A park that’s all about love

Thelma Wil­liams is among neigh­bors ded­i­cated to St. John Park in her his­toric neigh­bor­hood.

Austin American-Statesman - - 360 LIFE - By Michael Barnes mbarnes@states­man.com

For the most part, Thelma Wil­liams — also known as “Grandma Wis­dom” — has lived in the St. John neigh­bor­hood since early child­hood.

She re­mem­bers when the land — a slice of which re­cently ben­e­fited from an Austin Parks Foun­da­tion grant — be­longed to the St. John Reg­u­lar Bap­tist As­so­ci­a­tion, started in 1867 by four black Bap­tist min­is­ters who met un­der a live oak tree in Wheatville, the freed­men’s town west of what is now the Univer­sity of Texas cam­pus.

Dur­ing the sum­mer, the group’s rel­a­tively flat yet el­e­vated 350acre farm on land now in North­east Austin hosted an­nual church en­camp­ments. Vis­i­tors from the coun­try­side amassed in the tens of thou­sands for ser­mons, games, con­tests, pa­rades and prac­ti­cal demon­stra­tions.

“My fam­ily ac­tu­ally camped up here all week,” says Wil­liams, 75, who served in the mil­i­tary from 1961 to 1967, grad­u­ated from St. Philip’s Col­lege with an as­so­ciate de­gree in plumb­ing and later was em­ployed as a li­censed plumber. “My grand­fa­ther had a bar­be­cue stand here.”

In the 1950s, when the In­ter­re­gional High­way, now In­ter­state 35, split St. John — al­ter­nately called St. John’s — asun­der, res­i­den­tial plots to the east were sold to share­crop­pers for $1,000 a pop. The western sec­tor was de­vel­oped as High­land Mall, now ACC High­land, and the High­land neigh­bor­hood.

“Ru­mor was that whole area sold for $300,000,” Wil­liams says. “Who­ever bought that prop­erty deemed that we move to the other side of the high­way. The land here was more af­ford­able.”

The new­com­ers to the east mostly came from ru­ral Travis and Wil­liamson coun­ties. Mech­a­niza­tion had elim­i­nated their cot­ton-farm­ing jobs.

“We were no long able to feed our­selves in the coun­try,” Wil­liams re­mem­bers. “We moved to the city so folks could get jobs. Women as do­mes­tics, and men as what­ever they could find.”

No place to meet

The neigh­bor­hood has changed a lot since the 1950s. It is now mostly His­panic, with a large im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion.

And while Buttermilk Park spreads out in an arc­ing com-

plex that in­cludes Pickle Ele­men­tary School, a li­brary, a Health and Hu­man Ser­vices of­fice and a re­cre­ation cen­ter named for neigh­bor­hood leader Vir­ginia L. Brown, it is off-lim­its dur­ing class time.

“So there’s no place for the kids to go and play,” Wil­liams says. “No meet­ing place, no place for fam­ily re­unions. No place for neigh­bors to get to know each other.”

That is why she and neigh­bors are over­joyed that the Austin Parks Foun­da­tion has awarded $100,000, its first larger-scale Im­pact Grant, to trans­form the smaller St. John Park. The ad­di­tion of city bond money will mean $300,000 for the project.

The vest-pocket park sits to the west of Buttermilk Park at the tail end of Wilks Av­enue. The money will go to build a gazebo and side­walk, pic­nic ta­bles, a walk­ing trail, a drink­ing foun­tain, a com­mu­nity kiosk and a pet waste sta­tion, all to help make the rather scruffy patch of green, brown and gray into a play­ground and meet­ing place.

“There is still fund­ing needed to build a playscape for chil­dren,” says Julie Weeks, the neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent who helped spear­head the St. John Park cam­paign. “But we con­tinue to be­lieve that suc­cess breeds suc­cess and that ‘To­gether we can do more!’ We in­vite oth­ers to part­ner with us in this ef­fort.”

St. John Park is in Austin City Coun­cil Dis­trict 4, which has the least acreage of pub­lic park­land in the city as well as the high­est per­cent­age of chil­dren un­der the age of 10, ac­cord­ing to the Austin Parks Foun­da­tion.

“Know­ing this, when I first vis­ited St. John Park, I felt my heart sink,” said Ladye Anne Wof­ford, pro­grams di­rec­tor for the Austin Parks Foun­da­tion. “It cur­rently con­sists of an open lawn, a de­com­mis­sioned pool and lit­tle else. With no ameni­ties, the space lacks pur­pose and feels some­what aban­doned and un­safe.”

Wof­ford knows that Austin prides it­self on be­ing a “city within a park,” and a city with lots of park­land.

“How­ever, many peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that much of Austin’s park­land is con­cen­trated in cer­tain ge­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas,” she says. “And our city doesn’t al­lo­cate enough of its bud­get to im­prove and main­tain the parks that we do have.”

Wof­ford also points out that Austin hosts great dis­par­i­ties in park qual­ity and that ne­glected ar­eas like St. John suf­fer as a re­sult.

