By Marty Toohey
More than a decade ago, parks enthusiast Chris Riley decided cleaning up trash alone would not restore Wooldridge Square’s former glory.
The downtown park had a few discarded beer cans and fast-food wrappers. The lights and fountain didn’t work, either. The grass was dying. And many of the people who used the park were looking for a place to sleep. But those were symptoms. Mainly, the park fell into disuse because Austin had changed around it.
It seemed a shame to Riley, who lived next to the Wooldridge Square near the intersection of West Eighth and San Antonio streets. More than anything, the park felt empty — a strange feeling for a place that was once the heart of Austin’s civic life. Crowds once packed the 1.7-acre sloping park every weekend to listen to an orchestra playing from the bandstand, where politicians also debated matters great and small, and where Lyndon Johnson announced his intention to seek the presidency.
Riley said that by the time he moved to the neighborhood in 1990 “the park didn’t have much activity and it wasn’t an inviting place.”
Despite the efforts of a few people, including Riley, who was elected to the City Council in May and starts on Monday, the park still isn’t inviting. But parks and downtown advocates are hoping to change that.
Today, they are hosting a concert at 1 p.m. that will be accompanied by an exhibit at the neighboring Austin History Center. They hope to use the event as a springboard for short-term plans to put Wooldridge Square to better use. But long-term ideas are less certain.
“It’s an interesting case study,” said Riley, “in what makes an urban park work.”
A community center in decline
This is not the first time Wooldridge Square has been neglected.
After being written into Austin’s original 1839 urban plan as a park , city leaders promptly decided to use the square as a dump. It remained that way until 1909 , when then-Mayor A.P. Wooldridge had the property cleaned up and restored, according to the Austin History Center and a 2007 report by University of Texas students commissioned by the Downtown Austin Alliance.
In its early years, the city booked concerts in Wooldridge Square every Friday night. The bowl shape made an excellent amphitheater, according to news accounts from the time. In 1918 , nearly 10,000 people gathered around the square for a community sing-along to show support for troops during World War I. In 1911 , Texas Gov. Oscar Branch Colquitt “began the tradition of launching campaigns from the bandstand,” according to the 2007 study.
Austinite Bob Eckhardt , who would eventually be elected to Congress by Houston-area voters, once remarked that “American politics needed a national Wooldridge park, where we could come to freely and passionately argue politics and policy,” the report said.
Today, most people walk around Wooldridge Square on their way to nearby government offices. Homeless men tend to use the Faulk Central Library a block away for the Internet access, making the park a logical drop point for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit that provides free meals to those who can’t afford to buy them. The Austin Symphony Orchestra began playing a free summer concert series there in 2003 , but moved it to the Long Center in 2008 .
Wooldridge Square now has occasional events, such as a three-hour Juneteenth event that happened Thursday . But the park has numerous upkeep problems, according to the 2007 UT report. For example, the lights in the middle of the bowl don’t work, leaving it an impenetrably dark at night. Crime might be no higher than at Republic or Brush squares — two downtown counterparts that now are being fixed up — but Wooldridge Square “doesn’t make people feel safe,” said Michael McGill , a past president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association .
“We’re not trying to sugar coat this,” McGill said. “The park is not what it should be.”‘
A changing city
Jane Jacobs , a writer whose critiques of 1950s urban renewal projects helped shape the later New Urbanist movement, argued that city parks tend to fall into disuse without a healthy mix of shops, homes and businesses around them.
Riley subscribes to this theory. When he was coordinating the 90th anniversary celebration of Wooldridge Square, he began digging into the Austin History Center archives and uncovered photos showing what the 2007 Wooldridge study described as an “intact residential fabric” surrounding the park in the 1920s and ’30s.
But after World War II, Austinites began moving to newly built neighborhoods farther from downtown, mirroring a national trend. Gradually, many of the downtown homes were torn down to make way for parking lots and office building.
“As the people moved away … there were fewer uses for the square,” said Charlie McCabe , the Austin Parks Foundation’s executive director.
Even subtle changes in political culture contributed to Wooldridge Square’s decline. County courthouses were once the center of American civic life, and that was the case with the courthouse at the northern edge of Wooldridge Square.
“But where do most protests take place these days?” McCabe said. “At the plaza in front of City Hall,” which is eight blocks from Wooldridge Square, but is surrounded by new condos and shops and feels like a different part of town.
The city is crafting a downtown master plan to address the Wooldridge Square neighborhood. But most of the buildings around it are now owned by the Travis County government.
County officials have mentioned revitalizing the neighborhood as part of plans to build a new courthouse there. But the big ideas are part of a 15- to 20 -year planning process that has just started and could go any number of ways, said County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt (who, as the daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt , recalls him sneaking out of church to listen debates at Wooldridge Square).
“We have every intention,” Sarah Eckhardt said, “of embedding ourselves in the Wooldridge Square revitalization process.”
Change isn’t coming quickly. But there is a silver lining, McGill said: “There are no neighbors to annoy.” That, he says, makes the place suitable for loud concerts and events, particularly because the bandstand is still in good shape.
The parks foundation is now trying to raise money for cosmetic repairs. It is doing much the same with Republic and Brush squares, which have attracted significantly more use lately. But Wooldridge’s counterparts are in neighborhoods where new residents and shops are moving in.
There are no such attractions by Wooldridge Square, which prompted Riley to raise the money for a giant chess set for the park that he hoped would lure people in to play. Most Saturdays, a smattering of kids move chess pieces nearly as large as they are.
“It was never about chess,” Riley said, “It was about bringing people to the park.”