It may seem hard to believe now, but for most of its history, South Austin was considered the sleepy side of town. If you look at a circa-1940 general highway map of Travis County, nearly all of Austin was north of the river.
And it makes sense — in those days before the LCRA and flood control, you had to build on higher ground. So that's where the Capitol and the university were built, and, up until the 1980s, the state government and the University of Texas were Austin's largest employers.
Society was uptown. Culture was uptown. Looking at the map, you can see that the streets roughly follow a logical grid. Things there were predictable and staid.
In South Austin, however, you could blaze your own trail. Even as recently as the 1930s, much of South Austin was farmland. Zilker Park was considered the edge of town, and there were cattle drives up South Lamar.
The people who moved there were mavericks, too. As we eased into the '60s and '70s, South Austin was where the artists and hippies and cosmic cowboys roamed. South Austin became known as "Bubbaland" — so deemed by the late, great Statesman columnist John Kelso — in contrast to the fancy-pants north.
Even as SoCo, Zilker, and Travis Heights have become highly sought-after neighborhoods, South Austin still marches to its own beat. You just have to know where to look.
For instance, only in South Austin would you find the Larry Monroe Forever Bridge, a heartfelt tribute to Austin's legendary radio host and musicologist. Covered in a handmade mosaic by local artist Stefanie Distefano, with hundreds of tiles created by Monroe's personal friends and fans, the bridge welcomes you into Little Stacy Park in Travis Heights.
If you aren't familiar with the name, Larry Monroe was a DJ on KUT and later KDRP. For more than 30 years, he delivered his unique perspective through such shows as Texas Music, Phil Music, Segway City, and Blue Monday. Look for his face on the bridge, surrounded by a halo of shining mirrors and hundreds of tiny clay record albums, cassette tapes, hearts, radios, and guitars.
Another South Austin artist who goes his own way is architect/designer James Talbot, owner of Neverland Design Fine Art Studio. His work melds everything from 3-D fine art to children's playgrounds, decorative masonry to waterscapes.
Talbot is also the visionary creator of the magical Casa Neverlandia, the eco-home in Bouldin that he shares with his partner, artist Kay Pils. Casa Neverlandia is a fantastical old Austin bungalow that blends far-flung architectural styles, with a dollop of Disney and Gaudi thrown in for good measure. As a private home, it's not regularly open to the public, so visitors must content themselves with polite glimpses from the surrounding neighborhood. More publicly, you can spot Talbot's art projects at nearby Dawson Park and Becker Elementary, as well as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
South Austin is a place where even the streets wander a bit. Further south of Bouldin, there are neighborhoods where the streets go every which way. Between Lamar, Manchaca, and the railroad tracks, south of Oltorf and north of Ben White, it's like the city forgot it wasn't still a bunch of farms and just built roads along meandering old cattle trails.
Nestled in the heart of this weirdly wonderful corner lies Milam Grove, a new development that's also doing things its own way. The 11 homes, each completely different, all sit on a sizable plot of land next door to Lasseter Park, surrounded by old-growth oak and pecan trees and built with sustainable and green design principles.
Milam Grove is a special opportunity for those who want to live close to the excitement of the city but still enjoy the chance to blaze their own unique trail. In other words, right at home in South Austin.