It’s an audaciously hot day in Austin, the kind that tends to make people grumble.
“It’s only June, right?” I hear a straw-hatted woman remark to her friend, her frown crumpling every word. “Feels like it’s goddamn August.”
The two trudge toward the tiny wooden entry booth on Barton Springs Pool’s south side, kicking up dust as they cross the parking lot. I’ve got my dollar bills ready, a towel thrown over my shoulder. Barton Springs, the actual pool part, is usually too cold for me – I joined the laying out set a long time ago, albeit the kind of laying out that happens in the shade.
But today, I’ll make an exception. I’ll jump in. It feels like it’s goddamn August.
Barton Springs Pool possesses, more than any other spot in Austin, a collectively acknowledged je ne sais quoi. It isn’t just the freezing cold waters, though those do have an almost spiritual effect when it’s 100 degrees. Rather, Barton Springs Pool is the official entrée into Austin, history’s ground zero for our relatively young city. We like to tell visitors that people have been coming to the pool for 10,000 years, which is true. We also like to tell visitors our personal stories of Barton Springs, especially if those stories involve somebody naked.
Barton Springs Pool is the official entrée into Austin
“Back in those days, everybody I knew was smoking dope, and there were lots of topless women walking around,” chuckles Robin Cravey of Friends of Barton Springs Pool, recalling the summer of 1969. “I have many fond memories of that.”
Like Cravey, I have a lot of fond memories too. I am possessive of Barton Springs Pool, like probably most of you. I remember visiting it for the first time as a child, and it was enormous to me back then, a thick blue-green lake of kids, neon-colored floaties, and so much water.
So it was not without concern that I heard about the changes coming. A blog post here. An Austin Chronicle mention there. Cryptic Internet comments, composed with lots of capital letters.
“More proof of the urban hipsters wanting to change an Austin icon…..they just need to LEAVE IT ALONE,” reads a comment left under a March 29 Austin American-Statesman article about the proposed changes. “Wonder how long before they ‘relax the rules’ and put a hotel up at the pool? Think of that REVENUE!” reads another.
“Wonder how long before they… put a hotel up at the pool?”
And I admit, it was that comment in particular, the hotel one, that inspired this story. First, I wanted to know who was behind the changes (those nefarious Californians, right?), and second, to get a little more specific on what the changes were.
What I discovered surprised me.
“Things got to a crisis point in 2005 when the water was full of algae and disgusting,” says Cravey, who’s a regular swimmer at the pool. “It was like swimming through green Jell-O with spinach in it.”
In Fall 2005, Cravey complained to then city manager Toby Futrell that not enough was being done to keep the pool clean. So Austin Parks and Recreation suggested that Cravey form a group to discuss it with City Council, and that group ended up being Friends of Barton Springs Pool. By summer of that year, the Friends were conducting volunteer cleanups and meeting with City Council; before long, they had a commitment from the city to devote half a million dollars annually to pool maintenance.
“But I think once you get landscape architects involved, they get the idea of making Barton Springs in their own image,” says Bill Bunch, Executive Director of Save Our Springs Alliance.
“… once you get landscape architects involved, they get the idea of making Barton Springs in their own image,” says Bill Bunch.
He’s referring to the two firms the city hired to facilitate pool upkeep, whose scope has evolved greatly since 2006.
The first was Limbacher & Godfrey Architects, who presented a Master Plan to City Council in late 2008 with suggested improvements; the second was Larson/Burns & Smith, who created design documents for the current build-out. Some short-term projects have taken place already, but major construction won’t begin until October of this year.
“We fought back against a lot of bad ideas, like cutting down over 20 heritage trees, as well as a sidewalk going down the south side,” says Bunch.
“… they came back to us with a big, gaudy, ornamental gate.”
“Then [Larson/Burns & Smith] came back to us with a big, gaudy, ornamental gate.”
