by Eric Webber
Photographs by Eric Webber
Residents call it eccentric and free-spirited. There’s beautiful lake frontage, a touch of celebrity cachet, and an old Austin vibe, despite the growing number of new multimillion dollar homes. If that sounds to you like a quintessential Austin neighborhood, you’re right. Almost.
Cuernavaca may be one of the most Austiny of neighborhoods, except it isn’t even in Austin. And many Austinites haven’t even heard of it. “Cuerny,” to many who live there, sits ten miles west of downtown. Technically it’s not a neighborhood at all, but two dozen developments bordered on the south by Bee Cave Road (FM 2244) and on the north by Lake Austin. It gets its name from Cuernavaca Drive, but its unique character comes from old Austin.
Drive west on 2244 past Loop 360 and you’ll pass several sprawling developments, notable for cul-de-sacs, greenbelts and large Mediterranean-style homes with tidy lawns. Head north on Cuernavaca Drive and you’ll find some of that too. But you’ll also find a distinctly different mindset than you’ll find anywhere else in the area.
Cuernavaca has a history of laissez faire attitudes toward things like building codes, architectural styles, construction materials, and personal choice. You won’t see a tractor in a yard or a year-round Christmas display in the Rob Roy neighborhood. A street of mobile homes a stone’s throw from a $4 million waterfront mansion? That wouldn’t fly in Tarrytown.
Not only can those things be found in Cuernavaca, but many residents embrace the asymmetry and wear it as a badge of honor. It figures; the neighborhood was brought up that way.
Cuernavaca’s first permanent residents were ranchers. Their descendants recall hearing tales of Comanche raids—naked Comanches, so one story goes. After the damming of the lower Colorado River in the 1930s and ‘40s, a smattering of cottages sprang up along what had become the new Lake Austin.
By the late 1950s there were enough homeowners to create the Lake Hills Community Association. Lake Hills is still one of the most prominent of the area’s subdivisions, and their “park” with a clubhouse, pool, boat ramp, and beach is still a fixture in the neighborhood.
People trickled into Cuernavaca into the 1970s, though the area was still remote and mobile homes were as common as houses. That’s when ceramic artist Claudia Reese arrived, looking for a house to rent. “A real estate agent told me, ‘Little lady, you don’t have to rent, you can buy!’” recalls Reese. The agent hauled her out on then two-lane Bee Cave Road and sold her a modest house on a nice piece of land for only $15,000. Reese later discovered the house, built as a weekend getaway, was insulated with old newspapers.
“There were more drug labs than children out here then,” remembers Reese, whose home and Cera-Mix Studio now occupy a hilltop in the Tumble-weed Hills subdivision. More artists, musicians, assorted hippies, and lake fans followed, attracted by affordable housing, large lots, low taxes, privacy, and few building codes. “The only restriction was that I couldn’t raise pigs,” Reese says. “Other animals were okay; just no pigs.”
The ‘80s brought serious land development to western Travis County and more traditional homebuyers mingled with Cuernavaca’s original iconoclasts. Through the population surge of the ‘90s and 2000s, as more upscale neighborhoods took shape around them, Cuernavaca held fast to many of its idiosyncrasies.
Realtor Claude Smith has watched the neighborhood change—and not—over many years. “It’s always been a mixed bag,” he says, describing the residents. “It’s still one of the broadest cross-sections of buyers you’ll see in Austin.”
Smith is referring mainly to economic diversity. Cuernavaca is more ethnically diverse than many adjacent areas, but only slightly so. He attributes the broad attraction to it being right on the water and the most affordable option in the Eanes school district. But the lifestyle is a draw too. “Cuernavaca is something of a last frontier out here,” he says.
Residents are loyal to the neighborhood and protective of their heritage, but that doesn’t mean that things aren’t changing. Newer subdivisions like Bella Lago boast manicured lawns and curbs, a departure from the typical Cuernavaca scruffiness. Many of the newer waterfront properties would be at home in any of Austin’s most expensive enclaves.
Some residents see a tipping point. “The trailers will be gone in five years,” says Turk Pipkin, a writer and filmmaker who has lived at the end of Cuernavaca Road for 27 years. Pipkin worries that rising property values and taxes will inevitably make the neighborhood more homogeneous. “Old-school hippie artists and musicians are an important part of the neighborhood,” he says, “but they’re going to be priced out soon.”
Not everyone is worried about Cuernavaca turning into just another waterfront neighborhood. Funkiness still abounds. There’s a robust arts coop-erative, the annual Cuerny Jam music festival, a variety of clubs catering to sundry interests and directions to many homes still include “Turn off the paved road.”
And there are plenty of new residents committed to perpetuating the Cuerny lifestyle. Jennifer Harris-Rubino, a design executive, moved to Cuernavaca from East Austin four years ago, drawn partly by the uniqueness. “It’s like taking part of East Austin and dropping it into Westlake,” says Harris-Rubino. She knows things won’t always stay the same, but she also expresses appreciation for Cuernavaca’s history of going against the grain. “We know things will change, but we’ll definitely lean into it.”
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2017