Ode to the Cottages of Wilson Street
Charlie Faye led the protest to keep alive one of the last musical enclaves in Austin
Singer-songwriter Charlie Faye had finally felt at home in a place all her own. In April 2008, the 27-year-old native New Yorker moved into the longtime musician haven of cottages on Wilson Street in South Austin, where her rent was $495 a month.
"I'm sure there are plenty of people who would never want to live here," said the petite country-blues singer. "It's a bit of a slum, but I wouldn't move from here to the trendiest downtown loft if you paid me."
Besides the affordability, what she really loved about the dozen 1940’s cottages gathered around a common courtyard is the sense of community. Fellow resident Jess Klein, also a singer-songwriter from New York, said she's never lived in such a musical environment. "We have these spontaneous potluck dinners, and we pull out our guitars and sing until two o'clock in the morning sometimes, and nobody tells us to keep it down."
Like her treasured 1952 Gibson J-45 guitar, Faye's home was timeworn and ragged. "I don't like new things," she said, wearing vintage cowboy boots and a peasant dress, sitting on her Salvation Army couch. "I like things that have some soul."
Carved into the concrete on Faye's front steps was the name "Charlie," which she took as a good omen. But only two months into her residency, she was deflated to find that the cottages were earmarked to be razed and replaced by the Flats on Wilson condo project. Ely Properties, which manages the cottages for owner Mitch Ely's Cobalt Partners, offered residents $50, then $100 to re-sign leases that ended on Sept. 30, 2008.
Everyone took the money except Faye, even though her six-month lease was up Oct. 8.
"I had just found this magical community," she said, "and I wasn't ready to give it up."
Norma Rae meet Charlie Faye, a compulsive list-maker who filled her notebooks with things to do, people to call and e-mail and the occasional set of song lyrics.
There used to be places like this all over town. There was the "Willie Hilton," a cluster of shotgun shacks off Academy Drive co-owned by Willie Nelson, the "Red River Motors" bus/ hovel complex near Rainey Street, Pecan Grove R.V. Park on Barton Springs Road, and the Ark Co-op in West Campus, where the vending machines were stocked with cans of beer. Let’s not forget “Hippie Row,” which turned 33rd and Guadalupe Streets in our humble version of Haight-Asbury. In the '70s and '80s, Austin was rich with communal places where musicians and artists could afford to live and create without having to work straight jobs. But they're almost all gone.
A lot at Pecan Grove rented for $340 a month when I bought an R.V. there in 2006. Ten years later, it was $930 a month. And the waiting list was two pages.
Faye first approached the Dawson Neighborhood Association, which already had approved the condo project, and told the members about the history of "Hillbilly Heights," as the cottages are nicknamed. She became very unpopular, she said, at Ely Properties, which preferred an earlier sobriquet, “Heroin Heights.” Before musicians took over the cottages in the ‘90s, they were where you went to buy drugs.
Among those who have lived in the facing rows of one-bedroom units, which were moved to the 2600 block of Wilson Street from just east of the University of Texas campus in the late 1960s, was former Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, who was stricken with multiple sclerosis and cared for by his neighbors. Lucinda Williams, Carolyn Wonderland, Miss Lavelle White, members of the Damnations, Scrappy Jud Newcomb and others are former residents. You had to know someone to get in.
Although these names did not rate "the necessary extraordinary significance to warrant landmark designation," the City Planning Commission recommended that the cottages be relocated rather than demolished.
"We support affordable housing for everyone," said Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan. "But because musicians give so much to the community, they should get special consideration. We can keep and grow existing local businesses better if we have a healthy music and arts community."
Cobalt and Faye reached a deal in August 2008, for the singer to get six of the cottages, the maximum number before the project would be classified as commercial, and $31,000 to move them. The other six cottages would go to the house mover.
Faye found an ally in University of Texas architecture professor Stephen Ross, who had started, with filmmaker Richard Linklater, the Design Build Alliance. The nonprofit was modeled after Auburn University's Rural Studio, which gets students involved in designing and building affordable housing for low-income folks.
What Ross found when he visited Wilson Street was a vibrant colony of like-minded souls. "I was struck with how the residents 'claimed' and inhabited the place," Ross said in an e-mail. "Charlie and I were sitting on the steps and up walks (guitarist) Scrappy Jud Newcomb, then (singer-songwriter) Walter Tragert. Screen doors were open. Everyone knew each other and seemed genuinely happy to encounter each other. Almost like a big happy extended family."
But then the economy tanked and the planned condo project was put on hold. The reprieve ended up dooming the cottages. In November 2011, residents were given 30 days to vacate. With three years of more wear and tear, the cottages were not as fit for relocation as they were in 2008. Besides, there was no place to put them on a month’s notice.
Charlie Faye did get another three years in her soulful community, but that was it. The cottages were bulldozed into Austin’s present in 2012.
Charlie Faye’s video for “Undertow” is about the musicians uprooted by the Wilson Street condos.