AUSTIN (KXAN) — Standing on the newest trail segment in Austin and hearing only the buzzing of summer insects, it’s hard to imagine how different the area was 50 years ago when the noise and pollution of industrial machinery dominated.
The Lake Front Trail is a segment of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and is the start of a larger project, the Holly Shores/Edward Rendon Sr. Park. The route is a short 0.8 miles, paved and ADA compliant.
For Bertha Rendon Delgado, the granddaughter of Edward Rendon Sr., today is about more than just new park space.
The Fight to Decommission the Holly Power Plant
In the 1960s, Rendon bought a home in East Austin for $5,000 (roughly $50,028 today) and moved his family there.
“Buying a home was a big thing in the 1960s for the Mexican community,” Delgado said. “They bought homes, and were happy that they were buying a home, not knowing that the home was right next to a power plant that would hurt their families.”
Homes previously owned by white residents were sold cheap to Rendon and others, Delgado said, because the former residents knew that a power plant was coming to the area: in 1958, the City of Austin had decided to build the Holly Power Plant.
It would be just 600 feet away from Rendon’s new neighborhood. According to Austin Parks & Recreation, the city did not build noise mitigation to shield 100 nearby homes.
When the plant started generating power, the noise from machinery, loudspeakers and workers permeated the neighborhood at all hours, Delgado said.
Rendon’s home was roughly three blocks away from the plant, but Priscilla Martinez Katz’s mother bought a home that was just across the street.
“We never really had a sound sleep because they were always working. The intercoms were going off 24 hours. A boom would go off and it shook the whole house. It destroyed a lot of the foundation and we got a lot of mold because all the windows were loose. We suffered through a lot growing up here with the power plant,” Katz said.
Air pollution and chemical spills into Lady Bird Lake also harmed the community. In total, six chemical spills occurred, releasing an estimated 80,000 gallons of oil into the lake, according to Austin Parks & Recreation. The first spill was in 1974.
According to Delgado, the health of every family in the area was impacted and many families experienced birth defects. She says that cancer and respiratory conditions were also common.
Activism against the plant started in the 1970s, with a notable protest at AquaFest 1978, which was dispersed by the Austin Police Department. In the 1980s, the Holly Decommissioning Committee focused on organized local activism. Rendon was a key member of the committee, as was Katz’s father, Robert Donely.
After more years of organizing and protesting, the committee won: The Holly Power Plant shut down on Sept. 30, 2007, and was decommissioned in 2017.
“Today I feel liberated. I feel that our families are here and we did something good. Our activists and leaders fought hard and they are why we’re still here today,” Delgado said. “We’ve been able to preserve this area and create something that the community wanted: a space where they can come and enjoy the scenery and quiet, and absorb the lands that were walking on. That is sacred to our people.”
Getting to the trail and what’s next
The pollution is gone now, and the trail is a restful place. Parking can be found at the Metz Neighborhood Park (Canterbury Street and Pedernales Street).
For the community and The Trail Foundation, there is a greater future envisioned for the park.
“We’ve had a few things that we want to bring to the community and get their input,” said Heidi Anderson, CEO of The Trail Foundation. “We’ll be breaking ground on our own Holly project that includes a fishing pier at the southern end of this new trail sometime early next year.”
Other project proposals include a trailhead, a playground and additional shade sources along the trail.
Delgado and Katz hope to see the space grow further and be a home for the neighborhood’s artists.
“Our people want to want to see the community’s art, they want to have memories and they want to have a reference to the history of what people fought for and aspire to,” Delgado said. “We’re not done yet.”
This Saturday, the trail will host live music from 9 to 11 a.m.