Feature Article: Austin Neighborhoods
by MP Mueller
Photographs by Dagny Piasecki
A late model Maserati convertible cruises through the neighborhood under a rustling canopy of decades-old pecan trees. Neighbors with their morning coffee give friendly shout-outs to a man on a cruiser bike, wearing a faded sweatshirt and khaki shorts, pedaling in time to perhaps a mental version of some Jimmy Buffet song. Dappled sunlight plays across the faces of the neighborhood’ s residents as they share stories about their latest vacations to beaches with blue water. (Not Texas beaches, but places that require a passport.)
Westlake? 78703? Guess again. Pecan Grove RV Park on Barton Springs Road. This well-kept secret is in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Austin…and it’s also the most affordable one. Lisa Morgan and Mike Leamon have called it home for five years. They live in the same RV space that was once occupied by an Austinite who went on to work out of a different kind of trailer — Matthew McConaughey. More on that later.
Mike and Lisa ended up living here by chance. “We were looking for a smaller RV to take on a trip to the national parks,” Leamon explained. “We were asking people at parties if their parents had an RV in a garage they wanted to sell. We were referred to someone who was going to sell their RV in Pecan Grove. I thought, ‘Gosh, people live like this full time?’ We researched the neighborhood and people were raving about their neighbors.”
Mike was a change management consultant at the time. “I said to him, ‘Ok, Mr. Change Manager, here’s your time,’” explained Lisa. “Moving here has turned out to be affordable, less is more, easy to clean…and just a real adventure. Your neighbors are international travelers.”
A lot of people are clamoring to get into Pecan Grove and there is no real system or list for admission. As some neighbors explained, it just comes down to persistence and being in front of longtime park manager Bob on the right day.
How affordable is it? We were asked not to disclose the exact amount, but for utilities, space rental, water — all in —it’s almost 50 percent less than the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment rental in Austin. (Google it and do the math.) And it’s all in the heart of the city with Zilker Park, Barton Springs, restaurant row and the Hike and Bike trail within dog-off-a-leash-chasing-a-squirrel distance.
With the money Lisa and Mike don’t spend on housing costs, they travel and invest in their own mobile home park in nearby Kingsland. “You can pack up easily, get a pet sitter for the cat and take off,” Leamon shared.
One RV over is Bill Jennings, a Purple Heart-awarded helicopter pilot who did two tours in Vietnam. Now retired, Bill is an avid kayaker with a bevy of boats and gets out on Lady Bird Lake three to four times a week. He makes a hobby out of retrieving things from the water, like fishing hooks and bobbers tangled in trees, ping pong and tennis balls. He considers a good day’s haul 45 balls or so, overthrown by dog owners or missed catches by pooches. Bill donates his findings to local animal shelters. He was also upcycling before upcycling was cool, making RV yard art out of the lost and found. He too loves his home sweet home for the last 26 years. “I’m a Mother Nature guy and love sleeping with my window open and hearing the rustle of the Sycamore tree,” he explained. “People here are really friendly. It’s a unique environment.”
Across the way is Oren Oubre who has been a Pecan Grover since 1999. He lives in a 31-foot Seabreeze with Shannon, “The love of his life,” and her cat Cami. He works as a project manager for a roofing company, and has been a drummer for WC Clark and Rusty Weir. In a three-week period in 2011, Oren lost his job, had his car stolen and was diagnosed with lymphoma. The park really came out to support him at a fundraiser Shannon organized at Donn’s Depot—one Pecan Grove resident anonymously paid his rent for a month.
“It’s an interesting way of life here,” shared Oren. “The community is very friendly. We live so close together but we respect each other’s privacy. The unspoken rule is if your door is open or if you are outside, you are available to communicate with. Here, you’re in the middle of everything—there’s music every weekend from Uncle Billy’s to Juliet…you can even hear it from Threadgills. It’s nice to lay in bed at night and listen to the music. In the summer, you drive in the park and the temperature drops five degrees, cooled by the pecan trees. It’s been a grand adventure.”
At one time there were three RV parks making their home on Barton Springs Road, allowing travelers to camp close to the beloved Springs: Pecan Grove, Shady Grove and Mobile Manor. Pecan Grove is the only one left. That this primo real estate has some of the lowest rents in city poses a lovely question mark. Rumors abound about the ownership of the park and its future. One that gets the most traction around the park is that Pecan Grove is owned by a Saudi Arabian family. They have a son who went to UT and his family bought the park as an investment, as well as the land neighboring the restaurant Juliet and other real estate on the block. As the residents tell it, the Saudi family truly believes in the uniqueness of this spot and in creating affordable housing in Central Austin.
Because the park is populated with designated heritage trees—the namesake pecan—any developers would be faced with an added expense of removing and relocating the trees. This, residents believe, has given them a bit more time to continue the RV life. A few years ago, they organized a campaign to save the park from development some thought was tapping at their camper doors. Their battle cry? Save Our Nuts!
Just Keep Rv-ing
“Matthew McConaughey used to live in the slot next to me, number 15. He was just a very nice guy. I loved it because he attracted absolutely spectacular women. One time a limo pulled up, a girl came out and knocked on my door. She was gorgeous and asked me if this was MM’ s trailer. She had a little bag with her. I directed her next door, she goes over and knocks, he takes the bag and she gets back in the limo. I thought she was delivering breakfast tacos. But the Four Seasons had sent over his laundry for the day and that was his laundry service.” — Bill Jennings, Pecan Grove resident
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2016