Past Meets Present
In Crestview, one of Austin’s quintessential family-friendly neighborhoods, the more things change, the more they stay the same
by Anne Bruno
Illustrations by Mackenzie Dunn
“I’ll tell you the truth: There’s not an inch of Crestview where something’s not going on these days. A lot’s happening in this neighborhood!” So says Leon Noren, and he ought to know. Though I’ve been frequenting the Crestview Shopping Center since my first life-altering bite of a Little Deli & Pizza pastrami on rye nearly 20 years ago, I’m a relative newcomer. Noren and his late wife of 63 years moved to Crestview in 1977. They joined an enclave of families in one of several North Austin suburbs that were developed to accommodate Austin’s booming post-World War II population.
A handsome 87-year-old who grew up “just over the big hill on 9th Street, which was actually pretty far west of downtown back then,” Noren shares that he’s seen a lot of change in Austin over the years. He tells me that the city is definitely busier than it used to be, but his keen observations on the shifts taking place around him lead me to believe he’s not a man to miss a beat. “I see a lot more young people walking in the neighborhood. It started out that way, with lots of young families, and now, that’s who’s moving back in. I think it’s great.”
For 41 years, he’s lived a few blocks from what many consider the heart of the ’hood, the Crestview Shopping Center. “I walk up to Little Deli behind my wheelchair at lunchtime most days of the week. I usually get the soup, and then I like to sit out here for a while before I walk home,” Noren says, laying out his routine. On the sunny afternoon we meet, his wheelchair is positioned as it is most weekdays: along the breezeway, where he can exchange pleasantries with passersby while taking in the action at the picnic tables under the shopping center’s giant oak.
The neighborhood’s mature trees and the growing number of locally owned shops and eateries within walking distance of the homes are only a few of the factors that make Crestview a bright star on Austin’s map of desirable places to live. In recent years, the shady streets have beckoned more young families with strollers to join the longtime middle-aged residents and even a few of the originals, now in their late 80s and 90s. On the afternoon I visit with Noren, I see an older woman with a walker enter Arlan’s Market, followed by a 30-something dad leading his toddler by the hand.
Jen Pinkston, whose family moved to Crestview two years ago, was born and raised in Austin. After graduating from UT, Pinkston moved to Los Angeles. “I thought I’d be out there maybe a year or two and then come back,” explains Pinkston. “But ten years went by, and in that time I met my husband and we had our first child.” While Pinkston and her husband, Aaron, a producer for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” had friends and successful careers in California, a Fourth of July trip to Austin in 2015 put their life in Los Angeles in sharp contrast with the one they might enjoy at a slower pace with family in Austin.
“We were at Lake LBJ, where my grandparents had a place. I grew up going there in the summers, and it was so fun to be out there again with our daughter, my sisters and their families, and my mom and dad. It was just such a different feeling from being in L.A. Aaron loved it too, and we sort of looked at each other and said, ‘So why are we not living in Austin?’”
That weekend trip set in motion plans for the Pinkstons to get back to Austin permanently. Because Aaron’s job already involved a lot of travel, working outside of Los Angeles didn’t pose a huge problem. Jen, who worked as a wardrobe stylist, had started a lifestyle blog, TheEffortlessChic.com, in 2011. Since their move, she has expanded the blog and given birth to the couple’s second child.
“We walk so many places … to Brentwood Park, or out for a taco or coffee, and to Little Deli for pizza on Friday nights. Our four-year-old goes to nursery school at a church in the neighborhood. And the people here couldn’t be more friendly,” she says. “I love that there’s young families and older people too. One of our neighbors across the street is in her 90s. She and her husband were among the first families in Crestview, and she told me how he carried her across the threshold of their house! I’ve loved learning from her what the neighborhood was like back then, when they first moved here.”
