Continue across West Avenue and Rio Grande Street, and turn right onto Nueces Street. We are coming into the heart of the old barrio. At the end of the block on the right in a low-slung brick building is Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, founded in 2008 by hometown hero–turned–pariah Lance Armstrong. The Juan Pelota coffee shop is a good pitstop for watching the condo dwellers walk their tiny dogs in the shadow of the skyscrapers.
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The name Mellow Johnny is a play on maillot jaune, the race leader’s yellow jersey, and Juan Pelota is codSpanish for “one ball,” a reference to the result of Armstrong’s bout with testicular cancer. Kitty-corner to Juan Pelota is a parking garage. In the early 1900s this was the site of Walker’s Austex Chile Co. factory. Originally between Third and Fourth Streets on the west side of Guadalupe Street, at some point in the early 1900s it moved one block west to this location on San Antonio Street.
It was one of the most important places in Austin’s Mexico, as all Walker’s employees except the administrators were Mexican American at a time when many businesses refused to hire Mexicans. Continue south on Nueces past the 360 condos. Luis’ Cantina was the name of the neighborhood bar at the corner of Third Street, where Trifecta is now. South of Third Street, more high-rises are going up along a revitalized Shoal Creek, where there used to be a flour mill and a park.
Walk east along the tree-lined corridor that is Second Street, one of Austin’s most stylish thoroughfares. Cross San Antonio Street, and about halfway along the block on the south side was the site of the Austin Tortilla Manufacturing Company, which in 1929 made 3,000 tortillas a day.
On reaching Guadalupe Street, our walk turns back north to the Fifth Street corridor, but let’s pause to take in the J. P. Schneider Store on the corner, one of Austin’s most historic buildings. Jacob Schneider, whose parents emigrated from Germany to New Braunfels, was a successful entrepreneur; this was his second store, after the business outgrew its first location. It opened in 1873, and people came from as far as New Braunfels, fording the river at Nueces Street to shop and gather in the store’s yard, which had space for 50 wagons. It is now Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, chef Lou Lambert’s thriving upscale stab at the central Texas staple.
Walk north. Our next stop is Republic Square, which covers the block to the north between Fourth and Fifth and Guadalupe and San Antonio. This was Hemphill Square, one of Edwin Waller’s four original city squares. The park was a center of “Mexico’s” social life. Families gathered under the live oak trees after church to enjoy candy or tamales from itinerant sellers. It was also the scene of the annual Diez y Seis de Septiembre parade, held here until 1927.
The event honors Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain. After the 1928 city plan forced the community to move to the south and east side (see “East Austin,” and “Tejano Trails”), the park fell into disuse. Republic Square was renamed and reopened in 1976 in honor of the country’s bicentennial and has been transformed into a flourishing urban center. Pick up fresh veggies and treats at the Saturday farmers market. The Blackbird sculpture on the north side is by local artist Holly Kincannon and draws inspiration from the city’s ubiquitous grackles and from Oaxacan folk art.