The Trouble with 37th Street

I lived on 37th Street during the Christmases of 92, 93, 94, and 95, and was an enthusiastic (if not always artistic) participant in the whole lights display. I have always thought the lights were wonderful, and that they helped create a sense of community on that street that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve stayed closer to the folks I knew from 37th Street than any other neighborhood I’ve lived in.

In recent years, the light show has shrunk. I believe the Christmas just past will be the last.

The Chronicle just ran an article on the diminishing lights, fingering absentee landlords in California as the ultimate culprit. This is nonsense. Mike Dahmus used this as a jumping-off point to complain about low-density student housing.

The reason that 37th Street is going dark has to do with people and personalities. It has something to do with landlords as well, but a homegrown one.

People leave

Jamie and Bob were the original instigators of the whole show. Robert later joined in and, with his volcano and motorcycle, put up one of the three showcase displays on the street. Robert and Bob have both left; Jamie is leaving. Ray was also noteworthy for his car-hedge of lights. He’s gone. There’s just not that much holding the street together anymore.

The real-estate market

There are a lot of rent-houses on that block, but there were a lot when I lived there too—I was in one of them. Eight of those rent-houses are owned by a local guy, whose name seldom passes from my lips without being preceded by the word “slumlord.” In fact, he owns 308, which Jamie once occupied, and which under this guy’s stewardship has been home to a meth dealer; I believe it was more recent occupants of that house that Jamie got into a fight with (as mentioned in the article). When I was living on the street, I believe the same guy owned the same number of houses on the street. 308 was unoccupied—it was owned by this guy, who was undertaking an extremely desultory and dubious expansion and renovation of it. All of his houses are messes, only rentable to less-discriminating students.

Note the way this article changes gears in such a way that you’re not supposed to notice:

Neighbors partly blame changes in the neighborhood on irresponsible and absentee landlords. “We didn’t demand all we could get from the houses,” Pine said. Now, eager to reap the highest rents possible from the maximum number of tenants, greedy landlords are letting “kids get away with murder and won’t do anything about it,” he complained. [Emphasis mine]

The irony is that Ray himself once owned most of the houses in question, and sold them to people like this guy.

Barnes – who counted five homes that have changed hands this year on 37th Street, compared to what he said is usually one

If you want to place the blame somewhere, you could also blame the outrageously high property taxes in this state (and rates of increase in those taxes) that force people out of their own homes once their neighborhood becomes sufficiently desirable. This increasing churn rate is not unique to to 37th Street–it can be seen throughout the surrounding neighborhood.


When I lived there, there was, shall we say, an institutional memory for the lights. There were enough people on the street to enforce certain social norms. Jeannie would lecture visitors who left trash behind, and there was a strong anti-commercial sentiment on the street. So there may have been a broken window effect in action: by dealing with minor infractions, major infractions never happened.

As this institutional memory left with the old-timers, street hawkers moved in and the scene became rowdier. Another less public aspect of this is Jamie himself. While Jamie has never openly appealed for money, he has always been the recipient of spontaneous largesse from visitors to his backyard. The amounts of money involved are considerable, and this created animosity between Jamie and some of the other old-timers, who felt that he should donate the money, share it out, or simply not make it so obviously easy for visitors to give money to him (he kept up clotheslines with clothespins where people can hang money). I have to believe that this friction within the street’s micro-community must have caused some old-timers to lose interest in maintaining the street’s Christmas zeitgeist.

. . .

It pains me to write all this, rather, it pains me that all this is so. Living on 37th Street was a great experience, and it is sad that the community that made the lights possible no longer exists.

6 thoughts on “The Trouble with 37th Street”

  1. We had a contract down on 311 in December ’03. Didn’t get insurance to sign off, so we abandoned it.

    Agreed on the property taxes. Taxing land by value instead of by area (which has a much more direct relationship to city/state services) is what gets us into this mess, well, that and the fact that we don’t have an income tax, so the property tax rate has to be so damn high.

    And Maxwell just bugs the ever-living crap out of me. The idea that single-family housing is always preferrable to multi-family housing is rampant among center-city neighborhoods, which is really annoying considering that without multi-family, I’d have never made it into Clarksville and would probably be living in far suburbia even today; now she has to change tactics and argue against RENTAL housing of all types when if her ilk had just let up on multi-family in the past, there’d be less demand for crappy rental houses today.

    The idea that most students really want to live in a house instead of an apartment just doesn’t make sense to me – but you have to believe that in order NOT to blame her and her posse for the craptacular state of affairs in and around campus today.

    These Circle C in downtown Austin people REALLY piss me off, obviously. I feel like I ought to write another article on it already…

  2. Small world – your slumlord was mentored in the magic world (hence Magic Realty) by the person you kinda sorta know who practices poor Wikipedia etiquette. Funny that neither made it in the entertainment world and no matter how hard you try, you can’t make either of them disappear!

  3. Great read. When I was in Austin for Christmas this year, I noted a marked absence of Christmas lights. Up north, near Balcones Woods there were quite a few displays, though.

  4. Boy this really brings home to me the unidirectional reality of our ephemeral selves. That phenomenon on 37th street was astutely informal and organic, and I will derive no greater sense of value from a community than I got from living on that street. I haven’t lived in Austin for awhile, but if neither Bob or Jamie live on that street, the phenomenon is gone. They defined what it was; we just tried to live up to their zany, friendly code and make our house at least minimally presentable by their standards. The real bonus of living on that street was that the same zany, friendly code that incidentally caused a December light event persisted year-round as an invisible imprint guiding our manners, concern for our neighbors, and love of fun. When I read your entry, I realized that even though I’ve moved away from Austin, probably forever, I have been living thinking that very street is permanently available to me, that if I really wanted to, I could go down to Jamie’s tiny museum of a house and find a few neighbors with a Celis and an odd conversation to spare. Now I am forced to move that comfort over to the conceptual. So it goes. Making the nostalgia all the more melancholy is the fact that somewhere along the way, I lost the 4 ft. tall glow-in-the dark Virgin Mary you gave me that we used as the attic window centerpiece. Ningen no joken.

    It was a lot of fun, though, wasn’t it, Adam?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *