Darnell Hatter Jr. grew up on Polk Street in The Island with childhood friends Elliot Harvey and Mark Moore in the 1960s.
As they got older, they began calling themselves the Polk Boys, named after the street in their south Austin neighborhood. Known as Don to friends and family, Hatter, 49, is proud of his neighborhood and the residents who’ve kept it together over the years. And he’s a proud Polk Boy.
That community pride was put on display July 19, at the neighborhood’s first annual P.A.L.S Reunion Picnic (an acronym for Polk, Arlington and Lexington Streets).
Baseball diamonds, street lights that lit up the area, and playing basketball with a curb that could trip you up when going for a layup were a few of the memories shared at Saturday’s picnic.
The main festivities took place on “The Field,” as neighbors refer to it, at Lexington and Lavergne. The name P.A.L.S. took root over the years as more people from the surrounding streets would come over to play on the basketball court.
“It’s a brotherhood, and growing up, that was what kept us out of trouble,” Hatter says. “Basketball was my first love, but the neighbors would complain about people coming from across the bridge to sell drugs and gang activity, so they got rid of the courts.”
During Saturday’s picnic, the Polk Boys reflected on how the community has overcome crime and drugs from the ’60s, making their Island neighborhood a better place today. And they plan to keep it that way for years to come.
The group originated with their parents, who were among the original members of their block club committee 20 years ago. Since then, the Polk Boys began to welcome Polk Girls, including new member Terry Spence, 47, who’s been with the group for four years.
“My girlfriend introduced me to them and I saw that everything was united,” she said. “Don’s a great leader and organizer, and the rest of the guys are wonderful. They make nice things happen, like this picnic; and they like to help each other.”
According to Hatter, residents secured a permit to host Saturday’s picnic, which the Polk Boys sponsored. An anonymous, first-generation Polk Boy donated $1,000 for food, Hatter says.
He and other Polk Boys also worked in the neighborhood, many at the former Golden Hearth Bakery — now known as Alpha Baking Co. — on Polk Street. Some still work there, while some are approaching retirement, Hatter says.
Yet, many of the residents see the need for more improvements in their neighborhood, including more resources to help those in need.
“We serve as mentors, but we could use more mentoring, after school programs; any resource that will make the community better,” Hatter says. “We want to show our youth that there is more to life than getting crunked and turning up. How about turning up an education?”
By growing up in an area once dominated by gang activity, Hatter and his team vow to keep that activity from returning to their side of the Eisenhower Expressway by having a close relationship with everyone in the community.
“We trust each other,” he says. “It’s a family outside of Polk Street. Eventually, we would want to branch out to other streets, but we want to get ours together first. Then, hopefully, it will snowball to other communities.”
Austin’s The Island is located just south of the expressway. Its name derives from the fact that the neighborhood was separated from the rest of Austin by railroad tracks from the early 20th century — which still remain though unused — and later with the construction of the expressway.
Newly-minted neighbors, like Paul Stringer, 41, have witnessed how that closeness and unity impacts the area.
Springer moved to Polk Street from Logan Square eight months ago and says he already sees the difference between the two communities.
“The neighborhood is tighter,” he says of P.A.L.S. “I didn’t know any of my neighbors where I moved from, but everyone is close here. They are giving back, and I think what holds them together is those who have been here for a long time.”
Next up for P.A.L.S is a Back to School event. And Hatter wants more residents to become aware of who they are and to make a better way for the youth.
“We promise to have progress,” he says. “When we were growing up we saw a lack of programs, or they got rid of them all together. We’re hoping to roll out something for the youth…this picnic is our official kick off.”