Lens of History
Austin, Texas, Then and Now
Review by Christopher Dow
If you live in Austin, half the photographs in Jeffrey’s Kerr’s book probably will seem commonplace, while the other half might look, at most, only hauntingly familiar. Taken as a whole, though, the photos are certain to make you pause and consider historical perspective.
The book is Austin, Texas, Then and Now: A Photography Scrapbook (Promised Land Books, 2004), and in it, Kerr takes a simple idea and replicates it with interesting results. To begin with, he collected some hundred old photographs of the city dating from the 1860s to the 1940s. Then, during 2004, he took his own camera and captured shots of the same vistas as they look today. The photos—old and new—are reproduced side-by-side on facing pages, each with explanatory text written by the author.
Looking at the paired photos, it’s impossible not to be awed by the differences and the way the city has grown and developed. But equally remarkable is the number of old buildings that have endured and how much of the original infrastructure of the city remains evident.
One extreme example of this are the photos showing the First Methodist Church at the corner of West 12th Street and Lavaca, the state capitol’s dome towering in the background. Except for the presence of traffic signals and larger trees in the newer photo, the scenes are practically identical. More amazing is the difference between Barton Springs in 1886 and the way it looks today or the view along Speedway in 1897, with its empty expanse relieved only by a row of seedlings and dominated by a huge light tower.
In 2004, the seedlings are fully grown trees and the plain is covered with houses, but the hundred-year-old light tower still rises over it all. The text explains why such a light tower existed in the first place—Hyde Park developer Monroe Shipe, with an eye toward the future, convinced the city of Austin to erect thirty-one such towers in his proposed neighborhood.
Kerr’s inspiration for the book was a story he read about Texas’s then-vice president Mirabeau B. Lamar killing a buffalo in 1838 at what is now the intersection of 8th Street and Congress Avenue. “I visited downtown Austin to stand on the spot of the unfortunate buffalo’s demise,” Kerr writes. “As I gazed north to the Capitol and all around me at tall buildings new and old, I was struck by the drastically different appearance the landscape offers in modern times.... I was saddened that nothing remains as a physical link to the city’s birth.”
But further reflection proved him wrong. “Standing at 8th and Congress, I could visually trace exactly the same sloping terrain down to the waterfront that inspired Lamar. I could turn around and see the same hill conceptualized by urban planner and Lamar friend Edwin Waller as the perfect site for the Republic’s Capitol building.”
Kerr says that the book is not a history, per se, nor is it a collection of artistic photographs. “Instead,” he writes, “I present a scrapbook of Austin scenery, which may serve to strengthen our ties to those who preceded us, and our sense of responsibility to those whom we precede.”
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Austin, Texas, Then and Now is the way that, after a time, the photographs cease to be about Austin, instead depicting Anytown, U.S.A. In the older photos, we are treated to common street scenes of proto-urban American life—filled with horses and wagons, early automobiles, and the kinds of shops and businesses that no longer exist—only to have them transform in the next photo into something so familiar it seems to have been with us forever. But if the older photos demonstrate just how short-lived our cultural memories can be, they also imply that our current state is probably just as transient.
Kerr practices pediatric neurology in Austin, and the book jacket includes, appropriately enough, then-and-now photos of the author.
Reprinted from Rice Sallyport, Summer 2006.