The Last Man On Rainey Street Vowed To Stay. Now He's Glad He Left.
The house at 71 Rainey St. leans.
It bows to the left, toward Javelina, the bar next door where you can order a Psycho Chicken, a mezcal drink with honey and habanero. The house crouches beneath an awning of trees and a 30-story condo building across the street where luxury is “uncompromising.”
The owner of 71 Rainey was also “uncompromising” – until last year when being the last man on Rainey became too much.
“It was my time to get out of there,” said John Contreras, who moved in September. "I'm glad I got out of there."
Through dozens of voicemails in 2018 and 2019, Contreras had described to KUT what it was like to live on a rapidly gentrifying street – and to be the lone holdout. Drunk people wandered into his yard, ignoring the “private property” sign he’d put on the white wooden house. Through it all, Contreras had been determined to stay.
“Living here, it’s not easy," he told KUT back in September 2018. "Never has been. But I guess it’s a self-determination thing.”
But last summer he put his home up for sale and by the fall, Contreras, 66, was the last of the original homeowners on Rainey Street to sell. He never describes leaving as a choice; he calls it inevitable, he calls it “progress.” But he also says he’s happy he did.
“To me, I was like living OK – or at least I thought I was living OK – but actually, I wasn’t, you know?” Contreras said in November. “I was kind of miserable.”
“I didn’t come to Rainey Street,” Contreras said in a voicemail last August. “Rainey Street came to me.”
Contreras says his grandparents bought the house in the 1940s for roughly $1,750. He lived there off and on as a kid, and moved into it in 1989.
Around the same time, the City of Austin was considering whether to build a convention center at Second and Trinity streets. Residents began to sense their neighborhood would soon become a part of downtown; some reached out to real estate developers, trying to secure any profit from encroaching development.
Decades passed before much changed. Then, in 2005, the City Council voted to rezone the street so the single-story homes that defined the area could open as businesses. (Many of them are now bars.)
Families sold their homes and left. Contreras decided to stay, despite everything: pressures from family to sell, drunk people peeing in his yard and the city threatening to fine him unless he made repairs he couldn’t afford.
“This is my house,” he said in a voicemail last year. “After a while, I guess, with age you just want to live out your life in a place you call home.”
Then, in June 2019, a “for sale” sign went up in front of 71 Rainey, listing the home and the land underneath it for $2.65 million. It sold in a matter of months – for more than the listed price. (Contreras asked KUT not to publicize the final sale price, while the realtor and buyer refused to confirm it.)
When asked why he eventually sold, Contreras said the decision came down to timing.
He said the condition of the house, the drunk people bothering him and the pressure from family all converged, unraveling his determination to stay put.
“It’s a done deal,” Contreras said in a voicemail in September. “I’m in the last few days of getting out of here.”
71 Rainey St. was bought by downtown bar owner Bob Woody, who owns several Sixth Street bars including Blind Pig Pub and Shakespeare’s. Woody would not comment on his plans for the home, but Contreras said he was told it would become a bar.
But it’s unclear when. Design firm Clayton & Little asked the city in November to review the possible removal of trees from the property. Because the house is in a historic district, the city could declare it a landmark, making demolishing it a real challenge.
While Contreras said he had come to terms with moving out of 71 Rainey, leaving wasn’t easy.
“I’m gonna miss this old place,” he said days before moving out.
Contreras moved into an apartment in North Austin, in the same building as one of his sons and three of his grandkids. He said he likes being close to family, knowing he can help out on short notice.
Though Contreras said he has trouble sleeping, it’s easier to do so off Rainey.
“Now that I’m out of there,” he said, “I like silence at night.”
He also said there had been mold in the house, a situation that worsened every time it rained. He said he was pretty certain the property was making him sick – and not just physically. Contreras said it both protected and isolated him from the chaos outside.
“I was living in my own little world – cocooned – you know what I’m saying?” he said in November. “I know it sounds incredible. How in the world can somebody be in a cocoon on Rainey Street?”
Contreras said now that he’s out of the house, he has a new perspective on things at 71 Rainey. He went back a few months ago to collect mail that hadn’t been forwarded.
“I saw it for what it is,” he said. “It’s an ugly old house and if it wasn’t for memories, nobody would want to live there.”
And now, perhaps, nobody will.
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