A Farewell to My Neighborhood

Editor’s Note: Sadly, John Kerr (1944 – 2014) passed away on Thursday, August 21, after a short struggle with leukemia. Originally conceived this spring to be a posthumously published interview, this piece eventually became the article as it appears below. What most struck me, and others, is the serenity and peace with which John approached his death, supported as he was by his firm belief that he would soon be rejoining his wife, whose death preceded his by three short years. He was a gentle and kind man, whose conversation and writing were marked by grace and wit.

His passing is a great loss for his friends and family, and also for this neighborhood as a whole, which he served so well in his 4 decades as a resident of Hyde Park. To just single out his contributions over the years in one area, his role on this publication has been crucial. One of its earliest editors, with the nom de plume of Squirrel Nutkin, he was the individual who named it the Pecan Press. This editor selected him to be on his Advisory Board, where his advice was always welcome and valuable. In this article, he also reveals a clandestine role he has had with the Pecan Press these past 10 years.

It is with deep gratitude that the community bids you farewell, John.

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As my life, which was neither long nor short, comes to a close, I am grateful that I spent most of it in Hyde Park.

The neighborhood has changed so much since 1975 when we moved from Mexico City to what was then a declining inner-city neighborhood.   Lovely old, crumbly homes, which were quite inexpensive, were being torn down to make room for student housing and the expansion of the Hyde Park Baptist Church (which has since become a model neighbor).   Almost all the houses were white; virtually none had central heating and air conditioning.

We took a chance on being urban pioneers at the urging of neighborhood activist Agnes Edwards, who told us about the recently formed neighborhood association that planned to fight to save the neighborhood.

Among the attractions of Hyde Park was its proximity to the University of Texas and high walkability. It turned out to be wonderful place to raise children. Back then, Shipe Park had all the politically incorrect play equipment: a tall slide, a merry-go-round, a jungle gym, and a seesaw. For years I walked my two children, Andrew and Ellen, to Lee Elementary School. In the company of my wife, Susan, I enjoyed thousands of evenings on our front porch, taking in the view and chatting with passing neighbors.

Both of my children worked as life guards at Shipe Pool. In the 1970s, the pool opened the day after school was out and closed the day before school resumed. It was open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week, and was drained every evening and filled overnight. This was before Daylight Savings Time, which meant that as I swam my laps the morning sky was filled with clouds the color of cotton candy. I thought I had found paradise.

Hyde Park is rare in the high degree of sociability of the neighbors. I’ve never known of a neighborhood where the residents entertained each other so frequently. Or pulled together so magnificently for presentations to the City Council or City Planning Commission, and for functions like the homes tour.

Also rare is the effectiveness of neighborhood influence on the workings of city government. In 1988, for example, we were told that our fire station would be closed. There would be no negotiations this time, the city said; the money simply wasn’t there.

Agnes Edwards was passionate about keeping the fire station open. With German thoroughness, she plowed through several boxes of documents she obtained from the Austin Fire Department and discovered some incendiary material.   I wrote a fiery letter attacking the fire chief to Mayor Lee Cooke, which the HPNA president signed.   Several days later, the Austin American-Statesman ran an article that included excerpts from the mayor’s letter to the fire chief with the issues we had raised. The closing was quietly dropped.

The tasks I undertook for HPNA, including a couple of terms as president, editor of the Pecan Press for a year, docent for most years of the homes tours, and other jobs meant that I met a lot of interesting people.   Although I didn’t enjoy the contentious aspects of neighborhood politics, I found it fascinating to meet with City Council members and staff, as well as neighbors, to get things done. What I take away from this is that democracy works far better at the local level than at the state or federal level.

I had plenty of help; there is not enough space to thank all those who gave freely of their time to fashion the place we love and where so many in Austin would like to live.

Finally, I must own up to writing the 10 April Fool’s spoofs under the name Rollo Treadway.   My mind tends to run to worst case scenarios; and after long years of experience as a journalist, I knew what a straight news article was supposed to sound like.   I was president of HPNA when I wrote the first one, so I couldn’t use my own name, and chose the name of a Buster Keaton character from the silent film, The Navigator.

Over the years, many neighbors were angered by the pieces, but editor Grant Thomas always graciously protected my anonymity.   I would like to think the articles made neighbors grateful for what didn’t happen. As a fortune cookie once put it, “The way to love something is to realize you might lose it.”

Thanks to editor Michael Nill for allowing me space for this goodbye note.

–John Kerr