What was the grandstand on the shores of Lady Bird Lake in East Austin used for?
Imagine walking the trails along Lady Bird Lake. On the pedestrian bridge at Chicano Park, you look across the lagoon to see a grandstand right by the water.
It's overgrown, rundown. Like some kind of relic.
“I come out to Town Lake often, and for years I’ve seen the grandstands at Fiesta Gardens," Matthew Rizzo says. "I was always kind of curious as to what the history was behind them and how they were used.”
So he asked us about it for our ATXplained project.
Rizzo says the grandstand makes him think of the finish line of some kind of boat race. He isn’t too far off.
The grandstand is part of Fiesta Gardens on the shores of Festival Beach. The venue has a complex history: It began its life in the '60s as a place to get a taste of Latin American culture for all those "tourists" coming from West Austin.
Then it became a public event space that hosted events for decades — from Cinco de Mayo parties, to Pride events and hot sauce festivals to fiestas patrias and even boat races.
It was the site of some major friction between city government and the neighborhood where it is located in East Austin. Most recently, it hasn’t been used for much.
Fiesta Gardens began its life as one of the first public-private ventures on what was then known as Town Lake. A private company opened Fiesta Gardens on public-owned land in 1966. The company that developed it had visions of a lush tropical lagoon.
“At that time, ski shows and motorized boats were really popular, so they were wanting to bring that sort of flair to it and make it a tourist attraction,” says Sarah Marshall, coordinator for the historic preservation and tourism program at the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
The lagoon used to be a gravel quarry before it was filled with water from Town Lake. When visiting the lagoon, you could see boat races or take a boat tour. The grandstand could seat up to 1,000 people for waterskiing shows that took place three times a day for almost a year.
The idea was to cater to visitors looking for a taste of Latin American culture and aquatic activities. (Everyone knows Austin is the live aquatic acrobatics capital of the world!)
“[The company] expected the numbers to be phenomenal,” Marshall says.
They were not.
The complex opened in 1966, and a year later the company shut it down. The city bought back the lease for $115,000. But the story doesn’t end there.
Aqua Fest Fiasco
After it became a publicly owned complex, Fiesta Gardens was used for events, and soon, another Austin staple would rock the boat along Festival Beach.
“Aqua Fest started in 1962 and then moved over to Fiesta Gardens in the late '60s," Marshall says, "and the drag boat races started in the '60s as well."
The drag boat races occurred three weekends out of the year, with the championship races taking place as part of Aqua Fest in August.
The neighborhood vehemently opposed these races.
Paul Hernandez was a community activist and founder of the Austin chapter of the Brown Berets, a paramilitary organization focused on Chicano rights that started in the '60s. In a documentary about the dispute called “Boats in the Barrio," he talks about the problems the community faced during the weeks when the races were happening.
“The most obvious of course being the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the congestion of thousands of people — tourists — invading a residential area and leaving their trash behind,” he says.
Every year, the neighborhood petitioned the City Council to move the races. Every year, elected officials agreed to move the races. And every year, the roar of high-powered drag boats would ring through the neighborhood.
The council agreed the races should be moved. But they weren’t.
The issues went deeper than just the boats and the trash. Many residents felt disrespected, like their needs were less of a priority than the needs of all the people who came for the races.
“They don’t give a damn about our property, our houses, our neighborhood. All they want is a good race, to see somebody break a record or flip over and break his neck,” Hernandez says in the documentary.
After the council approved the races again in 1978, the neighborhood kept a promise to protest on the shores of Festival Beach. A fight broke out between the demonstrators and police.
Nineteen protesters were arrested, and one police officer was suspended for using excessive force. It was the last year for the drag boat races on Town Lake, and Aqua Fest finally moved.
Back to the community
Despite not always being a good neighbor, Fiesta Gardens eventually became part of the community. People in the neighborhood used it for quinceañeras, a conjunto festival and more.
When he was growing up in East Austin, "it just seemed like Fiesta Gardens was the place," says Baldomero Cuellar, executive director of the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival. "It just had a community feel to it.”
He’s seen the neighborhood around it evolve over the years. And he sees the ever-rising property values in East Austin as a big reason behind the changes.
“As far as the people moving in, you have two types," he says. "You have the ones that move there for the culture and the beauty of that neighborhood close to the river and stuff. But then you have the ones that want to come and change things.”
Outside of Austin’s yearly Pride fest, Fiesta Gardens isn’t used for much these days. Cuellar has tried a few times to host an event at the Gardens, but he hasn’t had much luck. The neighborhood has changed — and so have the rules.
“The biggest complaint is the noise, but I’m like, 'You moved next to a cultural music venue, why are you complaining?' You know?” he says.
Renovations to a community landmark
You won’t hear the roar of drag boats anymore from Fiesta Gardens. It seems like the city is quick to respond to noise complaints now. Anyone trying to rent the space must follow some tough guidelines.
The city has a plan to preserve Fiesta Gardens that includes improving accessibility and restoring the grandstand to its former glory. But the city used the funding meant for the project on COVID response — and the funding hasn't come back yet.
The plan was to return Fiesta Gardens to the community. But Cuellar isn’t convinced that can be done.
“In my wish list, there’d be a stage like in San Antonio where a band can come and plug in and just play. Keep that part of the culture and the history alive," he says. "That would be nice, but I don’t see that happening. You’re gonna have people complain.”
Until the city funds the renovations, the grandstand will loom across the lagoon — a reminder of the history and conflict set in this place surrounded by a rapidly changing East Austin.