If ever there were a rose to grow from concrete, it would be found in Austin’s historic east side community. Literally known once as the Negro District in an effort to maintain racial segregation, Austin’s East Side has a deep-rooted history dating back as far as the 1900s. The East Austin community has seen its fair share of hardship over the generations, and it is out of one of its more recent troubled hubs that a rose has bloomed from the concrete.
Near the intersection of 12th and Airport, there is a building that many people overlook on their commutes. Once the home of Chester’s Nightclub, the building itself has come from less than humble beginnings. During Chester’s heyday, it was the rambunctious after-hours spot in east Austin. Because of it’s BYOB policy, it was able to remain open long after the hustle and bustle of 6th Street settled down, but this created an atmosphere which was commonly known for noise complaints, drug use and much more.
“Having this be a BYOB place meant that everyone from all over town would come here and it could be open until early mornings,” Partners and Events Director, Harmon Li explained. “With that usually comes a lot of noise problems because this place is in a residential neighborhood. A lot of things…the cliches…sketchy, dodgy stuff would be a nuisance here.”
Chester’s met its maker however, in the summer of 2007, when an altercation ended with an Austin police officer fatally shooting 25-year-old Kevin Brown, and for the east Austin community this was the nail in the coffin for Chester’s. The venue closed its doors for the last time in early 2008, becoming folklore among the annals of Austin’s cultural history.
When Space12 moved into the building later that year they definitely had work to do.
“When we first found the place, there were five layers of drywall hanging from the ceiling, and there was a 10-foot fence surrounding all of this trying to contain the audience,” Li said with a slight grin as he reminisced about the early days. “There were condoms, syringes, flyers for male stripping on Sunday nights – the whole gamut.”
Though coming from a rough past, the building wasn’t a luck-of-the-draw decision for the collective, as many members saw it as an opportunity to make a difference within the community. They wanted to create more than just another church, however, and it seems like they may have been onto something.
“At the time, a lot of people from the church community already lived here in this area, and we knew that this was the neighborhood,” Li explained. “The whole idea was that we wanted the community to see it not just as a church. If you drive on 12th, on Springdale, on Airport, you’ll see there are so many churches. We tried to be mindful, and didn’t want people to think, ‘oh just another one.’ We wanted this place for the local people to think ‘hey this is a building we can make use of.’”
Since taking over the venue, Space12 has been working hard to reach out to the community to change the image of the building and to start the healing process for the east Austin community. It was even crowned Austin’s Best New Collaborative Art and Volunteer Space in 2010, by The Austin Chronicle, adding to the positive vibes they’ve hoped to send into the community.
“Early on, we tried to come up with events and projects and be the catalyst and start things up. There was a health fair here, we’ve done clothing swaps and luncheons, and there was even a kids summer camp. All of that was great, but it was a lot of bandwidth. And we realized, why put together these inferior models of these things that we could do, when we realize there are non-profit groups doing these things far better than what we could do. So we decided to invite them in.”
The hope of facilitating such collaboration was the inspiration for the venue’s name, according to Li. “There were a couple of names suggested right off the bat. Space12 won by a vote. We wanted it to be kind of vague. It’s on 12th Street – so 12 – and space because we wanted this to be a space for many things so we kind of kept it vague in that sense.”
Space12 has earned some notable partners in their mission to make a difference, including the Inside Books Project, an Austin-based organization that sends free books and educational materials to prisoners throughout Texas.
“They provide books for free to inmates in the entire Texas prison system,” Li elaborated. “Inmates throughout Texas know about their program, and they know they can reach out and write letters to the group, asking for specific books to read or certain resource packets. They’ve been around since about 1997, and they’ve been here for seven years.”
The Inside Books Project has also made quite an impact across the state from under Space12’s roof.
“Inside Books receives written requests from inmates for books and resource guides,” their website states. “The books we send back become the personal property of the prisoner who requested them. In 2014, we received over 18,000 requests and sent out over 35,000 free books to prisoners. During each volunteer session, dozens of volunteers learn about the hopes and challenges of Texas inmates from personally reading and responding to their requests.”
Seven years after opening its doors, Space12 has continued to blossom and support the community. Over the years, they seem to have found their place among the changing east Austin landscape as the community continues to face gentrification. Despite this shift in the tides, Space12 is committed to being true to its roots.
“I think there are still some challenges that we’re not good at,” Li admitted. “We hope that this place can be and is still becoming as great as Chester’s was, where people can have a good time without it being a crazy place for parties all night long. It’s still a little raw for the local area and the residents, so we try our best to be mindful of that and be in communication with the local neighborhood because it affects them the most.”
Now, as Space12 grows, they have not forgotten where they came from. While Chester’s is now nothing more than folklore of a time when Austin was still weird, they have held onto one element of the building’s past life.
“The only thing remaining from Chester’s is the bar, because we thought that was actually kind of cool and useful for events,” Li pointed out. “We try to make this place a space that is a canvas for the community to use…We want this place to be known that it’s a place where people can come in and collaborate.”
By Nick Bailey