For the introductory essay on this series, please go here.
The wide and open horizon extends endlessly on both sides, bisected only by a two-lane highway. On my left, the railroad tracks run parallel with my trajectory through the flatness of geography that makes the line of sight feel limitless, and — contrary to physics — makes my moving car feel suspended in stillness. This sense of stillness is, oddly, fitting for movement between places. It’s the necessary transition time of in-betweenness — the process of processing; leaving then arriving.
This time I am floating between the time and space of Highway 95, which runs nearly parallel to Interstate 35 from Bastrop until it ends in Temple, a north-northwest trajectory I pick up outside of Austin that takes me almost into the downtown center of Bartlett, Texas.
The homogeneity of the rolling green fields that surround me are disrupted as I turn left onto Clark street, and the smoothness of the paved road changes to the rumble of red bricks paving the street from one end to the other. If the feeling of stillness in movement is an aberration of physics, then turning into Bartlett feels like an aberration of time. Building after building stands almost perfectly preserved in its history, in the moment of the glorious heyday the town no doubt once enjoyed.
This red brick is a signature element of Bartlett’s downtown, almost as if the buildings rise up directly from the substance of the street. The town is built with a cohesion of architectural elements and materials of any historical Texas fantasy. This is the architecture that hosts allegories of the Wild, Wild West, the setting for great myths and stories of our state, and the backdrop any non-Texan imagines that all of Texas is. In image, at least, that myth is still alive and well in Bartlett, where the historical buildings remain remarkably intact, and where the somewhat sleepy town is actually abuzz with activity if you spend enough time there to see it.
Bartlett is beautiful. Bartlett is historical. Bartlett was a boom town for much of its history, but as the story goes, it was in the 1930s that it started to decline. In its prime, Bartlett was a productive cotton and farming community, until the industries went bust. It was home to many thriving businesses, and the four former banks, one on each corner of its downtown, is evidence of a former prosperity.
Bartlett was officially incorporated in 1890 with a population of 1,000 residents. Originally the city was planned to run along the Katy Tracks — as the railroad was called — and extend north and south, but its growth occured east of Highway 95 and up to the west side of the train tracks. Occupying four main plots subdivided by public alleys, the town’s buildings are impressive not only in their cohesion, but in their scale. They are all enormous, and each is currently being renovated to remove the drop ceilings and baroque fittings of the 1970s and ’80s, in order to return each building to its original glory.
And it’s worth it, because the original glory is indeed glorious.
Each side of the street is lined by one- and two-story constructions with level cornices, storefronts that allow light to shine through the front, and adornment so subtle that the architectural styles fit together seamlessly. (I mean that literally, as each building shares a wall with another.) Together with the remarkably well-preserved brick, the two-block area of downtown is not only visually stunning, but it also carries a mass — a weight of presence and import. One feels that this was once a place to rival places, a city of pride in what it was and what it could be.
I stood in the center of Clark Street and watched the train pass along the railroad at the far end of downtown like a punctuation mark, one that marked a time in history that was pivotal to both the Texan dream and the promise of prosperity via United States engineering. A clunky, loud, rumbling anachronism of progress in our Tesla-driven world. Indeed, Bartlett is a place that exists in the liminal space of the present, a time that is ever-evolving between past and future; a border of time. Bartlett is in a moment in which the collision of these anachronisms may end up mapping what its future can be.
It’s hard to imagine Bartlett as a thriving center, regardless of its impressive architecture and the history that I’ll lay out in forthcoming articles. But it is my job to learn, to share, and to imagine a future Bartlett thriving just as much as the Bartlett of the past did.
Look for Part 3 of this series on May 10. To learn more about Bartlett, please follow @downtownbartlett. For information about the artists follow: @aimeemeverettart,@laursen_art, @jadewalker_studio, @mjmenjivar, @LeslieMoodyCastro