Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Geraldine and the History Lesson

In the interest of disclosure, what you are about to read is a blog post about a well-loved guinea hen.

Rainey Street, in Austin, didn't use to be Rainey Street, according to this 1919 map: it was merely the southern end of Sabine Street, an Eastside street at its terminus with the Colorado River (Town Lake).

It's a safe bet that 1920-era Eastside residents weren't first adopters of that newfangled horseless carriage technology.

Much later, the advent of the interstate highway system transformed many urban areas. In Austin, it created what some called "the Great Wall," dividing West (money, privilege, upper-middle class, and downtown) from East (poor people, who by some inexplicable coincidence all happened to be ethnic minorities).

One odd thing that the new I-35 did was completely cut off Rainey Street from its former East Austin neighborhood. The thing is, the great West-East divide was not actually anything new. Visit Austin today, and on the once-residential west side of downtown, you find many grand old houses now serving as law offices. Just a little further west, bordering on the Hill Country, you find the old-money neighborhoods that spawned such Austin illuminati as Carole Keeton Rylander Cougar Mellencamp Strayhorn and her son, Austin High alumnus and former White House press secretary Scott McClelland. To the west of grande dame Pease Park, mansions rise from the greenery around Shoal Creek to house such modern Austin aristocracy as Robert Rodriguez, who lives in a castle fashioned from an old water tower.

To the east, the houses are modest, and there's a mercy in that. These tiny houses east of what was once East Avenue, now Interstate 35, boast only one or two small bedrooms and a bathroom each. But because they lay in the no-man's-land of economic blight well into the 1990s, gentrification has largely spared the historic old houses, if not the character of the neighborhoods that once dwelt there.

Rainey Street is a particularly recent victim, or a victim in progress even, as recently as yesterday afternoon. Rainey was part of the working-class East Austin neighborhood east of East Avenue. I-35 created few new distinctions there, except that, largely due to the superior economic status of neighborhoods south of the Colorado River, it veered sharply to the east just north of the bridge, and cut a little triangle of neighborhood, including Rainey Street, off from its former Eastside neighbors.

Somehow, nobody really noticed for decades. Rainey Street remained residential, quiet, and quite forgotten, cheek and jowl with the working-class travelers' Holiday Inn on the north shore of Town Lake just west of I-35, and a still-extant nursing home a couple of hundred feet away. The Chain Drive popped up there, as tongue-in-cheek gay bars tend to do. But otherwise, life went on largely as usual. Working-class residents lived in small, rather cute, very small frame houses and led largely unremarkable lives, working at blue-collar jobs and raising small livestock, on a small scale. It was small.

I'm not sure (probably a Google search would turn it up instantly, but the hell with it) what the first restaurant and/or bar was to open on Rainey Street. It wasn't more than 6-7 years ago that it started to catch on. Well, it was inevitable, naturally; we're talking a couple of blocks from downtown, an easy walk from hoity-toity hotels, and with a quiet street of low-income property owners, the houses and taxes were dirt-cheap, and the structures had a distinctive retro appeal. So one place moved in, then another. And why wouldn't it? If it's easy and inexpensive to open a lucrative business in a convenient area, it would be silly not to.

Rainey Street's blossoming was probably more sudden than many gentrification stories. It was a residential area so recently. All the actual Austin people are gone now, with trendy bars, and trendy restaurants, and trendy traffic taking the place of longtime residents. And one of those longtime residents was Geraldine - a guinea fowl, of the abovementioned small livestock.

Geraldine was quite a longtime resident, nevermind the fact that she was only eight years old - though, by guinea fowl standards, that might be about 97 (another easily Googled fact I can't be bothered to look up). Unquestionably, though, Geraldine outdated the gentrification of the street, and she (or possibly he) rapidly became a mascot for the newly-fashionable area. Geraldine was a common sight, picking bugs (imaginary or otherwise) out of visitors' car tires, or just strutting about, acting as if she owned the place, which compared to anyone else in the vicinity she certainly did.

Because people are essentially beautiful, Geraldine was fed and cared for by her new neighbors. She was a common sight, and rapidly became a well-known icon. When her favorite roosting tree was cut down to build trendy condos, Geraldine's friends offered substitutes in the backyards of the establishments where they worked. Some visitors tried to catch her, hoping to bring her to a safer home. She was known far and wide as "Geraldine, the Rainey Street Guinea Fowl" (though once more, she may have been a boy).

And because people essentially deserve to be wiped off the earth via cataclysmic disaster, Geraldine was run over by a car yesterday. Her burial was this evening.

There's talk of closing Rainey Street to the motor vehicle traffic it was really never designed to handle in the first place. People do insist on bringing their cars there, and getting aggravated at not being able to secure a parking space within a quarter of a block of the bar where they hope to get wasted. I don't know if whoever ran over Geraldine ever even noticed, or had any idea who she was.

It was a sad day.


At August 14, 2014 10:21 AM, Anonymous crosspalms said...

What a horrible thing! Sad day indeed.


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