sixth street shooting
Is the key to a new Sixth Street making it more like Broadway?
In Nashville, Tennessee, the mix of bars, restaurants and honky-tonks playing live music on the major thoroughfare of Broadway keeps the city’s downtown lively even as other parts of the area bring in office workers and residential units.
Crissy Cassetty, director of economic development with the Nashville Downtown Partnership, says she thinks Nashville has always kind of compared itself to Austin, and that Broadway is their Sixth Street.
“That's where the majority of our live music is. We have several artists and venues downtown,” Cassetty said, noting music spaces from country stars Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
“Over the years, our smaller, local honky tonks have kind of transformed into bigger entertainment venues that take multiple floors, and levels,” Cassetty said. “The growth and the attraction of Broadway hasn't slowed down forever.”
In Austin, the pandemic took a toll on Sixth Street and other parts of downtown. A recent report by the Downtown Austin Alliance noted that pedestrian foot traffic has started to return to downtown nightlife districts, including East and West Sixth. Total monthly visits surpassed 200,000 on West Sixth in October 2021, beating out the visits in that month in 2019, though East Sixth slugged behind the 2019 total. On the progress of recovery for downtown entertainment districts, the report says, “the live music economy continues to suffer as ticket sales and attendance at shows remain depressed,”
Public safety concerns haven't helped with a revival of Sixth Street. Sunday marked a year since a mass shooting that led to 14 injuries and one death. On the last day of SXSW this year, another shooting left four injured. To address incidents like these, the city has moved forward with a Safer Sixth Street initiative to tackle gun violence, ensure EMS can care for patients quickly and look into more seating and dining in the area, among other practices.
But investments from commercial agency Stream Realty aim to transform the district by adding improvements between Neches and Sabine streets. Caitlin Ryan, the head of the Austin office says Sixth Street is the city’s special tool in the center of downtown.
“If I can fast forward 10 years, I think we look back, and we've made a significant change and Sixth Street is not only a place for night, but also the day,” Ryan said. “But it's evolved from not only our city council preservation asset, historic landmark, but everybody in our city, the music commission, coming together to form a street that our city can be proud of.”
For Broadway’s public safety approach, Cassetty says groups like the mayor’s office, police department and the convention and visitor’s bureau have the common goal of making the street feel clean and secure.
Still, she described the matter of keeping nightlife alive while also keeping the area safe and friendly as an “ongoing battle.”
“The more successful an area becomes, you just have to figure out how to balance all of it. Especially when you're in a downtown footprint, that balance of the play, along with the residential population and the workforce population,” Cassetty said. “And making sure you don't upset the residents or the employees because they're a big part of the downtown culture. You don't want to lose that because you have a successful entertainment district.”
Aside from that, improvements also involve infrastructure. Julie Fitch, chief operating officer of Downtown Austin Alliance, said they’d like to see investment from both the private sector and the city in rebuilding the infrastructure of Sixth Street. Part of the vision from Stream involves introducing wider festival sidewalks, only three lanes of traffic and the construction of four- and five-story buildings.
The entertainment elements will remain, which Fitch said is fantastic.
“I think that with the opportunity that comes with this level of investment, it really has a chance to expand Sixth Street’s appeal to a wider variety of audiences,” Fitch said.
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APD said a suspect is in custody after four people were shot on Sixth Street early Sunday morning.
The shooting, which occurred at about 2 a.m. on Sunday, began after a "disturbance between two groups of people," APD said in an update Sunday afternoon.
All four people were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries, Austin-Travis County EMS said.
The suspect is in custody, and APD said it will release more information on the shooting as it becomes available.
The Sixth Street incident came on the last day of the SXSW festival, an event that brings in thousands to Austin's downtown city streets. On Friday, an axe attack left three injured near nighttime district Rainey Street.
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Austin has seen 89 homicides in 2021—with two days left in the year—an 80% increase from last year’s 48 killings.
The surge in violence, including a Sixth Street shooting that left 1 dead and 13 injured, an officer-involved "gun battle" between teenagers in the entertainment district and a hostage killing of pediatrician Dr. Lindley Dodson, has left some worried that the historically laidback town of Austin is no longer safe.
Austonia spoke this week with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the surge and what can be done.
Chacon told Austonia much of the uptick comes down to one thing. "It's about guns," he said. "It's about gun violence and the number of illegally owned weapons that we have on the streets and have been seizing off the streets."
In terms of a solution, Chacon said his number one issue has become staffing, or lack thereof, as the department struggles to recruit and retain officers. Officers are leaving the force at alarming rates, something that Chacon said comes down to a burnt-out force and increased criticism of police after 2020's police brutality protests. The force is currently short 200 officers, Chacon said.
Homicide count vs. homicide rate
Chacon points out that the city’s homicide rate, which relates the number of crimes to the size of the city, makes Austin one of the safest cities among the United States’ 40 largest.
Still, Austin's homicide rate of 9.25 per 100,000 residents is the highest the city's seen in 30 years.
New patterns arose amid the pandemic. While the department says overall crime, including violent crime, actually dropped in 2021, homicides still reached a record-breaking number.
Chacon said officers needed to adapt by asking the right questions and pinpointing crimes into their correct categories to prevent and curb homicides.
"We have to wonder, was that happening before and we just weren't asking the right questions, or are we seeing that more now?" Chacon said. "I think we're getting good at the data, and that's why we're able to parse out things that are more violent in nature... regardless, it's concerning."
APD and the city have created new approaches to stamp out violent crime this year, including the Safer Sixth Street Initiative for the now-notorious entertainment district and Chacon's own Violence Intervention Program, which targets gun crime in the city. But it'll take real time to see if these initiatives work, and criticism is only mounting for Chacon and city council.
Chacon chooses not to look at the problem from a budgeting lens and has said that Save Austin Now's Prop A—an initiative seeking to reverse police budget cuts to increase officers to two per 1,000 Austinites—was based on "older methodology." Instead, he said that a full analysis from the department's research and planning unit will be released early next year to help fill holes in his staff.
"We don't have our arms around it quite yet," Chacon said. "We've just got to really be smart about the way that we're doing it."
Approach to policing
In the wake of Austin and national concerns about how different people are policed, Chacon said specific demographic groups won’t be targeted.
“I think what's important for the community to know is that we're not going to be focused on particular areas of town or on particular groups of people. This is going to be really laser-focused on those who are committing the crimes, specifically if they are serial offenders or prolific offenders and to target those people that are committing the crimes. I feel like that is going to be the way for us to really be effective as an organization and drive down violent crime."
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