Pecan Street Festival brings magic back downtown


[Updated at 12:27 p.m., donation amount]

On Saturday and Sunday, Austin will harken back to its pre-metropolitan roots and keep the state capitol “weird” at the biannual Pecan Street Festival. This celebration marks the 33-year anniversary of the 6th Street festivities, representing the history of the district itself and the era which started downtown life in Austin.

Until the ’70s, downtown was scarcely populated, with abandoned buildings scattered about. A pioneering group of Austinites known as the Old Pecan Street Association was instrumental in reclaiming the downtown space and starting renovation of the old buildings.

“The idea was to preserve the historical appeal of the street, while revitalizing the downtown area,” said Shannon Sedwick, president of the Old Pecan Street Association. The association wanted to uphold a sense of the buildings’ past and present, she said.

The association needed adequate funding for restoration costs and bringing a street fair to life was a solution to their problems. In 1978, the Pecan Street Festival was started and included local food and art vendors along with bands from the surrounding area, establishing a community event for cultural preservation and creativity. Due to the festival’s positive turnout, the celebration became a biannual spring and fall tradition, honoring 6th Street’s original name, Pecan Street.

The Pecan Street Merchants’ Association, a group of volunteer-based business owners, has always placed importance on free admission to the festival so that it is open to the Austin community and surrounding areas. The city of Austin has gone into partnership with the board to help sponsor the festival expenses.

“All of the money we make goes out to different projects on 6th Street and the downtown area,” Sedwick said. “We have given money most recently to Bastrop wildfire relief and the $7,500 was matched by Time Warner to give to the Red Cross for wildfire relief.”

Tamara Ford, a spokeswoman for the festival, said the event is well-attended by people from all over Austin and Central Texas because of its emphasis on the arts. In fact, the celebration is the largest art festival in Central Texas, attracting local artists along with craft and food vendors.

The attractions on Old Pecan Street will extend from Interstate Highway 35 to Brazos St. where the roads will be closed off.

In the past the event has attracted more than 300,000 people, generating an economic impact of around $43 million, according to the festival’s website. Tourists are drawn to the special events and the dozens of bands performing. This year’s attractions include The LEGO Experience Tour, where festival attendees can partake in hands-on building-block fun, Wahl’s “Face the Day” Tour where men can get free trims and grooming tips and Doc Seaton’s Magic Sideshow.

This will be the first time Doc Seaton’s Magic Sideshow will be featured in the celebration. After last year’s success at the Inaugural Austin Street Magic Festival, Pecan Street Festival coordinators contacted the sideshow to perform for the fall, said Dan Page, producer of and performer in the show. There will be 36 performers and two tents, the Feature Stage and the Close-Up Tent, which allow for a more personal experience than the ongoing street magic.

Because Austin has the third-largest group of magicians in the country, city council will commemorate local magicians and designate Trinity Street between 5th and 6th streets as Magic Street starting Thursday evening until the end of the festival.

“The variety of magicians, balloonists, jugglers, Hula-Hoopers, palm readers and the group of eclectic people is really invigorating,” Page said. “Magic really only exists in the moment, it’s a wondrous experience when you’re a foot away.”

Printed on Friday, September 23, 2011 as: "Historic street festival strives to preserve Austin culture."