What was the grandstand on the shores of Lady Bird Lake in East Austin used for?
Imagine hiking the trails along Lady Bird Lake. At the pedestrian bridge in Chicano Park, you look across the lagoon to see a grandstand right at the water’s edge.
It is overflowing, dilapidated. As a kind of relic.
“I go out to Town Lake often, and for years I’ve seen the stands at Fiesta Gardens,” says Matthew Rizzo. “I was always kind of curious about what the story behind them was and how they were used.”
So he asked us about it for our ATXplained project.
Rizzo says the grandstand makes him think of the finish line of some sort of boat race. He is not far away.
The grandstand is part of the Fiesta Gardens on the shores of Festival Beach. The place has a complex history: it started life in the 60s as a place to enjoy Latin American culture for all those “tourists” who come from West Austin.
It then became a public event space that hosted events for decades—from Cinco de Mayo parties, to Pride events and hot sauce festivals to patrias and even boat races.
It was the site of some major friction between city government and the East Austin neighborhood it is located in. Recently, it has not been used for a long time.
Fiesta Gardens began life as one of the first public-private ventures in what was then known as Lake City. A private company opened Fiesta Gardens on public land in 1966. The company that developed it had visions of a lush tropical lagoon.
“At the time, ski shows and motorboats were really popular, so they wanted to bring that kind of flair to it and make it a tourist attraction,” says Sarah Marshall, coordinator for the historic preservation and tourism program at Austin Parks. and the Department of Recreation.
The lagoon was once a gravel quarry before it was filled with water from the City Lake. When you visit the lagoon, you can see boat races or take a boat tour. The grandstand could accommodate up to 1,000 people for the water ski shows that took place three times a day for nearly a year.
The idea was to cater to visitors looking for a taste of Latin American culture and water activities. (Everyone knows that Austin is the living acrobatics capital of the world!)
Fiesta Gardens opened in 1966 to give “tourists” a taste of Latin American culture and water acrobatics.
“[The company] I expected the numbers to be phenomenal,” says Marshall.
The complex was opened in 1966 and a year later the company closed it. The city bought the lease for $115,000. But the story does not end there.
The Aqua Fest fiasco
After becoming a publicly owned complex, Fiesta Gardens was used for events, and soon, another Austin staple would rock the boat along the Beach Festival.
“Aqua Fest started in 1962 and then moved to Fiesta Gardens in the late ’60s,” Marshall says, “and drag boat racing started in the ’60s, too.”
The drag boat races were held three weekends a year, with the championship races taking place as part of Aqua Fest in August.
The neighborhood strongly opposed these races.
Paul Hernandez was a community activist and founder of the Austin chapter of the Brown Berets, a paramilitary organization focused on Chicano rights that began in the 60s. In a documentary about the dispute called “Boats in the Barrio,” he talks about the problems the community faced during the weeks the races were taking place.
“The most obvious is of course the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the congestion of thousands of people – tourists – who occupy a residential area and leave their waste behind,” he says.
Every year, the neighborhood petitioned the City Council to move the races. Each year, elected officials agreed to move the races. And every year, the sound of high-powered drag boats echoed through the neighborhood.
The council agreed that the races should be moved. But they weren’t.
The issues went deeper than just boats and trash. Many residents felt disrespected, as their needs were less of a priority than the needs of all the people who came to the races.
“They don’t give us a damn about our property, our houses, our neighborhood. All they want is a good race, to see someone break a record or roll over and break their neck,” Hernandez says in the documentary.
After the council approved the races again in 1978, the neighborhood kept a promise to protest the Beach Festival. A fight broke out between the demonstrators and the police.
Protest from Boats in the Barrio
Nineteen protesters were arrested and one police officer was suspended for using excessive force. It was the last year for the drag boat races on Town Lake and the Aqua Fest finally moved.
Back to the community
Despite not always being a good neighbor, Fiesta Gardens eventually became part of the community. People in the neighborhood used it for quinceañeras, a conjunto festival and more.
When he was growing up in East Austin, “it just seemed like Fiesta Gardens was the place,” says Baldomero Cuellar, executive director of the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival. “It just had a sense of community about it.”
He has watched the neighborhood around her evolve over the years. And he sees East Austin’s ever-increasing property values as a big reason behind the changes.
“In terms of people moving, you have two types,” he says. “You have those who move there for the culture and the beauty of that riverside neighborhood and stuff. But then you have those who want to come and change things.”
Outside of Austin’s annual Pride festival, Fiesta Gardens isn’t used much these days. Cuellar has tried several times to organize an event at the Gardens, but he hasn’t had much luck. The neighborhood has changed – and so have the rules.
“The biggest complaint is the noise, but I say, ‘You moved next to a cultural music venue, why are you complaining?’ You know?” he says.
Renovations to a community landmark
You will no longer hear the sound of trawlers from Fiesta Gardens. It seems like the city is quick to respond to noise complaints now. Anyone trying to rent the space must follow some strict guidelines.
The city has a plan to preserve Fiesta Gardens that includes improving access and restoring the grandstand to its former glory. But the city used the funds earmarked for the project on the response to COVID — and the funding has yet to be returned.
The plan was to return Fiesta Gardens to the community. But Cuellar is not convinced it can be done.
“On my wish list, there would be a stage like in San Antonio where a band can come and play. Keep that part of the culture and history alive,” he says. “It would be nice, but I don’t see it happening. You will make people complain.”
Until the renovations are funded, the grandstand will remain an overcrowded relic of historic East Austin.
Until the city funds the renovations, the grandstand will loom across the lagoon — a reminder of the history and conflict set in this place surrounded by a rapidly changing East Austin.