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The Forgotten Community of Sandtown

Today, you’ll find Interstate 35, the Texas Ranger Museum, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Baylor Law School, Baylor’s Mayborn Museum Complex, Grant Teaff Plaza, Baylor athletic complexes and stadiums, Lake Brazos Park, and the Waco Riverwalk. But for the most of the twentieth century, hundreds of mostly Hispanic workers made their homes here.

Exactly zero square blocks remain. This community was known as Sandtown.

In the mid-19th Century, after first evicting the resident Native Americans from Waco, settlers began to move in near a dogleg turn of the Brazos. They established their community here and this original point of modern settlement is actually where downtown sits today. The working class and industrial districts set up shop just off to the east — about a mile — on the banks of the Brazos. There they made a community that would last a century.

This community replaced — or, rather, absorbed — the time-old “Riverside” community of Waco, where tanners, butchers and iron shops existed. Adjacent to Riverside, along Two Street, was one of the most prosperous red-light districts in the United States. Sandtown would also absorb this area and the houses used as brothels when Waco outlawed the red-lighting – at the “urging” of the U.S. military, which was considering an army base near the city.

During the Dust Bowl, government housing projects were established just west of the railroad tracks and between 8th and 12th Street. The migrants who followed — and others not from Dust Bowl condition, but who still relocated to Waco in search of work — settled near the industrial community as well.

As these pilgrims settled along the Brazos, they began to establish a more prominent community than had previously existed. This community became known as Sandtown, probably because of the sandy soil atop the limestone west of the Brazos’s southern banks. In Sandtown — officially recorded as the Riverside or River District — there were two of the city’s meat packing plants, several stockyards, a prominent church, a cemetery, and a gambling hall.

All in all, this collection of bustling industry and livelihood was packed into approximately 30 square blocks of Waco, according to maps of Waco from the time.

Some records show Sandtown extended from Clay Avenue to where Bagby Avenue runs today. It extended from the banks of the Brazos to about Third Street. City records indicate there were 280 homes in the area. Later, as Urban Renewal programs began to quantify the areas for redevelopment, 238 of the dwellings were deemed uninhabitable. In correspondence, city administrators and Baylor leadership regularly referred to it as a “slum.”

To many, the area remembered as Sandtown was known as “the inner” of this working-class district, and, according to former residents, much of Sandtown’s “roads” were anything but. The now-gone River Street was a spine that connected the community — missing a block here and there, picking up a few blocks later. Much of the southeastern roads of Sandtown were paved and carried names of former U.S. Presidents — Jefferson, Washington, Jackson. But in Sandtown, perhaps because it was officially designated a commercial zone, the streets were not properly maintained by the city. Especially in the poorest section of the neighborhoods.

“It was a divot down and there was the street,” said Leonard Englander, former owner of Sunbright Waste Paper Company, which his family owned and operated in Sandtown for generations. “And it was Sandtown. It was sand. When it rained, it was muddy. Reminds you, I guess, of an old Western town that had the mud-dirt streets.”

Regardless of Sandtown’s yards and industry and buildings, the community — like any community — was made of people.

Robert Gamboa, who lived at 1100 S. First St. — where the Texas Sports Hall of Fame stands today — still fondly recalls his childhood in the small community. “[Sandtown] was an older part of Waco, sure,” Gamboa said. “But the families were decent, hard-working families. Struggling to build their families and to provide. Families (who lived in Sandtown) worked in all areas of Waco.” While there were grocery stores — like Jesse Serrano’s parent’s mom-and-pop store at Clay Avenue and First Street — and packing plants and factories in Sandtown, this did not limit the people of Sandtown. The entire city was knit together with a first-rate trolley system, which provided cheap, dependable transportation for all of Waco’s citizens.

The electric rail stretched from the east side of Baylor’s campus, all the way down the southern edge of Sandtown, through downtown and to the other side of Waco. It effectively connected one side of the city to the other. “Some of the guys used to work for the Roosevelt Hotel (in downtown Waco), some were bus boys, some were soda-water company loaders,” Serrano said. He recalls many Sandtown residents working as cotton-pickers and farmhands. Truck drivers, he said, would meet these workers in front of his parent’s store, and shuttle them out to farms in the rolling hills surrounding Waco.

“They had regular jobs,” Gamboa said. “Not making large fortunes, but enough to provide for the family. And, like I say, those who could ultimately save money and get out, they did.” But Sandtown also provided many jobs internally in the community. Englander’s family business, Sunbright Waste Paper Company, moved into the heart of Sandtown in 1926, where it remained until the uprooting of the community in the late ‘70s. Sunbright was relocated to Waco’s industrial district during the latter part of urban renewal. “This used to be a viable business that in one way supported the people who lived in Sandtown,” Englander said, a terse tone still evident in his voice.

On top of these businesses, many residents operated what we now called food trucks around the courthouse square, “selling foods and goodies, like tamales and tacos.” But it wasn’t always work in Sandtown, there was an annual carnival, makeshift games of baseball and soccer and war among the kids. They would visit the Fox Theater. And, because there were no parks in Sandtown, they played in the First Street Cemetery – the center of the community many days.

First Street Cemetery was eventually relocated due to the construction of I-35, though many rumors claim it was done shoddily – leaving behind many graves and only moving the headstones. Church was also a large part of life in Sandtown. The neighborhood housed an Assembly of God church, but since most residents of Sandtown were Catholic, they traversed to St. Francis on the Brazos or across town to other churches. The community aspect of Sandtown was strong. “It was just a big, friendly community that everybody knew everybody,” said Alice Rodriquez, a neighbor and friend Gamboa grew up with in Sandtown. “If we got hurt, if we fell down, the neighbors knew who we belonged to.”

Gamboa echoed this sentiment.

“Everyone knew everyone. Everyone cared for everyone. Everyone shared. And I think, looking back now after my adult life, is that most everyone was in the same economic status, if you will. Those that were far poorer, people sort of helped in what little way that everyone could,” he said. When construction of I-35 began on the south end of Waco in 1958, the initial plans show it would swing around the city, bypassing Waco to her east and avoiding the displacement of thousands of residents. Up until 1963, projections indicated the new highway would follow the path of where Loop 343 to Highway 6 now runs. Even today, that area is vastly pasture land with a few growing subdivisions. But Abner McCall knew the ability for travelers to “drive by the front porch” of Baylor would only increase the university’s prominence and prestige. With an up-front and personal position on one of the nation’s most major highways, McCall saw possibility and potential.

Looking in the maps of the Texas Collection, one can see how between 1963 and 1964, the direction of I-35 drastically changes from going around Waco — and virtually disturbing no one — to cutting straight through her middle ground — over dozens and dozens of houses, churches and businesses. The highway missed both Baylor and the Waco Stadium by mere yards. Interstate 35 was a mark on the board for the city of Waco that also brought huge benefits for Baylor.

A year after the completion of I-35, the city of Waco chose to connect the west part of River Street (the section that stopped shy of Sandtown) with her eastern part, which connected directly onto Highway 77. Once these two pieces connected, it allowed a seamless transition between downtown and Highway 77. The new street was named Riverside Street–in honor of the original community term–even as it eliminated approximately a third of the Sandtown community on her northern-most side. Riverside Street was eventually renamed University Parks Drive in the mid-70s and Baylor expanded all the way up to the banks of the river with — at first — an ecology building and later a collection that would include the Mayborn Museum, Baylor Law School, the Ferrell Center and many other smaller buildings.

But once, not so long ago, there stood a community called Sandtown.

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