Building Bridges

By Susan Bean Aycock

Bridge Street Plaza, Waco's Front Porch, is open for East Waco's newest chapter

WAt just two acres, Bridge Street Plaza in East Waco doesn’t occupy a lot of physical space. But the place it occupies in Waco history and the commitment it represents to revitalizing the historically Black east side of the river make it much larger.

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock checked in with representatives of the entities involved in creating Bridge Street Plaza and planning its public use, which will include two new vibrant components this spring: a Wednesday evening farmers market and a 10-week Saturday evening outdoor concert series in the amphitheater of the plaza, which has been dubbed “Waco’s Front Porch.”

The plaza area includes walking paths, green spaces, seating and areas for vendors, as well as access for food trucks around the perimeters. With the reopening of the iconic Suspension Bridge later this spring — a massive renovation more than two years in execution — the link will again be complete to East Bridge Street from the opposite side of the river.

Looking to the Future, Honoring the Past “[The Bridge Street Plaza] area has a rich history and has long served as a gateway to East Waco and the Suspension Bridge,” said Jonathan Cook, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Waco. As city property, the plaza is collaboratively managed by the City of Waco, which includes the Parks and Recreation Department, and City Center Waco.

“We see the plaza as a cornerstone of East Waco that helps preserve the heritage of the community and re-establish it as a vibrant neighborhood,” said Cook.

“With any public space or park, there’s an opportunity to impact the quality of life for the neighborhood and community,” said Cook. “Areas such as this one provide the ability to create experiences and memories as people come together for events and take advantage of the space to enjoy the outdoors. The possibilities are endless for such a plaza, as it was designed to host events, public gatherings, creative performances, art exhibitions and more.”

“The Bridge Street Plaza offers what hasn’t existed in East Waco, ever: a place to hold outdoor events and activities,” said Jocelyn Williams, Center of Business Excellence Coordinator for the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce. “East Waco has not had its own city-supported area to host events other than local neighborhood parks and school playgrounds. It’s a really big deal this side of the Brazos to have that now and provide a way for the community to come together in an area that’s been underserved and underutilized.”

Redevelopment Spurs Business and Economic Growth

“One of our main focus points at the African American Chamber is to support small minority businesses and the economic development of East Waco,” said Williams, whose role is to support minority small businesses in the McLennan County area through programming and promotion services, as well as a variety of resources. Those resources include workshops, training, networking events, counseling services for start-ups, grant and loan information, assistance with various applications and permits and help with navigating social media.

“The Chamber is excited to be able to support and promote small area businesses to participate as vendors for events at the Bridge Street Plaza,” said Williams. “Road construction, and new streetlights and sidewalks are great for the town, but they have also kept East Waco off the beaten path and many businesses have been affected financially. The Bridge Street Plaza serves as another avenue to help bring awareness that East Waco still exists and continues to thrive as a vital part of Waco.”

Later this spring, the African American Chamber will move from its current location at 1020 Elm Ave. (the former YMCA building) to 715 Elm Ave., the original location where the Chamber was founded in 2004. The Bledsoe-Miller Community Center, currently on MLK, Jr. Blvd., will then move into 1020 Elm later this year.

Levitt AMP Concert Series April 22-July 1

A key component toward realizing the goal of creating vibrant programming at the plaza kicks off April 22 with a 10-week series of free Saturday concerts. The Levitt AMP concert series is funded by a grant from the Levitt Foundation to Creative Waco, providing a $90,000 matching grant for a three-year concert series through 2025. For nearly two decades, the Levitt Foundation has helped nonprofits bring thousands of free outdoor concerts to millions of people nationwide through its programs of free outdoor music series. According to its mission statement, the foundation “partners with communities to activate underused outdoor spaces, creating welcoming, inclusive destinations where the power of free, live music brings people together and invigorates community life.” The AMP part of the series’ name is an acronym for:

Amplify community pride
and a city’s unique character

Music, enriching the lives through
the power of free live music; and

Places, illustrating the importance
of vibrant public places

“We were astonished and delighted when voting support from thousands of community members led to Waco being selected as Texas’ only Levitt AMP concert presenter,” said Fiona Bond, executive director of grant recipient Creative Waco. “It’s an opportunity that immediately propels our community into national recognition for live music. I love that the vision of community members, plus resources from the city, have combined to create this beautiful space that will bring people together, make new shared memories and shine a national spotlight on the past, present and future of East Waco’s musical brilliance.”

