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A tower has loomed in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood for 72 years. What does it do?

The tower looms large over the Clarksville neighborhood.
Nathan Bernier
KUT News
The tower looms large over the Clarksville neighborhood.

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At the corner of West Lynn and 9 1/2 Street in Clarksville, there's a tower. It's not a skyscraper — though it is very tall. The red and white metal scaffolding reaches almost 300 feet into the air. It looks like a drawing of an old radio tower. People usually just call it “The Tower,” though “The Clarksville Eiffel Tower” and “The Leaning Tower of Clarksville” have also been thrown around.

Kira McCool wanted to know: Why is it here? What is it doing? And maybe most importantly: Can she climb it?

“There’s a lot of wires. I see blinking lights,” says McCool, as we stand at the base of the tower. “But … why is it here in the middle of Austin? And it’s been here my whole life. It’s been here for 30 years.”

Mathews Elementary School is right next door. A block or two down the street there are fancy restaurants. The tower is surrounded by single-family homes. So how did this quiet neighborhood wind up with one of West Austin's biggest landmarks?

The Long Lines

The tower has stood here for more than 70 years. It was built as part of AT&T’s Long Lines network. Back then, old wire-based telephone networks were getting jammed as more and more people made phone calls. So engineers came up with a new way to send phone calls long distance: microwave radio relay.

A black and white map showing the Long Lines microwave relay network across the continental U.S. and Canada.
A map of the Long Lines network from 1960.

This system would beam signals from one tower to another using microwave transmitters mounted on top of towers just like the one in Clarksville. There were hundreds of them across the country. Several more of these telecom relics are still standing in the Austin area: one near Wimberley to the south, one in Pflugerville to the north and another outside of Florence, north of Georgetown. Each of these was a link in a chain to send phone signals over vast distances — through the air.

Not only did the Long Lines network allow more and more long-distance phone calls, but it also made network television possible. In 1951, the first live coast-to-coast TV broadcast, via the Long Lines, was done by CBS News in New York City. See It Now, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, marked a new age in broadcasting.

Austin actually missed this milestone. The Clarksville Tower wasn't finished until early 1952. The first TV station in town, KTBC, didn’t go on the air until later that year. But when it did, the tower was ready.

The tower's connection to Clarksville's communities of color

But why is this tower here in this neighborhood? It does sit on kind of a hill, although there are higher spots nearby. Cables needed to be run to a phone company switching office downtown, so its proximity to downtown makes sense. It had an unobstructed sight line to the other towers to the north and south.

The tower’s current neighbors have their own suspicions.

"This was a Black neighborhood in the beginning," says Meghann Rosales, who lives in the shadow of the tower. "This is where they would have the least resistance putting it.”

Clarksville was founded by former enslaved people after the Civil War. Their descendants stayed in the neighborhood even after the city tried to force them to move to East Austin with the 1928 Master Plan. The city denied residents here basic services — the roads weren't even paved in Clarksville until the 1970s.

Putting industrial infrastructure in communities of color was prevalent during segregation.

"I can't imagine they would have located it in Old Enfield or Pemberton [Heights] or Tarrytown,” says Mary Reed, who's lived in Clarksville since 1989. "But there was this pretty high elevation … and poor Black neighborhood. So, perfect location."

At least for the phone company.

For decades, the tower was Austin's main communication hub with the outside world. But the time of the Long Lines was finite. Satellites and fiber optics came along. In 2001, the Clarksville Tower was sold to a company called American Tower Corp., which owns thousands of broadcast and communications towers nationwide. The huge microwave horns at the top of the tower were removed. Now, the tower is lined with wireless phone antennae.

In a sense, the tower is still doing the same job — sending voice, video and data to people — just in a different way.

A telecom transmission tower at the corner of West Lynn and 10th streets in Clarksville is pictured next to Mathews Elementary on March 4.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
A telecom transmission tower at the corner of West Lynn and 10th streets in Clarksville is pictured next to Mathews Elementary on March 4.

The tower is such a presence here, looming over everything (though some people told me after living near it for a while, it just kind of disappears for them). But I wondered how people feel about it. Do they love it, hate it or are they indifferent?

"I think the major positive is for our 3-year-old, who, when we’re driving, sees and thinks it's the coolest. 'There's the tower, we're almost home!" Rosales says. "I feel like point of pride is too much, but I think it represents something like 'I love living in Austin.' Not trying to romanticize the tower, but it is sort of folded in as — visually — one of things that is an identifier for me, for our family."

"Especially when it's a really deep blue sky, and the tower is against the sky, it's actually kind of pretty in a weird way," Reed says.

Susana Gomez has a full view of the tower from the roof deck on her house just across 10th Street. I ask her: Would you miss it if it were gone?

"I don’t know …" she says, taking a long pause. "Yeah, I don't think I'd miss it."

Up we go

Kira had one more question about the tower: Can she climb it?

Well, I made some calls and wrote some emails. But, I wasn’t able to get permission. I didn’t get a “no,” but I didn’t get a “yes.” And the "No Trespassing" and "Danger" signs all around the tower indicated we probably shouldn't bust in and climb it — while documenting our adventure.

Of course, others have done it.

But maybe we could do the next best thing?

KUT's Nathan Bernier met Kira and me at the tower with his tiny drone. We lean over his shoulder to peer at the screen as he pilots the drone up, up, up the tower. From the top, the view is magnificent.

"I know it's not climbing it, but is this a decent second place?" I ask Kira.

"Yeah, this feels like a real front row seat to the action," she says.

Clarksville Tower Drone

Looking down from the tower, you can imagine just how much everything in view has changed in the 72 years since it was built. The tower has seen this place transformed from an area whose Black residents were denied paved roads, water and other city services — to one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Austin.

But love it or hate it, the tower is still there.


Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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