In the late morning hours on the Southeast corner of 12th and Chicon streets, a visitor sees a bus stop with a bench on the Chicon side. Behind that bus stop, an empty lot; way behind that, a small convenience store with a drive-thru window. And then, on the 12th Street side, Marshall’s Barbershop.
Tommy Bonds is sitting at the bus stop. Bonds is originally from West Memphis, Ark., but has been living in Austin since 1999. He just got back from his doctor’s office to make sure his diabetes hasn’t affected his eyesight. Now, he’s sitting at the bus stop, enjoying a beer and some pork skins he bought at the convenience store. The beer remains unopened in a small paper sack as he surveys the area. The corner has improved from years past, he said.
“It’s not trash everywhere, it’s not beer cans. I see they done cut the trees and stuff where nobody can be hiding,” he said. “Because back in the day, people was peeing everywhere, on the street, just doing what they want to do. And panhandling cars in the middle of the street. I don’t see that anywhere. People have moved on. If they’re not in jail...they have their homes, or they’re somewhere else.”
Bonds said he’s had lots of different jobs. He’s bipolar and has been in trouble with drugs and alcohol in the past. He was homeless for six years.
“Straight out homeless, sleeping on the street, behind buildings, in between buildings. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it. That’s where I’m at. I’m not homeless any more; I've got me a home,” he said. “Thank you, Jesus.”
A little later, Tony Aldaca waits for a bus at the same stop. He’s dressed in jeans, a clean shirt and a baseball cap.
“I came over here to the Missionary Baptist Church to see if I could get donuts and coffee,” he said, nodding to the church across the street. “But, I came too late.”
Aldaca used to pour concrete slabs with his brothers, but he hasn’t worked in 10 years and he’s been homeless for the past two. He said he rides the bus all day long, when he has bus fare.
“I don’t have any gear. I just usually buy second-hand clothes, wear it until it gets worn out, and then I change to another set of clothes,” he said. “I try not to carry clothes because it gets too heavy.
Then, his bus arrives and Aldaca is off.
Up the street at Marshall’s Barber Shop, Eldrick Cooper has worked at the shop for close to 23 years – he’s been the owner for 12 of them. His lease is up in March and the property has been sold. He's heard how much the property was sold for, but he won’t say. It’s a matter of time before he has to move.
“I’m pretty sure when you buy this land and this building for the type of money they paid for it, I don’t see it being a barbershop,” he said.
Cooper is staying put until he knows whether his lease will get renewed. But the sale has already had an effect here.
“One of my barbers, that was also my cousin, he opened up a barbershop when he heard that we may lose the business,” Cooper said. “He ended up opening another barbershop and a couple of barbers went with him.”
Cooper said he plans on keeping his business on the East Side, but he expects that in 10 years this corner will be different.
“This barbershop probably won’t be this style barbershop. If it'd be a barbershop, it'd probably be in a condo, or at the bottom of a business or something like that. Or the store won’t be [here]. It’ll be a Whole Foods or something.”
One of his customers on a bright autumn day is Guthrie Ramsey, a college professor in town for a conference on African-American scholarship and activism.
“I wanted to look nice,” Ramsey said. He's never been to Marshall's – he lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
So, how do you find a barbershop in a city you don’t know? One of Ramsey's friends suggested a strategy.
“Hit Martin Luther King Drive, which is kind of an inside joke. Martin Luther King Drive is usually in a black neighborhood in cities – I travel a lot,” Ramsey said. “She said, ‘Go East, and then start looking for the folk.’ Once I got to the correct side of town, if you Google ‘barbershop,' it’ll give you barbershops in that proximity, and this one was the first one that came up.”
Despite recent changes, this corner has rough edges. There seem to be a few people who are suffering from mental illness and are homeless.
And then, in the early afternoon, a women who looks like she’s in her 40's pulls into the parking lot in a black Mercedes Benz. Then, one of the men sitting under a big tree behind the convenience store slides into the passenger seat of the Mercedes. I can see the woman counting her cash as the man watches closely. And the woman and he drive off.