“The Levitt Foundation has provided a catalyzing framework for performers to grow first in their communities and has a track record of producing Grammy-recognized artists,” said Eric Linares, who serves as project manager at Creative Waco and program director for the concert series. “It was thanks to the community that we were able to receive this grant with over 2,000 votes to place us on the top of the national search for the next series of Levitt AMP sites. We want to ensure that the community has input on what kind of performers they want to see. Every performer in the lineup was submitted by the community, and we had over 275 individual nominations and applications for artists with preliminary headliners being selected now.”

Wednesday Farmers Market at the Plaza

Another new key piece of long-planned programming just rolled out at Bridge Street Plaza: a Wednesday evening farmers market, with room for 40 booths for farms and local businesses selling fresh produce, meat, eggs, plants and flowers, locally baked goods and prepared food, body care products and more. The local chapter of the National Women in Agriculture organization, specifically geared toward growing skills for primarily Black women in agriculture, will have a fixed space at the Wednesday market; they also run a seasonal Saturday farmers market in East Waco. The Bridge Street Farmers Market has secured a lease at Bridge Street Plaza until the end of the year, and about half of the vendors at the Saturday Waco Downtown Farmers Market will also sell at the new location.

“We want to give more access to locally grown food, to give people a chance to try out things from local growers instead of just headingto the grocery store,” said Bethel Erickson, who co-founded and serves as the director of the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., as well as the new Wednesday market at the Plaza. She believes that buying from local sources can help nudge residents to be more conscious of where their food comes from. “Eggs are an easy way to start buying locally — with prices so high anyway in the grocery store, it comes down to much higher quality that may just be a little more expensive,” she said.

“At a farmers market, you can buy produce that’s local and in season, versus picked green a month ago and shipped to your area grocery store.”

The Bridge Street Farmers Market accepts food stamp coupons, with purchases matched through the Double Up Food Bucks Program up to $30 per day; it also distributes WIC (Women, Infant and Child) Farmers Market nutrition vouchers for fresh produce from April through October.

“The Bridge Street Farmers Market is more than just a place to buy food — it’s a gathering space for the community,” said Erickson. “Yes, you can come and shop, but you can also bring a picnic blanket and listen to music and let the kids play in a safe designated area. We’ll be looking at ways we can partner with practical events for the community, like health screenings and educational workshops. Once the suspension bridge reopens, it will be a large community area that utilizes the river space, and the new hotels being built will all have tourists looking for things to do in Waco.”

The Bridge Street Farmers Market will be held on Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. Weekly entertainment will feature local talent such as singers and songwriters, youth choirs,
dance troupes and musical groups. On-site activities include physical fitness activities such as yoga classes for all ages; seasonal cooking demonstrations; hands-on gardening workshops and more. There’s a designated kids’ area with safe open play space and activities such as hula hoops, soap bubbles and sidewalk chalk.

Though the community enthusiastically welcomes redevelopment into its heart, it’s not just about the infrastructure and physical spaces; much of what makes East Waco special is its history and people.

“What would I like to see for the future?” mused Jeanette Bell, who is a self-described advocate and activist for the East Waco area she’s called home for 30 years. “I’d like to see residents, and property and business owners provided opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes from start to finish of the planning and development for East Waco. Historically, East Waco was a place where Blacks achieved self-sufficiency, economic independence and self-empowerment. It’s a close-knit community with strong generational family and neighborhood ties, where the businesses on Bridge Street made strong connections to each other and to their community.”

“The [Bridge Street Plaza] area was built for the community to gather in and enjoy,” said Cook. “The plaza is a great place to discover and display the spirit of East Waco. Whether it be artistic performances, festivals or recreational events, Bridge Street Plaza is a public area to be proud of and one that showcases the vibrancy of our city.”