“While the St. John neigh­bor­hood may be short on re­sources, they are rich in his­tory, skilled at build­ing com­mu­nity and aren’t afraid of hard work,” she says. “It’s my hope that other com­mu­ni­ties will see the per­sis­tence and ded­i­ca­tion of the St. John Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion and be­come in­spired to take ac­tion in their own parks.”

Per­sonal mean­ing

Wil­liams’ par­ents lived nearby till they died. Her grand­mother had pur­chased two lots with “turkey money.” She en­cour­aged her son — Wil­liams’ fa­ther — to buy prop­erty, too, and he picked up three lots.

“My par­ents gave me one of the lots for $10,” Wil­liams says. “And I built my house here.”

Yet deep into the 1970s, res­i­dents had to fight for even ba­sic city util­i­ties and paved roads.

For years, area kids — penned in by the mon­ster free­ways I-35, U.S. 290 and U.S. 183 — at­tended the old St. John Ele­men­tary School, lo­cated on a spot that in 2000 be­came a Home De­pot fac­ing I-35. It is now out of busi­ness.

“It is my un­der­stand­ing that when St. John School was torn down for the con­struc­tion of the Home De­pot, St. John Park was put on the lo­ca­tion of the school play­ground as a gift back to the com­mu­nity,” Weeks says. “As you can imag­ine, a com­mu­nity los­ing a school to new de­vel­op­ment can be a dif­fi­cult ad­just­ment.”

There have been many so­cial and cul­tural ad­just­ments in the past few decades. Ten­sions in St. John were high in the early 2000s as the area shifted from a tra­di­tion­ally African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood to a pre­dom­i­nantly His­panic area. Church and com­mu­nity lead­ers ral­lied.

“Our neigh­bor­hood be­lieves that the path to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion lies not in fo­cus­ing on neg­a­tiv­ity and dif­fer­ences but in find­ing ways to bring peo­ple to­gether to build com­mu­nity,” Weeks says. “To cel­e­brate di­ver­sity, fos­ter unity and bring cel­e­bra­tion while hon­or­ing the rich her­itage and his­tory of our past.”

The St. John Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion helps or­ga­nize Na­tional Night Out block par­ties, school cel­e­bra­tions, the St. John Unity Walk and Rea­gan High School fes­ti­vals such as Hope Fest.

“Dur­ing our first St. John Unity Walk in 2006, Pas­tor Harold Hen­dricks, whose fam­ily had lived in St. John for many years, came up with our neigh­bor­hood motto,” Weeks says. “It is still quoted to­day: To­gether we can do more! Jun­tos pode­mos hacer mas!”

Now com­par­a­tively well or­ga­nized, the group came up with a neigh­bor­hood plan with the city of Austin plan­ning process. A re­vi­tal­iza­tion com­mit­tee ap­plied for the Parks Foun­da­tion grant. The city’s parks and re­cre­ation depart­ment will cover the cost of su­per­vis­ing con­trac­tors and re­mov­ing the fill-and-drain pool, a big ex­pense.

Wil­liams say that while lots are ap­praised for $50,000, they sell for $100,000 now — 100 times the orig­i­nal price. They are still af­ford­able com­pared to those in other parts of the city. And there are lots of kids.

Many res­i­dents in St. John know Grandma Wis­dom. She has pub­lished sev­eral books and pam­phlets of her thoughts, in­clud­ing “A Peo­ple Set A-P-A-RT,” “Dick, Jane and Sally: 1947” and “Let’s Stop Putting Each Other Down.” She was in­ter­viewed at length un­der a pseu­do­nym for the 2015 book “In­vis­i­ble in Austin: Life and La­bor in an Amer­i­can City,” a so­ci­o­log­i­cal study by Javier Auyero and a team of Univer­sity of Texas grad­u­ate stu­dents.

A big wel­come sign waits in her yard.

“It’s all about love,” she says. “I have garage give­aways, not garage sales — I don’t charge any­thing if they can’t pay. So neigh­bors feel that they can com­mu­ni­cate and talk to each other.”

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN PHO­TOS

Thelma “Grandma Wis­dom” Wil­liams wel­comes neigh­bors with a big love sign in her yard.

Thelma Wil­liams talks about her park-poor neigh­bor­hood with Julie Weeks and Ladye Anne Wof­ford.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN PHO­TOS

It’s all about love for Thelma “Grandma Wis­dom” Wil­liams and her St. John neigh­bor­hood.

Thelma “Grandma Wis­dom” Wil­liams talks about kids in her neigh­bor­hood with Julie Weeks and Ladye Anne Wof­ford.

Thelma “Grandma Wis­dom” Wil­liams is vice pres­i­dent of the St. John Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion.

The Austin Parks Foun­da­tion dropped a big grant on St. John Park, a pocket park that will be re­vived for the nearby bur­geon­ing fam­i­lies with chil­dren. Left to right, Ladye Anne Wof­ford, Thelma Wil­liams and Julie Weeks.

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