an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Karen Kocher is one of the foremost documentary chroniclers of the historical, ecological, and cultural importance of Barton Springs to the city of Austin. Her current interactive online documentary project, Living Springs, features a collection of short films on various subjects relating to Barton Springs. Kocher has most recently finished a film on the almost-unknown story of the racial segregation and integration of Barton Springs. We sat down to talk to her about Living Springs, the importance of Barton Springs to Austin’s cultural and ecological fabric, and her newest film.
What is your relationship to Barton Springs?
When I moved here for film school, it was over 100 degrees in June and somebody told me, “You have to go to Barton Springs.” So I did, and that’s what I’ve spent a huge portion of my life dedicated to ever since! I truly believe there is no other place in the world like it, and as a result I’ve done a variety of projects on it over the years. My Masters thesis was a documentary about the community initiated “Save Our Springs” movement and many of my subsequent projects have focused on the Springs. I got away from Barton Springs for awhile, but as I saw people moving to Austin from all over in recent years, I thought, “Oh my God, these people know nothing! They aren’t going to protect the Springs! What’s going to happen?” So in 2010 I decided to start what has turned out to me by biggest project on Barton Springs, Living Springs.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the goal of your project?
The goal was always to provide educational content both for the Barton Springs Education Center on site at the Springs, and also to provide 24/7 web access to the same content. More broadly, the project was to help the community to articulate the value of place—Barton Springs in the case—to a community. Many people understand the recreational value of the Springs, but don’t understand all the other values. And I think if we can’t articulate the other values of a place, the motivation to get involved to save it goes down. It’s like if you know all the things that are special about something, then you can understand and be more engaged. And really that’s the whole reason that the project exists.
How did you come to your format?
I was really intrigued by the idea of a nonlinear approach to documentary, in which the viewer could kind of “choose their own adventure.” It allows for much more diverse and inclusive storytelling, because it doesn’t always have to fit into a narrative. And there really isn’t one story at Barton Springs; it’s a mosaic. The format of the project reflects this. If you want to learn just about science at the Springs, spirituality at the Springs, history at the Springs, you can do that. Ideally, of course, you can learn about all of them, but the format allows for an inclusive, interdisciplinary set of topics. Also, although I am the director and producer of almost all of the films in the project, the format has allowed for a really amazing amount of collaboration, and includes the work of other filmmakers
You feature a lot of films about the ecology of Barton Springs, and its relationship to environmental decisions by the Austin community. Why is this focus so key to your project?
It’s just a race against time as far as the Springs are concerned. Each development over the recharge zone is like another nail in the coffin; every well that pumps water out of the aquifer is a nail in the coffin of Barton Springs. It really is a race against time. Some of these new roads that they are proposing over the most sensitive areas of the recharge zone are the next huge concern. And I think people who live here really need to understand the connection between these projects that might their lives easier, and this place that they love and say they want to protect.
You do have some history films on the website, and you have just finished a documentary about the segregation and integration of Barton Springs for Living Springs. Can you tell me a little more about the content of the project?
It’s a roughly 21 minute film called “A Reflecting Pool.” When I began researching the project, I discovered that the history of segregation at Barton Springs spans from 1918 [when the city took over Barton Springs] to 1962, and was really tied up with the broader history of segregation in Austin. This was obviously too big a project for me to fit into one Living Springs film, so the video that I ended up doing covers one action of integrating the pool, and I’m really careful never to say that this was the one, because it wasn’t. And a real challenge with telling the story was finding imagery of efforts to integrate the pool, and there is literally not a single image of anything that anybody talks about. It wasn’t covered by the paper—people say the press was there, but in all my searching through the vaults of the [Austin] Statesmen from that time, I didn’t find anything on it. There are so many incidents that occurred when people tried to integrate the Springs, starting as early as 1953—the problem is, there’s no visuals..
So how did you choose which event to feature?
Well nobody, as far as I can tell, knows what date exactly Barton Springs was integrated; all we know for sure is that by the summer of 1962 it was integrated. The incident that I include in my video appears to have happened in the summer of 1961, but my proof of that is basically people’s memories. I chose the one incident that had the most characters–
And the most visual content?
No, actually, I made re-creations with actors! There truly isn’t any visual material.
So can you tell me about the story you documented?
The way they used to keep African Americans out of Barton Springs is they would not sell tickets to them. There weren’t necessarily signs, and there weren’t fences like there were today, but it was very much segregated by custom—they just wouldn’t sell to African Americans. So when people wanted to “swim-in” to integrate the pool they would just run and jump in. My video documents a particular swim-in in which the famous Austin radio personality and activist John Henry Faulk, along with Ronnie Duggar, the founding editor of the Texas Observer, brought an African American woman named Azie Taylor to Barton Springs in the summer of 1961. Azie Taylor, who later became Azie Taylor Morton, was an assistant to the President of Huston-Tillotson University at the time, and later actually became the Treasurer of the United States under Jimmy Carter. I really ended up choosing this story because it had the most characters to work with, Tom Smith [the mayor of Austin at the time] got involved…but like I said, it was just one incident out of what were probably many.
After these swim-ins like the one you document, and even after Barton Springs was integrated by the city in 1962, how successful was this integration in practice?
Before integration, Barton Springs was very much the “Whites Only” country club of Austin and integration ended that. At the same time if you look at film footage from the decades right after the integration, you don’t necessarily see a ton of African Americans there, probably because of that cultural legacy of segregation. Today, I think the Springs really are a lot more multicultural, especially as Austin has become more multicultural.
How does this story fit in with your larger project in Living Springs?
I think a lot of people who moved here in the 1970s and after had no idea Barton Springs had ever been segregated. And when you talk to some of the older folks, they’ll often say, “Oh yeah, I think I remember that.” But it’s not something they’re very proud of talking about. Everyone thinks that Barton Springs is a place for everyone. And the fact is that it wasn’t always a place for everybody. And as the population of African Americans in Austin keeps going down and down, this is something, a history we need to think about as a city. To me, Living Springs is all about making sure Barton Springs remains a place for Austinites for a long time to come.
You can find Karen Kocher’s Living Springs project at livingspringsaustin.org, or playing on a continuous loop at the Barton Springs Educational Center. You can find a link to her new film, A Reflecting Pool, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXOidGMWDcE Kocher is a Senior Lecturer at UT-Austin’s Department of Radio, Television, and Film.