Daphne Glasgow gets nostalgic when she thinks of The Drag, the strip of shops and restaurants nestled along the UT Austin campus on Guadalupe Street. On Saturday mornings, she and her middle-school friends would walk up and down the street taking pictures of students and strangers passing by.
“I think a lot about its history. My father went to college at UT and when I was a kid, he would explain to me like, ‘Oh, in my day, this used to be Tower Records, or this used to be a theater,’” she said.
Glasgow says she can hardly believe how much it’s changed since the ’90s.
“It’s weird, and not in like a ‘Keep Austin Weird’ sense. I just remember the smell of grit and grunge, and I imagine when Richard Linklater filmed Slacker here, that’s what I see,” she said. “Now, it’s very clean – too clean. … You have Target and CVS, when I remember vintage shops and independent stores.”
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the street’s nickname. Glasgow wondered where "The Drag" came from, so she asked our ATXplained project to find out.
Glasgow said she thinks the nickname could date back to the ’20s when smoking was more popular and public, and people took “drags” off cigarettes.
Jim Nicar, who has published two books about UT, says the story of how The Drag got its name dates back even further.
When UT opened its 40-acre campus in 1883, he said, the section of Guadalupe – then “unpaved and dusty” – had only a few houses, a dry goods shop, two grocery stores and a saloon just north of 24th Street.
“The Board of Regents had decided to place a Victorian Gothic ‘main building,’ made from pale-yellow pressed brick and limestone trim, in the center of campus, where the tower stands today,” Nicar said.
Yet, UT funding didn’t allow the entire building to be constructed at once. So instead, the Board of Regents called to have the west wing built first, which proved essential to the development of The Drag.
“To get to classes each day, most of the professors walked over, crossed Guadalupe, and hiked up to the west wing,” Nicar said. “Students did the same, though they could also take the horse-drawn Austin trolley that came north from downtown and stopped on Guadalupe just even with the west wing.”
Through this particular section of Guadalupe, the trolley “dragged along,” thus the nickname was born, Nicar said.
But “The Drag” isn’t unique to Guadalupe Street. Busy streets across the country were often referred to as “main drags” because of horses pulling or “dragging” carts and buggies behind them. It’s also the origin of the term “drag racing,” Nicar said.
If the Board of Regents had decided to construct the east side of the campus first instead of the west, that side would have had the most traffic, he said, and The Drag would have most likely developed along Speedway rather than Guadalupe.
Nicar said all the pedestrian traffic on the west side of campus wore a path up the hill, which later became the West Mall. The same activity encouraged new stores and cafes to open along the street that would serve the UT community, he said.
Glasgow said she would have never guessed the nickname dated back that far.
“It’s really interesting how The Drag has been around since the beginning of UT,” she said.
And now, more than 100 years later, The Drag is much more than a couple houses and a saloon.
Mike McHone, a real estate broker who has handled properties and businesses in West Campus for the past few decades, said the biggest change he has noticed with The Drag is diversification.
“As the university’s population diversified, a lot more Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants have come on board,” he said. He also noted the variety of places of worship along The Drag.
But rising rents and property taxes have made it difficult for businesses to survive here, because of what McHone calls an “eight-month year.”
“When you add up the time you have left after students are gone during spring, summer and winter break, businesses face the challenge of having an eight-month income to pay for 12 months of expenses,” he said.
And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McHone said, businesses may struggle even more to stay on The Drag.
Franchises like Domino’s Pizza and some of the smaller restaurants that have been able to operate carry out or delivery services will have better chances, he said. The establishments he’s more concerned about are the independent, smaller shops that are unable to provide those kinds of services, like clothing stores.
“Everybody wants to go back to some sort of semblance of a normal situation where The Drag used to be a very vibrant area, but now it’s been a ghost town,” McHone said.
He said landlords might be willing to work with tenants over rent.
“It’s going to be a case-by-case basis. All bets are off,” McHone said, because it all depends on what happens in the fall.
The Wooten Barber Shop, which has been around since 1964, is the longest-independent standing storefront on The Drag. The pandemic forced it to close temporarily, but it reopened June 1.
“We’re really just trying to keep the business going and the rent paid, for starters,” shop manager James Nelson said. “Our goal is not just survival right now, but to keep our clients – they’re coming back to us pretty shaggy.
He said he and his employees were initially hesitant when the governor said barbershops and salons could reopen back in May.
“There just wasn’t enough data for our kind of close proximity to each other,” said Nelson, who has been cutting hair at Wooten since the early 1990s. But he did what he calls a “soft opening” with certain safety measures in place.
This includes having only two barbers in the shop at a time, requiring appointments, cleaning chairs after each customer, and mandating barbers and customers wear masks.
Before the pandemic, Nelson said he had noticed quite a change throughout The Drag over the past few decades.
“We had parking meters all along our curb, and we didn’t have a bicycle lane or that sort of thing,” he said. “The building has been here since the ’50s and the businesses have changed around us. Two doors over, we had the first real coffee shop in this area called Quackenbush, and people would come to Quackenbush and pick up a tray of coffees to-go or espressos.”
Nelson said he sees The Drag’s growth as a good thing, but Glasgow’s not so sure.
“I think [The Drag] just encapsulates my whole feeling about Austin changing,” Glasgow said. “You have these memories, but you can’t recreate them anymore.”