Seek out the Crestview Shopping Center (it’s not located along any of the area’s four-lane thoroughfares) and you’ll find Austin’s past meeting its present, set in the middle of tidy residential streets. Built in 1952, the center has maintained most of its original layout and facade. The businesses within the center have changed over the decades, but only by degrees when compared with most shopping locales around town; the original Crestview Pharmacy shut its doors only last year. Neighborhood staples like a grocery store, an auto repair shop, and a place to get your hair cut or a bite to eat are all still there, making the center as essential to its neighbors as it was more than 60 years ago.“I always say this place is a hidden treasure,” Ricky Wilson tells me. A certified master bench jeweler, Wilson has been in the area for 30 years and occupied a small jewelry showroom and repair and manufacturing storefront at the Crestview center since 2007. “I have wholesale customers too, but I like being the neighborhood jeweler. The people in this neighborhood have been great to me, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s like a small town,” he says, “and everybody’s on a first-name basis.”
Pam Harries is only the fourth owner of the Crestview Barber Shop, one of the center’s original establishments. She tells me that Wilson is right, that everybody knows everybody and the place is a community hub. An old-school vibe permeates the barbershop, with personal service and big red chairs to match. The customers’ requested haircuts, however, run the gamut these days, from the traditionnel — favored by most of the shop’s older customers — to modern fades and buzz cuts.
“We pretty much do it all here, and we have fun doing it,” Harries says. She had worked at the shop long before buying it from a friend. “So I’d gotten to know a lot of the longtime customers,” Harries explains. “And one of the women who works here with me has been with the shop for over 20 years. This is the kind of place where customers bring in homemade jars of pickles to share with us and we serve hot buttered rum in December. We have customers who got their first haircut here and now bring in their children or grandchildren for theirs.”
Occupying the spot between the BriteLights Acting Studio (a fixture at the center for 28 years) and Little Deli is a new addition to a longtime tenant, Project Transitions. Two years ago, the nonprofit, which provides supportive living, housing, and recuperative care and hospice services for people with HIV and AIDS, recognized an opportunity to use the front part of its office space to launch a spinoff of its popular Burnet Road Top Drawer thrift store. As manager Stephanie Lightbody explains, “Top Drawer Crestview is more of a vintage clothing and home decor boutique. We open and close later, so we get a lot of people stopping in after lunch or dinner next door.” Showcasing an impressive amount of eclectic style in a small space, from Hermès ties and embroidered Mexican dresses to a mint-condition transistor radio, the one-of-a-kind feel seems to fit perfectly in a place where the throwback vibe is a big part of its attraction.
Friday and Saturday nights at Little Deli’s picnic tables are perhaps when the shopping center is most reminiscent of the times in which it was built. Families gather to share pizza, kids run around under lights strung in the trees, and adults take time to catch up over a beer or glass of wine. There are no large-screen TVs, the atmosphere is relaxed, and no one seems to be in a hurry to go home, or anywhere else.
According to Kelly Chappell, a partner in Galaxy Cafe, Zocalo Cafe, and Top Notch, something new is on tap for the center. Chappell is teaming up with fellow neighbor and Crestview Neighborhood Association president Mike Lavigne on a concept they plan to open sometime this summer. Taking a break from a meeting with contractors on the renovation of the space formerly occupied by the pharmacy (which, at one time, housed a soda fountain), Chappell tells me, “We’re working through details on The Violet Crown Clubhouse now. The Clubhouse will be a gathering place for kids and parents alike. We’re looking forward to offering a variety of things, including ice cream, pinball, and a flexible party space.”
As Leon Noren and I wrap up our visit on the breezeway, our conversation is politely interrupted by the deli’s friendly manager. “Leon, you’ve got a phone call inside. Can you spare a minute to come in and take it?” the manager asks. Returning, Noren apologizes for the interruption and tells me that the call was from his friend Dana, from Meals on Wheels. She’s one of the reasons, he explains, that I won’t find him at the Crestview Shopping Center every day. Fridays are when Dana comes by with lunch. It’s been a standing appointment for 13 years and counting. Some good things just keep on going.