A Hippie Market For The Modern Day

The 23rd Street Renaissance Market has a rich history dating to its ’70s heyday. In a tight economy, a changing world, and a deteriorating Drag, what are its prospects now?

Every morning, they arrive. They brave the stifling heat and sticky air as they focus on the day ahead. Unloading trucks, unpacking bags, setting up tables, erecting tents, and arranging their wares, they move with purposeful rhythm. They are Austin artists congregating at the 23rd Street Renaissance Market on the Drag, displaying their handmade goods and hoping to fill their cashboxes.

Cloth-covered tables showcase jewelry, trinkets, and clothing. Painted T-shirts hang from canopies, and hand-tooled leather belts are strung up side by side like carcasses in a butcher shop.

As the sun rises higher, the vendors settle into position. Cars zip past both the desolate plaza and the occasional passerby who wanders through the market and tends to look but not buy.

Interest in the Renaissance Market has waned over the years; each season brings fewer vendors and buyers. But it wasn’t always the crowdless establishment it is today. In its glory days, the Renaissance Market was Austin’s quintessential creative gathering in an era of peace, love, and freedom of expression. It supplied not only arts and crafts, but also that ineffable “Keep Austin Weird” flavor.

In the summer of 1969, artists began congregating on the Drag, and the spontaneous gathering grew into hundreds of artists lined up on the sidewalks selling their work. An election was held to officially establish the People’s Renaissance Market in 1972, and it claims to be the longest continuously operated open-air arts and crafts market in the country.

Melissa Miller, an associate studio arts professor who moved to Austin in 1969, remembers the market well. “It used to be a very vibrant place, crammed with people smelling of incense and marijuana, with musicians constantly drumming or strumming,” she says.

In an age of long hair, beards, bell bottoms, and halter tops, the 23rd Street market was part of mainstream culture, and it was the place to hang out.

Miller frequented the market then, often buying clothing and sandals. “The market sold what everybody was wearing and using,” she says. “The young women who came might be wearing items they bought at the market: long hair held back by a leather clip, a triangle of cotton cloth tied as a halter top, a wraparound homemade skirt, handcrafted leather sandals, and adorned in hippie beads.”

While the market was once a big draw for Miller, she has hardly noticed it in the last 10 years. “The main change I see is that it used to represent and be relevant to the overriding youth culture of the ’70s,” she says. “Now it seems like a throwback to the past.

Journalism professor Gene Burd, who has taught at UT for 32 years, has seen other factors contribute to the decline of the Renaissance Market’s popularity. The last 40 years, he says, have changed the Drag’s atmosphere entirely.

The shift of the student population toward outlying residential areas and the redevelopment of West Campus have weakened the street’s unique character, Burd believes. “Tourists have apparently been more attracted to Sixth Street and South Congress in the last 30 years,” he says, “and the increasing presence of the mentally ill, the homeless, and street musicians on the Drag is a factor—although they add a certain flavor, up to a point, to the city’s ‘weird’ image.”

Despite the evolution of West Campus and the presence of transients, commercialization of the Drag has perhaps hurt the market most. The old bookstores are gone. The churches often look lifeless. Cars and pedestrians move quickly. The Co-op and CVS dominate commerce.

Artist Randy Echols, who has been selling items at the Renaissance Market for 35 years, has witnessed the Drag’s transformation firsthand. “The city has changed a lot over the years,” he says. “Everything has gotten a lot more expensive, and the demographics of the area have changed tremendously. We’re one of the last mom-and-pop entities left on the Drag or Guadalupe area.”

Despite the changing atmosphere, Echols has remained loyal to the market over the decades. “I like being my own boss,” Echols says. “It’s centrally located, it’s easy for me to get here, and I just enjoy the camaraderie, so it’s very convenient for me to set up here and sell my stuff.”

As a veteran vendor, Echols has also seen significant changes take place within the market itself. In 1974, he watched his friends paint large murals there. Today, he proudly points out his own likeness—straw hat included—near the left leg of Stephen F. Austin. In 1982, he helped propose a $20,000 civic improvement bond to improve the street and to begin paving the plaza. He and the other artists also helped raise money to finish the paving process, which permanently closed the street to traffic in 1985.

Echols also witnessed the murals being updated in 2002—with added celebrities like a certain naked bongo player—and the renovation of the plaza in 2007, when the market was closed for five months.

The renovation, which removed a large “Renaissance Market” sign, replaced six large shade trees with younger trees, and removed a water fountain, was detrimental to the market, at least in Echols’ eyes. “I’m real upset about the trees,” he says, motioning toward young trees whose leaves cast only small shadows.

“We had almost a complete natural canopy, which helped a lot in the summer, and then they’d drop their leaves so we had plenty of sunlight in the winter,” he says. “Physically, I’m not too happy about it. It’s gonna take a long time for it to come back.”

Burd doesn’t think the modern renovation helped the market, either. “The very architecture and pavement of the market area seems sterile to art,” he says.

The lengthy renovation also caused the number of artists licensed to sell at the market to drop from 70 to 30. The number is back up to around 50 now, but several say it’s tough to make a living.

“I walk by the artists’ market every day going to school, and I’ve literally never seen someone actually purchasing something,” Plan II student Mia Avramescu says. “I’m always sad for the artists because it seems like they are just sitting on the Drag all day not making any money.”

A local artist who goes by the name Link has been selling items at the market for five years. He sits inside his multiple-table setup, watching people pass by the market from beneath his dark sunglasses and beaded dreadlocks. “The artists who are here now are the artists who are surviving now,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t do this market anymore.”

Link and his wife used to live in West Campus and sell at the market daily, but they’ve recently moved to Smithville to escape the climbing cost of living. Now they make the hour drive to sell on weekends only. “It’s hard to pay rent when you have days when you make absolutely nothing out here and nobody even comes to look,” he says. “For the vast majority of us out here, it’s slim pickings.”

After about a three-hour lull, a student wanders by Link’s booth and buys a small leather bracelet. “I just like the urban style,” the customer says as Link helps tie it on his wrist. Link reaches into the pocket of his stained cutoffs and peels the customer’s change from a fat wad of bills, smiling sheepishly as if the roll of cash diminishes his recessionary-soapbox speech.

Then he’s hammering at his message again, talking about how the city ought to advertise and promote the market to tourists.

Link lights up a cigarette as if the conversation is working him up. “I’ve heard about the glory days of this market back when it used to fill up three blocks worth of vendors, and everyone would be able to make it,” he says. “And if there was more money spent on advertising and marketing, then I think it could be like that again.”

Melissa Bartling, division coordinator for the city department that licenses the artists, says there has been a recent push for improvement. “Very recently, a small group of artists have decided to form an organization to improve the market,” she says. “They are at the very early stages of gauging interest, but I’ll be waiting to see what happens. If a group forms, we might see more collaboration among the artists to promote the market. It’s all very new.”

The former vendors, the still-selling artists, and many members agree: the 23rd Street Renaissance Market is a part of Austin, a showcase of the culture, and something that makes the city and the Forty Acres unique. Says former vendor Candia Lee: “I hope for the sake of history it can continue.”


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