Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting oriented in East Waco

The Brazos River divides East Waco from downtown as long as you don't consult a compass. That's because East Waco is really north of downtown and maybe sort of a little bit east.  To know your way around Waco, you have to spend time here - no map or GPS will do.

We're staying just a few steps away from the river in an area that used to be the heart of the African - American business district (and before that home to the Waco tribe), but was razed in the late 60's as part of an urban renewal effort. And you can tell there's something missing. The empty lots that lead up to the river beg the question, what was here?

Crossing over the elegant pedestrian suspension bridge that connects downtown to the eastside feels like going back in time. From the upscale Hilton and Indigo hotels over to the Empire Seed Co. selling bedding plants and flower bulbs along the remnants of Bridge Street. Elm Avenue known to everyone as Elm Street begins at the east end of the bridge where one of the old bridge supports is painted with a mural about the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

This felt like a good sign and there are other murals that dot the streetscape along Elm, although many of the buildings appear vacant and need of serious restoration. A few like Lula Jane's signal a possible future - a different kind of renewal that draws in students from Baylor University for tasty baked goods and lattes.

Lula Jane's

The site for our mural is the east branch of the Waco Public Library in a a building that used to be an HEB grocery store. That transition from grocery store to library is compelling and has got me thinking - from food for the body to food for the mind. Ironically, now there is no grocery store in East Waco making a large part of the area an urban food desert. Another story of transition in the neighborhood is underway just across Elm from the library where the Paul Quinn campus, home to an Historic Black College that moved to Dallas in 1990, has become a successful charter school called Rapoport Academy.

Named for Audre and Bernard Rapoport and founded by educator Nancy Grayson (who has turned her attention to baking at her latest endeavor Lula Jane's), this expanding new school is helping to reinvigorate the neighborhood.

Ashley, Catherine and I have just begun to explore and meet with neighbors. But judging from our first week, we expect a dynamic series of design team sessions in the coming weeks.

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