The ornamental gate has been one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed Barton Springs Pool changes, symbolizing detractors’ fears around development: That the south side of the pool, the more wild side, the topless-girls-laying-out-eternal-Summer-of-Love side, will get yuppy-fied (credit to Bunch for the verb). It was stricken from plans, but after a unanimous vote from City Council – minus council member Kathie Tovo, who was absent – in April to move forward with development, here is what remains:
That’s not a comprehensive list, but it includes the most significant changes, such as the overlook and the trail – two aspects that will dramatically alter the look of Barton Springs, and two aspects that, surprisingly, all involved parties agree on. There’s a reason for that.
“I lived across the street from Barton Springs Pool for eight years, and in all that time, I could never enjoy it,” says David Wittie.
“I lived across the street from Barton Springs Pool for eight years, and in all that time, I could never enjoy it,” says David Wittie. He’s a representative from ADAPT of Texas, a grassroots disability rights group. Wittie is in a wheelchair, and gave testimony during City Council’s public input meetings about his experience.
“I am elated with all of the changes coming to Barton Springs Pool,” says Wittie. “This new entrance on the southside, with the switchback trail, is ADA compliant. It will much more accessible for people with mobility impairments. It will be a truly public entrance.”
I ask Wittie what he thinks about people being scared that their magical Barton Springs Pool is going away.
“I think those concerns are extreme,” he says. “I don’t see any yuppy-fication of Barton Springs happening. And for millennia, there have been people making changes to Barton Springs. Take the south side hillside, for example. It’s man-made! It is not a natural hillside.”
“…for millenia, there have been people making changes to Barton Springs. Take the south side hillside, for example. It’s man-made!”
Which gets at the mythos surrounding Barton Springs Pool, and its 10,000 year-old history.
In the wake of change, we Austinites are desperately hungry to know our city’s past, and we can only look for it in so many charming, crumbling buildings. We’re not a Chicago or a Boston, with their booming pre-war populations and century-old lore housed in equally old libraries. Instead, we turn to nature to tell our story, searching there for history’s inscription. Because there’s something about Barton Springs Pool that feels sacred, like it’s been passed down to us pristine and whole, from ancient humans to hitchhiking ‘60s hippies to all of us who live here now. Right?
… there’s something about Barton Springs Pool that feels sacred
Well, yes and no. Thumbing through old photos of Barton Springs Pool, one begins to understand that Barton Springs Pool has changed right along with us. One of its earliest photos, in 1926, captures a huge steam shovel right there in the water, conducting what was probably one of the pool’s first construction projects. The pool walls went up in the ‘20s, too. Depending on whom you talk to, the south hillside wasn’t always laden with trees. The same hillside David tells me is man-made.
… Barton Springs Pool has changed right along with us.
“The fact is, it has been a very hard fight to keep development upstream from the pool from having impact on the aquifer,” says Cravey. “The water coming in from the aquifer is not as pure and clean as it was 35 years ago, so some people have developed a rejectionist mentality toward any change at all. But when you confront them with the fact that the pool is not perfect right now, it’s disorienting for them.”
As I imagine it would be. Because there are two different things going on here: Environmentally protecting the Barton Springs (“in my view, this plan has been a diversion from environmental objectives,” says Bunch), and evolving the pool to better serve us. Which admittedly, brings out conflicting emotions in me.
The ADA switchback trail is fantastic and, frankly, overdue. But other aspects of the project, like (according to Bunch) a not-yet-approved proposal to build a bathhouse on the south hillside? To develop it? To rend asunder its seeming wildness?
I’ll admit it. That gets my Old Austin hackles up.
But as City Council Member Laura Morrison, who was instrumental in placing the overlook in its future location reminds me, “Barton Springs [Pool] is not a place that should be filled with tension and conflict. It should be filled with peace and joy,” she says, and I hear her smiling over the phone as she says it.
And maybe, for the protective, flawed, hopeful, lot of us, that’s our bigger challenge. To protect Barton Springs Pool as it evolves, sure. But – and this may be harder – to keep infusing it with peace as it does so. ◊
Culture & Lifestyle Columnist
Tolly Moseley is a freelance writer and journalist in Austin, TX.
With a focus on arts/culture and life, her work has appeared in Salon, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, on NPR Austin, and more.
She is also the voice behind the popular blog Austin Eavesdropper, and one half of the aerial silks performance duo Vayu Aerials.
Photography: Chris Perez