On This East Austin Corner, You Can Get Legal Advice, Cajun Food and a Haircut
Bobby Mitchell walks across the parking lot on the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Angelina Street, pointing to the large, newly built homes across the street.
“That house wasn’t there, that house wasn’t there, that house wasn’t there. That was the day care. That was shut down. That was The Villager. They got that place for sale," he says, pointing down the street. “That used to be shut down. That was a historical teacher house, Ms. Connelly. That was shut down.”
East Austin is considered a hotbed of gentrification and constant change, but to Bobby, the neighborhood isn’t still changing, it’s already changed.
“This was our side of town," Bobby says. "We had nowhere to go. They’re running us to Elgin. They're running us to Manor. They're running us to Pflugerville. They're running us to Round Rock. They’re running us to Lockhart. We can’t afford to stay here! The neighborhood is getting richer and we're getting poorer.”
By "we," he means the dwindling African-American population in the neighborhood. Bobby, who is black, has been in East Austin since 1991. He’s one of the longtime residents who has left as the neighborhood gets less affordable. He moved farther away than others —to Killeen.
What keeps him driving the hour commute back to East Austin every day? His businesses.
Bobby is a licensed master barber and owns a food truck. He and his wife, Judy, also own and run the Ideal Soul Mart on the corner. Bobby says he's been working for himself since he was a kid in Baton Rouge, La.
“My first job at 12 years old was a paper route," Mitchell remembers. "I'd throw newspapers from 2 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock in the morning until it was time to go to school. I checked out of school at 12 o’clock that day. ... I had to go start my paper route again.”
When he got here, he went straight to the East Side.
“When I first moved to Austin, Texas, they told me to not go to 12th and Chicon. That’s the first place I went.”
He opened his first barber shop on 12th street. He still cuts hair — at another shop next to the convenience store. Every day he walks back and forth between the store and the shop when a client comes in.
Recently, Bobby also opened a Cajun food truck called Swamp Daddy's outside the convenience store.
Bobby sees the changed neighborhood as another business opportunity. When longtime neighbors want to sell their homes to developers, Bobby occasionally helps them get a good price. He says he gets a sort-of finder’s fee for his work.
“I hustle," Bobby says. "Whatever way it is to make money, I know how to make money. And that’s a way for me to make money. By me cutting hair 32 years, I know a lot of black people in the neighborhood. Because somebody comes in the barber shop, and they want to sell their house, and they don’t know who they want to deal with, because they think people are trying to jack them out [of their] house.”
When Charles Carver showed up at the store one day, Bobby saw another business opportunity.
Charles grew up in North Texas. He went to St. Edward’s University and law school at Texas Tech before heading back to Austin last year to start his practice.
“Being a new attorney, I was looking for office space near the courthouse was very expensive," Charles says. "My father, kind of in a glib way said, ‘Why don’t you put it in an Airstream like everyone does?’ and I thought, ‘Now that’s a good idea.’”
Finding a trailer was easy. Charles renovated it into an office where he could meet with clients and work on cases.
“Finding a location for it was really just a matter of walking around, and I just walked a bunch of neighborhoods that I thought didn’t have a lot of saturation of attorneys.”
That led him to East Austin – and to Bobby.
“When Charles came to me. It was just his abundance about himself," Bobby remembers. "He was real respectable, he was real amenable. I got a food truck. I was going to put another food truck right there. But, by the way he came to me and the way we sit and talking and he told me what he was going to be doing, I welcomed him with open arms.”
Charles opened his law office last June. He mostly gets walk-in clients with a variety of problems, including traffic issues, serious crimes, civil issues, wills, contract disputes and more. He says he’s providing a necessary service: easy access legal advice to low-income residents.
“There’s not a lot of public transportation access over here," he says. "Not everybody has a car. Scheduling an appointment with an attorney, going into a large office building, going past security, going past their secretary and everything. What I think has really benefited the neighborhood is that people can walk by, and they just knock on the door, or if the doors open, they can come in and say 'hi' and we can talk about their issue.”
Bobby doesn’t just see the agreement with Charles as a business opportunity, but also as a way to help someone starting his own business.
“He young and he trying to do something for himself. My landlord is really, really good to me. I can’t knock nobody. So, the blessings he give me, I give to others and we both was a blessing to each other.”
Charles represents a lot of the change Bobby has seen in the neighborhood. He’s white, and his trailer is emblematic of the new businesses moving into the neighborhood.
“He represents a change, but by us working together, you know, it's like, a change to show that black and white can get along," Bobby says. "But, like I say, I never had a prejudice bone in my body. You get along with me, I get along with you.”
Bobby plans to cut hair less and focus on his food truck these days, but he'll continue to run the store. Despite the move to Killeen, Bobby says, when it comes to his business, he’s not going anywhere.
“I don’t like accepting no," he says. "So I’m going to continue to stay in this area where I’m at and try my best to not let them run me out of here. I’m gonna stay here.”