Feature Article: Austin Neighborhoods
Neighbors who share more than a cup of sugar
by MP Mueller
Photographs by Robert Gomez
Most of us can check the boxes for being on the giving and receiving end of neighborly gestures: borrowing a cup of sugar, friendly chitchat over the fence, toting someone else’s emptied trash cans from the curb. Then there are those who take it up a notch. Not satisfied with a friendly wave from some safe, invisible perimeter around their house, there are people who possess an almost primal desire to create community wherever they rest their heads.
Like queens at a quilting bee, these people stitch together a warm blanket of friendships and a sense of place where there were previously just random swatches of fabric and a spool of thread. If Foursquare were still a thing, they would amass enough points for mega Mayor badges within hours. And if having a great neighborhood were a competitive sport, HOAs would be secretly bribing them to relocate with free car washes, leaf raking, and pet sitting. You get the point.
For our Neighborhoods issue, we say howdy, and thank you, to some Austinites who demonstrate the exceptional qualities of a great neighbor. You make us feel right at home.
Emrin Dhatt & Buster
Collaring friendships through dogs in Central East Austin
Dogs these days can fetch more than sticks or bones. Friends, for example. When Emrin Dhatt moved to Austin from San Francisco two years ago to take a job with Dropbox, she didn’t know a soul save her boyfriend. “It was really hard to meet people,” Dhatt said. Soon after she moved into an apartment at the Eleven complex in the Central East Austin neighborhood, she got a dog, Buster, who she would take to the neighborhood dog park around 6 p.m. each day for some poochercise. Often, they would show up but, with scattered schedules, alas, there would be no other dogs to romp with. Eventually she met two other neighborhood dog owners who were experiencing the same thing—always waiting for other dogs and owners to show up. So they started a group chat of three to coordinate rendezvous for their Rovers. The group grew and today there are 30 or so dog owners living in the Eleven and AMLI East Side apartments who see each other nearly every day at the dog park.
People in their group are a mixed breed. A few are from Austin—the group refers to them as unicorns—but most are transplants. Californian, Australian, and British accents mix it up with Texan at their daily post-work ritual. “Before this group, none of us really knew our neighbors. A lot of us who came from different places didn’t know a lot of people, and some of us were rather isolated.”
These dog lovers take a page from their pets and tend to sniff each other out. “If someone new moves to the building with a dog, we’ll approach them and let them know about the group meet-up.” Beyond sharing recommendations on dog walkers and vets, they’ve become friends who have supported one another through tough days at work, break ups, and even health emergencies. “When my boyfriend was recently hospitalized,” Dhatt recounted, “they watched my dog so I could be with him and offered to make me meals. They were there to console me when things weren’t looking good, and a doctor in the group helped explain some of the procedures, medicine, and seriousness of the situation, which was immensely helpful.”
Puppy Friends is the name of their group text, as it started when the original three had months-old dogs in tow. A year later, this now larger, disparate group of buddies share advice on everything from car shopping negotiations to job hunting. They dog sit for each other and lend a sympathetic, supportive ear when needed. They march in parades together and do nights out as a group. If Brisket, Poncho, Panda, Apollo, Poppy, and Odie can broker unlikely friendships, we may see an update to C.M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker painting series. Dogs in dresses and suits, clasping briefcases and popping melatonin, as they cavort through time zones, brokering world peace.
Serving as a beacon in the Foothills of Barton Creek
Perched above the Lost Creek Country Club golf course is The Foothills of Barton Creek, a gated community with a nest of higher-end homes. Nancy Shields moved there eight years ago when she married her husband Brad. Beautiful homes, sumptuous views . . . life was good for this fast-talking woman from Lafayette, Louisiana, right? “The first two years I didn’t want to stay there,” Shields shared over coffee. “I would wave to my neighbors and they would go into their garages and put their garage doors down.” That didn’t sit right for Shields, whose first job out of college was a three-year stint as a missionary in Mombasa, Kenya. She was of the mindset that the world was her community and her training would help her serve as a beacon to those in need.
Five years ago, a man came up to her at a party. His wife had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and he thought if she could belong to a neighborhood group, it would help her. Could Nancy do something? It was at that point Shields decided to put a figurative light out in her yard and call on her neighbors. She had been keeping a spreadsheet of neighbors’ emails, crafted a letter inviting them to get together, closed her eyes and hit send.
And gather they have. They always have Christmas and Halloween get-togethers and a Walk ‘N Wine evening slated for the fall. (You guessed it . . . everyone brings a bottle of vino and neighbors visit house to house.) This April they had a Spring Fling event with a bouncy house, concert with musicians from the neighborhood, hamburgers on the grill, and an Easter egg hunt. And, twice a month, the ladies of the Foothills get together to laugh over wine and share what’s going on in their lives.
That felt, but not seen, beacon in her front yard pulls in people in their time of need. Shields will get texts throughout the day from neighbors with requests for help which she fields and dispatches—flat tires, dogs on the loose, meals for someone who broke their leg. “Last year, when a woman across the street lost her husband in the middle of the night, I was her first call,” Shields said. The neighborhood rallied, putting on a reception after his funeral in his home. “It was his dying wish and we didn’t even know it,” Shields said. “He wanted people to go back to his house following his service. We had people there who didn’t even know him, but showed up with food. We’ve turned into this neighborhood of caring people.”
“It’s never easy to do community,” Shields reflected. “It will cost you something. But at the end of my life, what do I really want to say? That I cared and invested in people or closed my door and listened to music all day? Community, too, is messy,” she confessed. “We don’t always know how to do it right, but if we are just out there trying and we have good intentions and we’re open to the experience, good things will come of it. This neighborhood has turned out to be the most amazing place.”
