Name / Traditional Vice
by Brewster Hudspeth
Worldwide, there's always been a distinct
line between business conducted during banking hours and business conducted after
sunset. The section of Austin known as "Guy Town" was defined as the area bounded
by Congress Avenue to the east, the Colorado River to the south, Guadalupe Street
to the west and 4th Street to the north. The entire area was eight square blocks.
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The area is now identified as Austin's "warehouse district."
TE Photo 10-04
has always been a high contrast town. During the early years, it was said that
one could stand on Congress Avenue (if one had nothing better to do) and hear
baying coyotes, the clicking of billiard balls (the reassuring sound that civilization
had arrived) and even the war-cry of hostile Indians. Then there was Mrs. Eberly's
artillery practice... but that's another story.|
The "cry of hostile Indians"
that was heard may actually have been confused with the sounds of merriment coming
from Guy Town. Although settlers were still being scalped out in Medina and Kerr
Counties, Austin had become civilized to the point where its most pressing "Indian
problem" in the second half of the 1800s was a single Native American named Bigfoot
who had acquired the distinctly urban diversion of looking in people's windows.
(He was named for the oversized footprints he left in flower beds.)
there's always been a distinct line between business conducted during banking
hours and business conducted after sunset. The section of Austin known as "Guy
Town" was defined as the area bounded by Congress Avenue to the east, the Colorado
River to the south, Guadalupe Street to the west and 4th Street to the north.
The entire area was eight square blocks.
Class distinction didn't matter in Guy Town. Here a legislator requests a biscuit
recipe from the help. |
TE Postcard Archives
Town was where one went after one cashed one's check. It was a demimonde
where cash was king and hard coin won out over paper currency every time. Guy
Town had an agreement with the banks of Congress Avenue - Guy Town didn't cash
checks and Congress Avenue didn't allow patrons to buy drinks for their female
An Illustrated History, researchers listed some trivial and/ or amusing
crimes of old Austin. Austinites at one time could actually be arrested for misdemeanors
including "indulging in exercise calculated to scare a horse," "appearing in clothes
not belonging to one's sex," "rudely displaying a pistol," "playing city marshall"
(Ben Thompson evidently didn't want to share the limelight), using "abusive language
over the telephone," and playing baseball on Congress Avenue - a problem that
has stubbornly persisted to this day. While ordinary folk were being arrested
and/or fined for these offenses, denizens of Guy Town were cut some slack. Make
that lots of slack.
Saloons and beer halls were everywhere. The
difference between Anglo saloons and German beer gardens in Austin and San Antonio
was that the beer gardens were family-friendly places where Germans came to socialize.
Women and children could play croquet on real grass and men could drink and play
horseshoes. Croquet never got a foothold in Guy Town - a fact that still puzzles
historians and sociologists. Not quite as dangerous as New Orlean's Storyville
or even Fort Worth's Hell's Half Acre, Guy Town still had dangers of it's own
- not the least of which was City Marshall Ben Thompson who enjoyed firing blanks
into crowded saloons just for the hell of it. What a card.
the Mexican "Zones of Tolerance" of the 20th Century - Guy Town was tolerated
(enthusiastically). Protests were made, but the eyes and ears of the city council
were blind and deaf. When one crusading reformer reported that on a single night
he counted over 100 UT students in Guy Town, the city council had to ask: "What's
your point?" Guy Town was so popular with politicians that the businesses known
as "female boarding houses" had to hire new boarders whenever the legislature
was in session. Defenders of the neighborhood and those who claimed never to have
visited there referred to it quaintly as "Lively Town." These were the same people
who would call Mardi Gras "a little religious parade."
and women were the two main rings of the Guy Town circus, there were continuous
side shows sponsored by cocaine and opium. Trade was so brisk in these drugs that
they spawned a new business - an early version of what we now call a recovery
clinic. Hanging their shingle at 108 7th Street, the Hagey Hospital advertised
that their "Bi-Chroride of Gold" treatment was guaranteed to cure "Liquor, Opium,
Morphine, Cocaine and Tobacco Diseases" and "not to cause delirium." And if that
wasn't enough to get you to enroll; their clincher was that you wouldn't even
miss a day of work. Good for the addict - maybe not so good for his coworkers.
once chided Waco
for it's officially sanctioned "Reservation" - a downtown district where prostitutes
were issued annual non-tranferable city licenses. But Waco imposed very strict
rules. Prostitutes (a.k.a. "actresses") who left their boarding houses to go shopping
were not allowed to speak to the general populace under threat of banishment.
In Austin, wayward actresses were merely escorted back within the boundaries of
Guy Town. Waco's Reservation outlived Guy Town by about four years. It was closed
by order of the U.S. Army during W.W.I - when it was viewed as a potential health
hazard to the troops preparing for the slaughter in Europe.
city council did vote to shut down Guy Town at one point, but the decision was
vetoed by the Austin mayor. It wasn't until Ragtime music appeared that complaints
got more vociferous. The raucous music was bad enough - but when the "professors"
of Guy Town took the felt off the piano keys - it was the proverbial last straw.
Sporadic gunshots, screams and vile language were tolerated - but it must've seemed
to citizens of Austin that the pianists of Guy Town were playing their out-of-tune
pianos in shifts. Finally in October of 1913, Austin Police Chief Will Morris
carried out the order to close Guy Town for good.
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A ghost sign for horseshoeing
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only extant building from Guy Town's heyday is the old Schneider Store.
The building underwent a restoration in 2001 while excavations went on over a
four-block area. The dig yielded over 100,000 artifacts. Marbles, dice and poker
chips reveal there was a strong interest in interactive games. Bottles of champagne
and French perfume show that although the neighborhood was rough, there were still
those who wanted to enjoy the finer things - especially if someone else was paying
for them. A key, a lone spur (as with most lost footwear - there's never a pair),
a corset stay, buttons and snuff bottles round out the inventory of relics. Back-alley
privies and cisterns were discovered - and even a limestone beer vault. While
privies traditionally reveal many artifacts - in this case they were shallow places
carved into the limestone which were periodically emptied.
that was once Guy Town has become much less colorful over the years, but with
all the incidents of mayhem and suicide that occurred there; it's a wonder there
aren't volumes of ghost stories coming from the offices and restaurants that now
conduct business there. It's been years since anyone has indulged in "exercise
calculated to scare a horse" although "using abusive language over the telephone"
is frequently heard. As for "appearing in clothes not belonging to one's sex"
- it doesn't even raise eyebrows in contemporary Austin.
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view of an alley in "Guy Town." |
TE Photo 10-04