Soon, the Waco Suspension Bridge will reopen and will again link east and west Waco at Bridge Street. The iconic installation of 25 larger-than-life bronze cattle and three cowboys (whose official name is “Branding the Brazos”) will be brought back to their home on the west side of the river before bridge renovation sent them temporarily on the hoof. And Waco will have an important link to its history and the two sides of the Brazos River re-forged at Bridge Street. It’s not the end of the story by a long shot, just a new chapter with pages yet to be written for a path that goes forward while honoring the past.

Historically Speaking

To understand the huge footprint that East Waco has left in the development and growth of Waco, you need to go back to the history books.

When the Civil War ended, no bridges spanned the 800 miles of the Brazos River flowing through Central Texas and the area which became Waco. The indigenous Hueco people (whose name the town took with a spelling change) had lived here for centuries, but after Shapley Ross built the first cabin in the area in 1849 and began to operate a ferry crossing the river, a community grew up on the banks of the Brazos, where cattle drivers drove their herds north on the Chisolm Trail. But though the shallows were normally an ideal place to cross, the river became impassable during flood season, which could last for weeks.

In 1866, community members began to plan an ambitious suspension toll bridge that would not only solve the flooding problem but would bring income to the now bustling community. When the Waco Suspension Bridge was completed in 1870 at 475 feet, it was the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. The dirt road previously known as Main Street became Bridge Street.

Blacks freed from slavery after the Civil War began to open their own businesses in East Waco and especially along Bridge Street, many pooling their money to form partnerships providing goods and services for their community. By the 1890s, a bustling community of commercial enterprises owned and operated by Blacks thrived on the east side of the Brazos. The booming East Waco business sector soon included restaurants, hotels, theaters, taverns, social clubs, insurance companies, dressmakers and tailors, barbers and hair stylists and several newspapers, reaching its heyday in the 1920s and early 1930s.

On Bridge Street, all parts of Waco came together, especially on Saturdays.

For more than a century, East Waco also had its own institute of higher education. Paul Quinn College, the oldest historically Black college in Texas, moved to East Waco in 1877 from its founded location in Austin by the African Methodist Episcopalian Church as a means to provide education to former slaves. In 1881, the campus moved to Elm Ave., where it was renamed for Bishop William Paul Quinn, a Methodist missionary. The college provided a path to higher education for Black students excluded from other institutions in the pre-Civil Rights era. In 1990, Paul Quinn College moved into the vacated Bishop College campus in Dallas, where it is still in existence.

For several decades, East Waco operated as a successful, predominately Black community whose residents enjoyed economic independence and self-determination in community affairs, though still living under both the written and unwritten rules of racial segregation.

But on May 11, 1953, a destructive tornado hit the city of Waco, killing 114 people and decimating almost everything in its path, including much of Bridge Street. East Waco was never rebuilt after the tornado, and many businesses relocated to other parts of the city. In 1968, most of the few remaining buildings were demolished under the federal Urban Renewal project and by 2005, just a few blocks remained on Bridge Street on the east side of the Brazos.

Plans to create a public gathering space in East Waco and reactivate the area along Bridge Street were detailed in the Imagine Waco Master Plan, a 40-year plan launched in 2010. As developments began to take shape, officials from the City of Waco, City Center Waco and community members came together to collaborate on the area’s future. The roughly two-acre, $6 million Bridge Street Plaza officially opened in October 2021.

“Bridge Street has a rich cultural history which is not only significant to the East Waco community but to the whole city,” said Jeanette Bell, co-founder and executive director of the North East Neighborhood Association of Waco. “Historically, East Waco was a place where Blacks achieved self-sufficiency, economic independence and self-empowerment.

“Yes, we have a rich cultural history here, but the people are the greatest asset to our neighborhood and community, just like they are everywhere else,” said Bell. “We would like people to embrace our cultural heritage, traditions, ceremonies and celebrations. The Bridge Street Plaza — Waco’s Front Porch — is a start to providing better social cohesion, inclusive, equitable and sustainable collaborations and building stronger community ties.”

Historical information on East Waco courtesy of Jeanette Bell. Historic Photos courtesy of Walker Partners and City Center Waco.