With her new documentary, “Origins of a Green Identity: Austin’s Conservation Pioneers,” filmmaker Karen J. Kocher plunges into the turbulent, sometimes murky history of Austin’s decades-long struggle to conserve our waterways and green spaces for public use.
Kocher has already given us richly detailed studies of the history, science, and culture of Barton Springs swimming pool through mini-documentaries on the website Living Springs, livingspringsaustin.org. With her new feature documentary Kocher examines Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake and how they became an essential part of our environmentally conscious city.
“Origins of a Green Identity” will broadcast on Austin PBS affiliate KLRU at 8:30 p.m. CDT Dec. 29 and again on January 8, 2021.
Through newsreels, home movies, hundreds of photographs, revealing interviews, visual and vocal recreations, news clippings, and stunning drone footage, Kocher has fashioned an engrossing hour-long documentary bursting with information about the early conservationists’ visions, struggles, losses, and victories. Sarah Bird’s voice ties all the pieces together to help “Origins of a Green Identity” answer the question: How did Austin become such a green city with beautiful trails and waterways accessible to all residents and visitors?
It really began with the city’s founding in 1839 as the capital of the three-year-old Republic of Texas. Over the strong objections of Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, second President of the Republic, chose this location on the Colorado River for its abundant water, fertile grounds, and natural beauty. In 1839 a square-mile grid was laid out by Edwin Waller. Resting on the north bank of the Colorado River and nestled between Shoal Creek on the west and Waller Creek on the east, the capital city was established. For decades there were plenty of places for Austinites to swim, boat, or fish. Nature was never far away.
With great foresight, Andrew Jackson Zilker, the king of Austin ice-makers, began deeding portions of his property along Barton Creek to the city in 1917. That donation included an already popular swimming hole, Barton Springs.
And as far back as 1875 former Texas Governor Elisha Pease donated a portion of his former plantation to the city though it was not until the 1920s that it became Pease Park, including a stretch of Shoal Creek.
Near the end of the 1920s, the city fathers (still only White men) felt the need for some long-range planning, with a vengeance. The resulting 1928 Master Plan made racial segregation a stark reality with African Americans and Mexican Americans primarily relegated to the areas east of East Avenue (present-day I-35).
But there was one portion of that master plan that described a budding vision that with its three major creeks draining into the Colorado River, Austin could be a “park city.” Austin was relatively small and relaxed, so there was no need to do much to protect Austin’s parklands. Yet.
In the post-World War II period, however, Austin saw dramatic growth. As in much of America, returning vets and their growing families, armed with government loans, wanted new homes. From 1945 to 1955 the population increased more than 57%, from 101,289 to 159,502.
North, west, and south of downtown were where White homeowners wanted to live. Housing developers joined with landowners to establish new neighborhoods. For city officials more homes and businesses meant more property tax revenue. Cash rebates to developers and expanded water and sewer lines fueled the growth.
Knowing that many people would love having a home near a creek, eight home builders bought a large tract of land on Barton Creek next to Barton Springs. A television ad extolled the $53 million development of Barton Hills: “You’re so close to the city, yet you can relax in all the peace and serenity of country living.”
This proposed development of housing along Barton Creek was the opening shot in a 70-year war with landowners and developers on one side and conservationists/environmentalists on the other side with city government leaping back and forth across the battle lines.
Like a Joan of Arc, Roberta (Reed Dickson) Crenshaw entered the fray and would prove to be a true hero in helping preserve green spaces for all of Austin’s inhabitants and visitors. Through marriage to successful businessman Malcolm Reed, she had become a prominent member of Austin’s powerful establishment. But she would prove not to share all their values, especially when it came to unbridled growth in areas that should be available for public use.
After the death of her husband, she began by putting her money where her heart was and donated six acres of land in Tarrytown to form Reed Neighborhood Park.
Next, Austin’s first female council member Emma Long appointed Crenshaw to the Austin Parks Board in 1952. Crenshaw would soon find a natural ally in Beverly Sheffield (1913-1999), director of the Parks and Recreation Department. He had started work as the city’s Aquatics Director in the 1930s and was a strong defender of Barton Springs. Together they were going to change the direction of Austin’s growth and preserve the very foundation of green Austin. But this would bring them both into conflict with Austin’s power brokers.
