Amid Change, One Business Stays Put on the Northeast Corner of 12th & Chicon

Oct 11, 2016

Aside from some passing traffic, the northeast corner of 12th and Chicon streets remains fairly quiet in the early morning hours.

This corner is home to the Romani Art Gallery, which is closed at 7 a.m., but you can get a passing glimpse of the art from outside.

The side of the building facing Chicon Street features a giant mural of musicians like Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, James Brown, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tupac Shakur.

Further down Chicon Street is a bar, an acupuncture place, a liquor store and a mechanic shop, all of which have yet to open.

This block of 12th Street houses some restaurants that have been in the neighborhood for decades – one of them is Sam’s BBQ.

A view of the mural outside the Romani Gallery.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Brian Mays, one of the owners, has been manning the restaurant for about 40 years, and he’s come up with his own crafty slogan.

“Well, you don’t need no teeth to eat my beef,” Mays said.

Mays shows off his own toothless grin. That slogan is painted in bold black letters on one of the outside walls, and Mays said it attracts a unique customer base.

“A whole lot of senior citizens start visiting me now because you don’t need no teeth,” he said. “Just come on in.”

In the morning hours, the restaurant is quiet, but Mays and his team are up early getting the smoker started. On the menu today, they've got mac and cheese, green beans, and potato salad. For meats, he says they've got sausage, brisket, chicken, ribs and lamb.

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Inside, the walls of Sam’s BBQ are plastered with family photos, newspaper reviews, and a giant poster for the movie “Joe” starring Nicolas Cage, a movie in which Mays acted – and it wasn't just a cameo.

“I played Junior, the boss man,” Mays said. “I was the lead role in the crew.”

When he’s not manning the BBQ pit, he moonlights as a movie star. Mays has appeared in eight feature films to date, but he doesn’t have plans to leave the BBQ business any time soon. But, as he looked out on 12th Street, he said many of his longtime neighbors have opted to sell their property and move away from East Austin. He said he’s been approached by buyers, too, but he’s not selling.

“Five years ago, we had black businesses, black bars, black clubs,” Mays said. “What can you do about it? Nothing you can do. I ain’t going nowhere.”

Some people are working to bring back that lost sense of community. Natasha Madison is with a group called the East Austin Advocacy Project. She also grew up down the street from 12th and Chicon.

“It’s been odd to watch the transformation, not just that it’s transforming, but that it’s transforming so quickly,” Madison said.

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Her group is working to help create a merchant’s association for businesses on East 12th Street to help them boost their visibility. Madison said we can’t escape the fact that a lot of residents have left, and many of the new people moving in simply don’t do business in the area. Still, she’s hopeful.

“We want to encourage them and offer them the opportunity, by having these wonderful businesses exist on the corridor, for them to participate and be a part of the community and have it be a self-sustained corridor, where members of our community can get everything they need here,” she said.

Madison remembers a time when this neighborhood was a thriving, cultural hub, and she hopes to see it get back to that.