In 1993 Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton wrote: “The segregation of blacks and whites has been with us so long that it seems a normal and unremarkable feature of America’s urban landscape.” Austin bore the evidence of this truism back in 1928 when the Koch Proposal was presented to an accepting audience of City of Austin leaders. Their response was to create a segregated East Austin, a favored destination for non-whites to make their homes and lives.
Today the pressure of gentrification is bearing down on the old community like never before. Will the future East Austin remain a true home to non-whites, thrown against the pressure of rising property values and development?
East Austin has been a neglected corner of the Austin community for many years. While much of the city has grown with power and profitability, the pace of progress in East Austin has offered a striking contrast. But now, decades after its creation, the ebbing tide has become a near avalanche, and gentrification has become more than a contentious word in Webster’s dictionary.
Non-whites lived all throughout Central Texas before the City of Austin created East Austin after a Dallas planning team's proposal found sympathetic, racist ears in 1928. Segregated black schools had already located to the area, and by 1930, Rosewood Park became the first city-provided recreational facility for African Americans. (A 1932 City of Austin report said that the 12 acres in Rosewood Park and the 9.52 acres in Zaragosa Park “are given the same care and attention as the other [urban] parks and playgrounds.”)
Dr. Charles Urdy is a former professor at Huston-Tillotson University—and a former Austin City Council member—who has seen the change with his own eyes. In mid-20th century his family left the nearby country and arrived in East Austin to make a better future for themselves. Urdy remembers well the texture and tone of East Austin then:
“East 11th and East 12th Street were the heart and soul of East Austin. Practically everything we needed or wanted was either on those streets or near to those streets. It was sort of the business hub for East Austin. And it is where most people spent most of their time outside of work. Most people only left East Austin to go to work.”
A thriving, close-knit ethnic enclave become an ill-fitting, blighted area by the middle 1960s as integration became the law of the land. Opportunities for living and working led many blacks beyond the traditional boundaries of East Austin, which had a way of dissipating its synergy. In the old neighborhood, commerce declined, crime increase, schools became worse, marginalization all around. (In fact, old Anderson High School on Thompson, a point of pride in old East Austin, was closed by the Austin ISD in 1972.) In the wake of integration in Austin, the beneficiary was overall progress, but the loser was East Austin. The black community seemed powerless to respond to the loss of its traditional livelihood. Despite an urban renewal effort that was begun in the 1960s (and arguably never completed) and plenty of infrastructure improvements since then, Austin has been unable to restore an all-over glow on what used to be a bright but segregated spot in Texas and the South.
For years the separation between whites and East Austin was nearly palpable. Dr. Robert Jensen is a Journalism professor at the University of Texas and author of a book, The Heart of Whiteness, which addresses his observations about white privilege in America. Jensen advocates that white power is a problem that can drive deep fissures into our landscape and our society. In an interview he said:
“When I came here in 1992, well-intentioned white liberals, colleagues of mine here at the University of Texas, quickly advised me don’t bother looking for a house on the east side of the interstate. These were people who thought of themselves as anti-racist, thought of themselves as liberal. Well, that tells you how deeply woven into the fabric—not only of U.S. society, but also of Austin—white supremacy is.”
The geographical nearness to downtown, the simple economics of still-affordable property and a retreating social stigma about East Austin have led to urban gentrification. Economics are starting to reduce to ability of indigenous families to maintain their stand in Central East Austin. White families and businesses are becoming downright popular.
The example of Clarksville in West Austin serves as the direction that things will no doubt go in East Austin. As a white youth, Jake Billingsley grew up with black families because his dad was the minister at St. James Episcopal Church in East Austin. Billingsley moved to Clarksville in the 1970s after a black co-worker sold him a house. Living in the same house today, which is appraised at a magnitude more than the original cost, Billingsley is a community organizer. He recalls the history:
“[Clarksville] was founded by Charles Clark in approximately 1870. Governor Peace of Texas had deeded land to some of his former slaves. And some of that plantation land also formed that first settlement of Clarksville. Because this community thrived so much and was known as this ‘freedom town,’ in the 1970s it became recognized by the National Register, which registers national historic places and sites in the United States, as one of only two, really, black national historic districts in the entire United States. The other one is Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Pauline Brown moved to Clarksville at an early age (from Wheatville, another black enclave that didn’t survive too long). The community thrived at that time, centered around the Sweet Home Baptist Church and family relationships, though they had to get many services, like schools, miles away in East Austin. Brown recalled that the comfortable life in Clarksville suddenly gave way when the MoPac Expressway came to life off the drafting table:
“Clarksville started seeing a change when the city council decided to build an expressway on the west side of town. That included coming across the whole area of Clarksville.”
MoPac’s construction eviscerated the heart of Clarksville. The remaining families, those whose properties weren’t in the path, eventually found development knocking on their doors and sold out long ago. Ms. Brown is probably the oldest original resident of the neighborhood who still lives there, but the cost to join her as a neighbor is quite expensive now. Since the mid-1950s Ms. Brown has soldiered on, striving to protect as much of the old neighborhood and its history as she can.
Dr. Emily Skop teaches Geography at the University of Texas. While standing on one of the oldest streets in Clarksville, lined with tidy to luxurious houses, she offered her prediction about East Austin of tomorrow:
“In 30 years, this is probably what East Austin is going to look like. The pressures of development and the tremendous amount of change that is going on in that part of the city, suggest to me that this is indeed what is going to happen. We’re going to see an entirely different landscape, different everything happening in that part of the city.”
The cost of developing in East Austin is lower than many neighborhoods, but it is rising steadily, according to the rules of gentrification. The paucity of new “affordable” housing in East Austin is another factor that will drive some of the older families out. But one proposed tool that might help some families to survive the imminent changes is the proposed Homestead Preservation District, now winding its way through the state and city government. On another front, the Austin Revitalization Authority, of which Dr. Urdy is the current chairman, seeks to protect and promote healthy commerce in the historic E. 11th and E. 12th business districts. There are also a number of neighborhood organizations and community-based corporations that have pledged to look out for the people who have a voice and little else.
Produced by Michael Emery
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