Morgan & Stephen Stephanian
Getting past no to neighborhood in Mesa Park
Many of us are sensitive to rejection. Reach out and ask a new acquaintance to dinner, get a polite no, and we may try again. Any polite no after that, and we’ll shrug our shoulders and call it a loss. But Mesa Park residents Morgan and Stephen Stephanian, both native Austinites, graciously accepted the rejections. And kept asking.
Stephen, a realtor and fifth generation Austinite, has relatives close by, but Morgan’s extended family all lives in West Texas. Might as well be Montana. Her desire for a close neighborhood, something she didn’t have growing up, was a big impetus for the outreach. “I wanted to know my neighbors, have people around me who I could walk to and say hi and have that sense of neighborhood,” Morgan said. So they kept asking people in their Northwest Austin neighborhood, near the Domain, over to dinner. For the first couple of years, invitations were floated to eight different families about forty times collectively. The Stephanians were batting 50%.
But they were persistent and, as the adage goes, it paid off. Today, 12 neighbors and five children, including the Stephanians’ two toddlers, gather weekly for dinner, typically held in the couple’s home. The key, according to Morgan, is to be very, very consistent and establish the meal on the same night each week. People now build their business schedules around their Monday Night Dinners, or MNDs, as they are referred to in their text conversations. And these neighbors have forged a new family. “We’ve had marriages and babies and we’ve grieved together—we’ve been through job losses and losing family,” Morgan said. They’ve visited each other in the hospital and brought meals to new parents after children in the group were born. And several times, when people have gone abroad, the group has celebrated their return with themed meals from their destinations such as Cuba, Italy, Spain and New Zealand.
The neighborly love spills over beyond those who see each other on Monday nights. The Stephanians are party throwers for all seasons, hosting their neighborhood’s National Night Out event in October, an annual backyard beer and appetizer holiday party in December, and a 4th of July party that typically draws 75 in red, white, and blue.
“I feel like we live in a small town,” Morgan said. “We borrow stuff from each other all the time—lawn mowers and blow-up mattresses for company coming to town. I have neighbors texting me ‘I need a cup of flour, I need three eggs’ . . . I get that all the time. Living in a close community isn’t everyone’s forte, but when it works out and comes together, it’s really cool.”
Keeping things blooming in Rosedale
I met Erika Brown on a somber occasion. Friends and neighbors had come together to plan the memorial service of a beloved 18-year-old son, Ezra Polter, who was tragically killed in a car wreck in 2015. The group had five days to organize and plan a memorial service held on the grounds of Laguna Gloria. More than 1,000 guests were expected. Spreadsheets and sign-up forms were flying around online. At the center of it all, making calm from grief and chaos, was Erika Brown. There was a strong whiff of reverence in others’ voices when they spoke of Brown. Awe was present along with a trait rarely shown by the most uber alpha women—submissive obeyance. A palpable, but unspoken, sigh of relief . . . Brown was in charge and this would happen. It would be seamless. It would be beautiful. And it was.
Brown was born and reared in Lubbock—her dad was an art professor at Texas Tech. Luckily for us, she came to Austin to attend UT, and stayed. She and her husband Bick own the two Hyde Park Bar & Grill restaurants. Their three kids have wended their way through central Austin schools, from Bryker Woods Elementary to O. Henry Middle School and now Austin High. If you are a school administrator, you want someone like Brown walking through your doors. She sees projects for safety and greater improvement others miss. Brown then figures out how to get them done, finds grant money, cajoling reserve budgets and jingling donations out of booster clubs and parents, and oversees the construction and installation.
The first project she tackled on a long list of school improvements was the teachers’ lounge at Bryker Woods. “I went in there and it was a dismal yellow with leftover mismatched office furniture and I thought ‘How are the teachers to enjoy their jobs spending time here? They spend more time here than at home.’” She gutted their work space, lounge and kitchen area, adding Four Hands furniture, great appliances and custom cabinets. “My idea has always been to support the people who do a lot for me, teachers, in particular,” Brown shared. “Let’s make things more efficient for them and make it so they enjoy and can focus on their jobs.”
Beyond that project are dozens of others: installation of limestone retaining walls that doubled as outdoor amphitheater seating trackside at Bryker Woods and O. Henry Middle School; sidewalks, bike racks, and water fountains with bottle refill stations. As her kids matriculated through to Stephen F. Austin High School, she tackled locker room improvements, got picnic tables and a wellness center added. Notably she tackled spiffing up the school’s main gathering place: its gym. 25 years had lapsed since its walls were touched by a brush and color. Brown worked with administrators, parents and boosters, aggregating funding to repaint it.
Her latest project is enhancing the soul of the Rosedale neighborhood, Ramsey Park. She’s been involved for four and half years, first in the planning stages and now in the execution stages, as the general contractor on various projects. Fundraiser pavers etched with donor names will be overlaid on a walkway the winds through the park, much-needed shading now covers the basketball court, permanent umbrellas cool down the toddlers in their play area, forty-foot trees are being planted, and the park’s first ever permanent art installation by neighborhood artist Robbin Polter will soon be affixed to the park’s pavilion.
Brown, throughout our conversation, stressed that she didn’t get these things done in a vacuum. And, she gave kudos to her husband who stepped up parenting duties to support her full-time volunteerism. Brown also credited her mom for setting a great example of giv-ing back to the community. The most rewarding project she’s worked on? “That would be Ramsey Park,” she said. “To walk by—and I walk or drive by almost every single day—and to see the entire park being used just warms my heart. That I had a hand in people’s enjoyment there really makes me happy.”
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2017