If you live in Austin, you know we like to do things our own way. That includes how we name our streets. But it can sometimes be confusing. For example, shouldn’t First Street be in the place of Cesar Chavez, parallel with all the other numbered streets downtown?
Austin native Jessica Wang wanted to know.
The 21-year-old Harvard student first noticed this peculiar set up when she got her driver's license.
“For some reason, I just had assumed that it was Third, Second, First and then Cesar Chavez, and I didn't even know what I thought the First Street Bridge was," Wang says. "Then when I started driving, I was just like really confused, and I got lost a couple of times before I figured it out, and then since then, I was like, 'Why is this? It makes no sense!'"
To make sense of it, the question needs to be broken down into two – one for each street.
First, Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez was originally First, but let's go back even further.
When the City of Austin was first planned, the downtown numbered streets we know today were actually named after trees.
"Pine, Hickory. Hickory was Eighth Street," says Mike Miller, city archivist and manager of the Austin History Center. "Sixth Street was Pecan Street, which is why we have the Old Pecan Street Festival.”
The city was originally one square mile. It stretched north from the Colorado River to what is now 15th Street. It was bordered by Shoal Creek on the west and Waller Creek on the east. At that time, the street we know today as Cesar Chavez was actually called Water Avenue – because it’s near the water. That’s simple enough.
So, when and why did the city make the change to numbered streets?
"They renamed those streets in the 1880s," Miller says. "The exact date is not known, but between 1885 and 1889 they were transitioning from having all the streets named after trees to being named after numbers, probably to make it easier."
That's when the city changed Water Avenue to First Street. For those who expect a First Street where Cesar Chavez Street is – well, technically, Cesar Chavez is First Street. But it was renamed in 1993 to honor the American labor leader and Hispanic rights activist when he died.
Architect Girard Kinney has worked closely with the city over the years and is a lifelong Austinite. He remembers when the city decided to make the change.
"Generally, I like numbered streets as a planner and architect," Kinney, 74, says. "Still, in special cases I think it's good to honor people whose values we support, and certainly with the large Mexican-American population we have here, I thought it was a good move for the City of Austin.”
So, what’s up with South First Street?
"South First Street has been South First Street my entire life," Kinney says. "I grew up on Kinney Avenue in South Austin from the 1940s. So, as far as I know, South First has always been there.”
Historians and planners tell me the street was most likely named by whoever was part of expanding development into South Austin.
"For the longest time, there was no South Austin," Miller says. "There was Austin, the river, then a maybe few scattered settlements south of the river, but it wasn’t part of Austin.”
This can be traced back to the early 20th century. Miller says the numbered streets in South Austin – First through Seventh – were originally plotted as part of the Bouldin Addition, known today as the Bouldin Creek neighborhood.
A street map from 1919 identifies Bouldin as Austin’s southernmost “suburb.” South First Street is plainly labeled. So, why the name?
"What probably happened is when that area was annexed and brought into the city limits, the 'South' part was added to denote that it’s South First versus East First and West First," Miller says.
Remember, at that time Cesar Chavez was First.
So, it seems Jessica Wang was right about First Street. It should be there, and it was. The city just renamed it for someone who earned his place as No. 1. And for South First, it’s just south of the river with its own set of numbered streets.
It may not make sense, but it's definitely part of what makes Austin weird.