Their first success, a surprising one, was persuading the city to buy 29 acres of land along Barton Creek adjacent to Barton Springs. Still, that was not enough to truly protect Barton Springs. More battles lay in their future.
With the completion of Longhorn Dam in 1960, Town Lake was created. Both Sheffield and Crenshaw saw the possibility of creating miles of greenspace right in the center of the city on both sides of the new lake.
That vision became reality once Crenshaw was named chair of the Parks Board and then gained the federal clout of Lady Bird Johnson, whose advocacy for landscaping along highways and restrictions on billboards resulted in the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
Despite its usual description, “beautification” was not the only focus of Town Lake developments. More important was preserving the area for recreation, giving people green spaces in which to relax, walk, run, bike, fish, and commune with nature.
All seemed to be going well until plans for an amusement park on the lake were announced with support from the mayor and just enough council members. “Little Texas” would consist of 146 acres from Lamar Boulevard west to Zilker Park for 99 years. Only after Crenshaw changed the minds of the “bankers who were backing the project” was the proposal voted down in City Council. Mayor Palmer, with no sense of irony, angrily stated, “History records that it only took one snake and one little woman to ruin the most beautiful garden on Earth.”
Undeterred, Crenshaw turned her attention back to Barton Creek and the drive to acquire more land along its banks. Tom Bradfield, “an Austin native and residential developer,” had his own grand vision of building homes “on the bluffs above Barton Creek,” an area that had been used recreationally for years.
The fight over the Barton Hills development had been bitter, but this new battle was going to be brutal.
With the new highway Mo-Pac slated to run southward through land immediately west of Zilker Park, pressure to save more of Barton Creek from development was increasing.
Meanwhile city government was actively blasting alongside the creek, uprooting trees, and laying down sewer and water lines for future developments. Too often the government itself was an adversary of conservationists’ visions.
Crenshaw appealed directly to the citizens of Austin regarding her hopes for a Barton Creek greenbelt and her fears that time was running out. “We will not have such privileges again to plan areas like that,” she said “Once they are misplanned or the areas despoiled, then we have destroyed, so to speak, a legacy that nature really gave us.”
Austinites like UT philosophy professor Alexander Mourelatos and his wife, Russell Fish and his wife Jeanette, Sandra Fountain, and others responded to Crenshaw’s plea by creating the Austin Environmental Council (AEC) in 1970.
After Crenshaw stepped down from the parks board, she joined the members of the AEC in turning to the courts to try to stop further development upstream from Barton Springs. Their lawsuit was based on declaring Barton Creek navigable and therefore open to public use. Landownership remained sacrosanct, but public access on the waterway would have to be allowed.
Meanwhile Phil Sterzing wrote “Conservation Program for Barton Springs and Barton Creek.” As strong and visionary as Crenshaw’s plans for a section of Barton Creek were, Sterzing proposed that the city use voter approved bonds to purchase land to create “a vast nature preserve stretching 13 miles west from Zilker Park.”
In support of Sterzing’s plan, a petition was circulated. An “Open Letter to the Austin City Council” from “Citizens for a Barton Creek Park” was printed in the Austin American Statesman.
Finally the city council “agreed to protect Barton Creek, consenting to adopt environmental regulations and to begin buying up the greenbelt for use as a park.” Around $2,000,000 was set aside for purchased.
The city succeeded in buying some small parcels of land along Barton Creek, but naturally the prices kept rising and deals for larger parcels bogged down. Then the lawsuit for navigable water protection on Barton Creek was lost. Only the short distance from Barton Springs Pool down to Town Lake was protected as navigable.
Nonetheless, AEC members continued the struggle for environmental safeguards. Sandra Fountain and others convinced the city council to create an Office of Environmental Resource Management. Stuart Henry became Austin’s first environmental director. And the city council created a citizens’ board to review development proposals.
There were many more battles to come to finally acquire the 12 miles of greenbelt trails along Barton Creek, but these early conservationists created the foundation for ensuring that Austin would be a truly green city with beautiful parks, greenbelts, and waterways for enjoyment by all.
Those subsequent battles are another story, and another documentary perhaps. Meanwhile, Kocher and her outstanding team of cinematographers, photographers, archivists, writers, drone captains, and sponsors have given us an extraordinary history of Austin’s early moves toward environmentalism.