History repeats itself along The Drag

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Guadalupe Street may be constantly changing, but for longtime Austinites the evolution of the corridor, better known as The Drag, is a sign  things remain the same.

A variety of businesses on The Drag open and subsequently close because of high rental rates or lack of patronage. However, some businesses across from The University of Texas, which resumed classes Aug. 26, are able to stand the test of time.

The oldest business in the corridor is Wooten Barbershop, which opened in 1964. James Nelson, the shop’s third owner, said the secret to success is providing a service people will always need.

“This is a service business; it’s not a product business,” Nelson said. “The typical student here is going to spend their money on a big mall rather than on a Drag place. It’s convenient shopping. … I wouldn’t open a clothing store on The Drag.”

Tastes in food and clothing change throughout the years, causing the businesses along The Drag to adapt to the latest trends rather than sustain as Wooten Barbershop has for the past 51 years, Nelson said.

History repeats itself along The Drag

Finding food success

Broad interest in new tastes and international food helped fuel the recent expansion at VertsKebap. The Austin-based eatery’s flagship location on The Drag has been so successful it reopened in January with triple the space.

Dominik Stein, who co-owns VertsKebap with Michael Heyne, said they were not nervous about expanding.

“We try to be focused around a consistent product and a high-quality product and to make sure our guests come back and experience the same quality of food and services,” Stein said.

Because students are the main customer base for The Drag, Stein said low overhead costs are necessary during school breaks and holidays. Marketing that adapts to seasonal changes and business demands also helps, he said.

More dining options will soon be available as part of efforts from clothing store Urban Outfitters to expand into a new concept called Space 24 Twenty. The development replaces storefronts formerly occupied by Mellow Mushroom, Texadelphia, Manju’s, Pipes Plus and a leasing office. Two restaurants, Pizzeria Vetri and Symon’s Burger Joint—a modification of an existing restaurant in Cleveland called B Spot—have already signed on to open in Space 24 Twenty, said David Ziel, Urban Outfitters chief development officer. His team is in tentative talks for Johnny Sanchez, a New Orleans-based Mexican restaurant, to also be part of the project.

The various storefronts in Space 24 Twenty will open into a courtyard where live music and other events will be held upon the project’s opening in late October or early November, Ziel said.

“I absolutely think a more critical mass of a combination of retail, hospitality and services along The Drag would be great,” Ziel said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity outside the front gates [of UT]to get a little bit more ‘Sixth Street’-prevalent.”

Urban Outfitters’ existing 10,800-square-foot retail space will increase to 16,000 square feet, Ziel said. The company hopes to further expand should the opportunity arise, he said, with future plans including an on-site hotel.

History of the drag

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UT’s campus opened in 1883 with 40 acres of land. “The Drag” is not a reference to drag racing, unofficial UT historian Jim Nicar said. Instead, the term is a callback to when the street served as the main corridor through which horses would drag carriages of students or faculty to the original campus.

“Students either walked to campus, or they took a horse-drawn trolley from downtown Austin,” Nicar said. “There wasn’t a dorm to stay in. … So you either walked or took the trolley.”

Pedestrian pathways were worn into the ground in the area known as the West Mall near the university’s original building. Because students frequented that area, shops began to open that catered to students, he said.

During the era of desegregation some stores would only admit whites—or if blacks were admitted, they could not try on clothes, Nicar said. Two movie theaters, The Texas Theater and The Varsity Theater, became sites for peaceful protests that garnered national attention.

A group of students of varying ethnicities began waiting in line at the theaters’ ticket windows in fall 1960, and each student would ask, “Is this theater open to all persons?” When the ticket official would say no, the student would go back to the end of the line to repeat the process, Nicar said. Eventually, hundreds were involved with the movement. The theaters were fully integrated by September 1961, Nicar said.

Transportation changes

The Drag’s history as Austin’s main corridor continues because of high traffic levels from vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and public transit, said Alan Hughes, Austin Transportation Department project manager.

The pedestrian traffic in the area is four times higher than any other area in Austin, Hughes said. Pedestrians crossing Congress Avenue at Fifth and Sixth streets combine to account for less than half the number of pedestrians crossing Guadalupe near UT during peak periods, he said.

“Guadalupe is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of different people, and I don’t think it’s doing any of them very well,” Hughes said.

A corridor study of the area is underway with data currently being evaluated to help decide what changes, which will likely require bond funding, could be made to Guadalupe to assist with high-traffic issues.

Although Austin’s Transportation Department has suggested adding transit priority lanes along Guadalupe or rerouting buses to streets in West Campus, new urbanism advocacy group AURA recommends extending the transit priority lanes from downtown to The Drag.

“This corridor is the key to making transit work in the city, and transit riders make Guadalupe the place it is. It absolutely makes sense to extend the transit lanes from downtown in each direction onto Guadalupe,” AURA member John Laycock said.

At least two lanes on Guadalupe should be dedicated to transit only, according to AURA’s recommendations. The group also recommends removing the concrete wall that runs along the east side of the street serving as a border for UT’s campus and removing on-street parking on the west side of Guadalupe.

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Jennifer covers Austin City Council, its various committees and local business news. After covering Florida's 2013 legislative session she graduated from Georgia Southern University and joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2014.
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