, he's not alone. On any given evening there are about a hundred live music acts of every style imaginable.

As the monarch admits, you can't keep this city down. "Austin knows how to entertain," King said. "People come here and they have a good time, and of course they want to move to Austin."

This story was featured on the television news show National Geographic Today.

 

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