South Congress (sometimes known as SoCo) is a neighborhood in Austin, Texas, located on South Congress Avenue. It is also a nationally recognized commercial and cultural district known for its many small merchants, restaurants, music, and art venues, and, more recently, food trucks.
South Congress Avenue runs from the Colorado River to the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge and continues south to Ben White Boulevard/TX-71. The area’s limits are formed by Travis Heights to the east and Bouldin Creek to the west.
South Congress Avenue has grown from a rural country route to a capital city entryway and, finally, to the commercial core that it is today. Some Austinites attribute its continued popularity to the clear view of the Texas State Capitol.
Edwin Waller constructed Congress in the 1830s to serve as Austin’s principal thoroughfare. However, Congress did not reach south of the Colorado River until 1852, when James Gibson Swisher donated land for a road that served as both the postal route to Austin and the main highway to San Antonio. Growth along South Congress stopped during the nineteenth century, and it wasn’t until the completion of a concrete bridge in 1910 that South Austin had reliable transit across the river. When the streetcar line was extended down South Congress in the 1920s, South Austin witnessed significant growth. As hundreds more bungalows were built in South Austin, more commercial establishments sprouted south of the river, particularly on South Congress. South Congress had been paved all the way from the river to the railroad at present-day Ben White Boulevard by 1931.
Many South Congress landmarks were built between 1930 and 1960. The Austin Motel opened in 1938, followed immediately by the Hotel San José. The hamburger stand that would later become the famous Night Hawk first appeared on South Congress in 1932. Another major construction was the Twin Oaks Shopping Center, which was built on the northeast corner of Oltorf Road and South Congress. It was one of Austin’s first “strip” shopping areas when it opened in 1954. South Austin grew significantly during the 1950s, as the Congress Avenue Bridge was enlarged and Interstate 35 was completed, offering an extra north-south route.
During the 1970s, South Congress became a haven for artists, musicians, and their followers. The renowned Armadillo World Headquarters opened in 1970 at the intersection of South Congress and Barton Springs Boulevard. With the development of I-35, tourist traffic on South Congress dropped, and many shops closed.
Small eccentric retailers began to crop up in the South Congress Corridor in the late 1980s, drawn by affordable rent. The area’s revitalization began near the intersection of South Congress and Monroe by repurposing historic buildings to attract a variety of retail enterprises, arts and music venues, and restaurants. The first skyscrapers in South Austin arrived when two new hotels opened on South Congress and Riverside Drive. In 1988, Kent Cole and Diana Prechter reopened Magnolia Cafe South in a run-down wood-frame building that had formerly housed Flossie’s bar and the Austex Lounge. They were drawn in by the “colorful folks” and the low rent.
In the 1990s, memories of drug dealers and prostitutes vanished. Austin, a very small city for most of its history, saw a huge economic boom that lured new residents and raised demand for older house stock in Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek. This, in turn, triggered extensive restorations along South Congress and across old South Austin. The Austin Theatre, H-E-B at Oltorf and South Congress, and other sites were redeveloped in the 1990s. Penn Field’s transformation from an industrial plant to a multi-use complex including office space, retail, and residential space was perhaps the most ambitious. By the end of the decade, South Congress had established itself as a nationally recognized commerce and cultural district.
The retail district is home to several shops, restaurants, and music venues. There is a square with a variety of food trucks serving tacos, falafel, cupcakes, and other foods. On South Congress, notable retailers include Allens Boots (1977), Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds (1984), Uncommon Objects (1992-2017), and Friends of Sound (1996-2016). Guero’s Taco Bar (1995), where Texas Radio Live is broadcast on Sun Radio every Wednesday evening, Home Slice Pizza (2005), South Congress Cafe (2003), and Hey Cupcake (2003) are among the nearby restaurants (2007). First Thursday is a monthly community event in which businesses stay open until 10 p.m. or later to celebrate the neighborhood’s boutiques, restaurants, and galleries. The event is held on the first Thursday of every month, between Barton Springs Road and Elizabeth Street.
Sweet Leaf Tea Company is headquartered in the South Congress neighborhood’s Penn Field Business Park. The company moved to South Congress in 2007. The company relocated to Penn Field in December of 2009.
The Austin Independent School District serves the area. Travis Heights Elementary, Lively Middle, and Travis High are the zoned schools. Travis Heights was established in 1953, while Travis was built in 1938.
Austin Community College serves the surrounding community. St. Edward’s University is located on South Congress Avenue.
Capital Metro MetroRapid Route 801 runs along South Congress Avenue, offering express service to the rest of the city. The route specifically stops at the Auditorium Shores, SoCo, Oltorf, and St. Edward’s stations. South Congress Transit Center on Ben White Boulevard also connects to other bus routes in the region. South Congress will be served by the Orange Line light rail service as part of Project Connect in the future.
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