At the beginning of 2020, Waco was cooler and more hip than … well … ever.
If you were lucky, you might get a selfie with Renee Zellweger while her boyfriend Doyle Bramhall II was playing a gig at The Backyard. Or if you stopped into a local HEB grocery store to grab a few things on a Saturday morning, it wasn’t unusual to see Joanna Gaines in the checkout line next to yours.
Each weekend, tens of thousands of visitors could choose from a healthy selection of specialty retail shops, craft beer breweries, an award-winning whiskey distillery, and local arts, food, and music scenes punching above their weight.
It wasn’t always that way — and for much of 2020 it was certainly not the case — but, fingers crossed, 2021 looks to be a rebound year.
A low-level academic conference originally brought me to Waco in the mid-’90s. I stayed in a corner room at the Hilton for a couple of nights and attended pop culture panel discussions at the Waco Convention Center next door. The only other place nearby open on that trip was Buzzard Billy’s, a Cajun-esque restaurant catty corner from the hotel and long since moved across the Brazos River and next to I-35.
More unexpected was the rest of downtown: dark, cavernous, and empty. Driving down its streets past forlorn buildings and their boarded-up windows was a scene I could imagine in Rust Belt cities but not Central Texas. My lingering question was: What happened here?
I didn’t stick around to find the answer. Sunday came, the conference wound down, and as I headed out of town, for the first time I paid over $10 for a twelve-pack of beer, Miller Lite if memory serves.
I moved to Waco in 2000 for an entry-level teaching job at the local technical college. Hired a week into the fall semester, I spent my first week at a Motel 6 in North Waco, teaching in the mornings and looking for a house to rent every afternoon.
I quickly discovered the schizophrenic nature of Waco real estate: Any given street could have one block that looked fine while the next had you pressing down on the accelerator to make a quick getaway. Or a house that on its own was nice enough was next door to a place with a horse trailer half-full of dirty baby diapers backed up to the front door.
As years passed, I learned other essential aspects of Waco life including the fact that streets change names without warning one, two, three, or more times as they snake across town. Every year an unassuming house across from the old Hillcrest Hospital is home to one of the country’s most extreme Christmas displays. And as any good Wacoan will tell you: The best french fries in town are at Kitok — and they’re not even made with potatoes. Trust me on this.
Waco became more than a perpetual waystation for me, however, after I helped out local historian Bradley Turner on a couple of book projects, one of which was a collection of social history essays called Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco.
I learned that in the 1950s Austin and Waco were about the same size — roughly 50,000 people — but they subsequently followed two divergent paths. Austin embraced growth and liberal sensibilities while Waco’s conservative powers-that-be were determined to have things stay exactly the way they were.
The result? Austin is Austin: a sprawling, ever-growing metropolis pushing one million people. For its part, Waco’s population remained hung up just north of 100,000 for years, and white flight to outlying communities such as China Spring and Robinson left behind a decaying urban core. This has only recently begun to change thanks to new investments in — condemned by some people as the gentrification of — Waco’s downtown and the historically Black Elm Street business district across the Brazos from it.
Beyond changing demographics, Waco is a product of its internal contradictions and history. In the late 19th century, for example, Baylor University existed next door to Waco’s Reservation, where legalized prostitution flourished until World War I. A string of lynchings, murders, and shootouts stretch across 120 years, and a 1953 tornado ripped through downtown, killing 114 people. All this contributed to Waco’s two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back reputation.
I went to grad school in a North Texas liberal arts college town with a big city feel and thought Waco would be much the same. I also figured I’d be gone in a few years to another job a rung or two up the academic ladder. I was wrong on both counts: Waco remains more like a big small town than a small city, and I’m still here.
I’ve discovered that Waco, like every city, has at least three ongoing stories: What visitors experience, residents’ daily lives, and the events leading up to the present day. These often seem to have little or no connection, but they are inextricably intertwined.
Exploring these three narratives and how they fit together — especially as Waco recovers from 2020’s step backward — is the Waco Insider’s mission.