Downtown Waco: A little history…
By Rolando Rodriguez Soto
(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco. In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.” In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.” To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT)
I may not be able to say that I am a Waco native, but I have lived in Waco since I was two years old. Downtown to me has always been just place with the ALICO and where my parents went if they needed to go to a city office.
Just recently I spent a little time paging through a book called, A Pictorial History of Waco. The pictures in the “pictorial history” show a lively city with an animated downtown, full of energy. When I compare those pictures to the downtown I grew up in, I’ll admit it evokes a little melancholy. What happened? Why did downtown Waco decline?
At the turn of the 20th century, Waco was one of the largest cities in Texas, and one of the fastest growing. “Cotton was king,” as the saying goes, and Waco was one the largest cotton markets in this country.
After the depression hit in 1929, the cotton market suffered in Waco. On top of that, the area experienced four years of the worst drought it had ever had. Then, after World War I, manufacturers found they could import cheaper cotton from South America. The market for Waco cotton plummeted. It wasn’t until a new military presence came into Waco after World War II that Waco truly pulled out of the depression.
Despite these setbacks, however, Waco maintained a vibrant, working downtown through the 1930’s and 40’s. Don Davis, a fifth-generation native Wacoan and executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation, recounted some of his memories of downtown Waco in the early 50s to me. Davis remembers going into shops, bakeries, and restaurants, going to his barber, and visiting his father’s office – all downtown.
“Growing up in Waco, I remember when downtown was very vibrant with lots of stores and lots of people,” Davis said. “Austin Ave was our main drag, and in junior high, we went up and down the street. It was exciting times.”
In 1953, a devastating tornado ripped through Waco. It was part of a 33-tornado outbreak that affected 10 different U.S. states. It struck Waco on May 11, 1953. Nearly 600 people were injured and 114 died; it is still considered the deadliest tornado in U.S. history. The twister demolished hundreds of houses and structures, and wiped out a significant portion of downtown Waco.
In the 50s and early 60s, businesses began moving out of the downtown area into new shopping centers. The first mall was the Westview Shopping Center on Valley Mills Dr. The Lake Air Mall (which is now Target) was soon to follow. With major retailers like Sears leaving downtown, Waco’s city center became abandoned.
The city attempted several times to reverse the trend, but they all ultimately failed. For example, the city closed Austin Ave to cars to create a walking, outdoor mall with canopies and trees. People still wouldn’t come to downtown. Merchants complained because they were losing business without people driving along Austin Ave. By the 70’s and 80’s the once bustling downtown Waco felt like a ghost town.
Then something good began to happen. In the early 2000s development efforts started to gain some traction. River Square Center, which currently has Spice Village, Trojan’s, Ninfa’s and other businesses and restaurants, came to life… people started moving downtown and building loft apartments. These new downtown residents needed businesses and services. Most recently McLane Stadium and the Magnolia Market have lured thousands of visitors downtown.
Mr. Davis welcomes the new developments in downtown, and he pointed out one of the best parts of the revitalization is that many of the older buildings are being saved while blending in more contemporary developments. This maintains the history and character of downtown.
Eric Ames, author of Images of America: Waco, also values the slow progress of the recent developments. He believes a measured pace ensures that the new businesses are finding a needed market in downtown as well as maintaining the historic value of Waco.
“We do have a large amount of buildings and features downtown that have been around since the late 19th century,” Ames said. “You have to be careful about changing them too much. Once you take away the historic value, you can’t get it back. “
Ames went on to say that these buildings and features in Waco help tell the stories. If everything in downtown looked new, you would lose that connection to how downtown has evolved from the vibrant era to the tornado to the failed revitalization attempts and finally to the hopeful present.
I went to high school at A. J. Moore Academy (now Indian Spring Middle School), and unlike Mr. Davis’s stories of spending his high school days hanging out on Austin Avenue, I never ventured the few blocks into downtown. Since becoming a Baylor student, however, downtown has become more of a destination.
We are moving in the right direction. The potential is there. Our best days might not be the days pictured in “The Pictorial History of Downtown Waco, ” they might be the ones just ahead of us!
Rolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.
The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.