During the past century, Austin has progressed from government-sanctioned segregation to mass displacement of its black and brown communities.
By Regine Malibiran
Last year marked the 90th anniversary of Austin’s 1928 master plan and the creation of the “Negro District” east of I-35. The plan’s blatant intent was to segregate the city, specifically stating, “The nearest approach to the solution of the race- segregation problem will be the recommendation of this district as a negro district, and that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks and other duplicate facilities for this area.”
Once Austin implemented the master plan, Jim Crow laws forced African Americans to relocate out of the central city, as the only public services available to them were in the “Negro District.”
“It was a gift and a curse,” says Mike Henderson, co-founder of civic-engagement organization A Tribe Called Brunch and a third-generation East Austinite. “It was a curse because we were segregated to one area. But also, it was a great gift because everyone, whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, preacher, teacher or you took out the trash, was in the same geographical location. So, you had this critical mass, this sense of ownership.”
Almost a century later, gentrification is pushing African Americans and Hispanics out of the communities and neighborhoods they were once relegated to then embraced as their own.
A study by the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development titled Uprooted: Residential Displacement in Austin’s Gentrifying Neighbor- hoods and What Can Be Done About It defines gentrification as “a process through which higher-income households move into a neighborhood and housing costs rise, changing the character of the neighborhood.” Typically, displacement most severely affects low-income communities of color. Ac- cording to Those Who Left, a report from UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis focused on Austin’s declining African American population, 56 percent of African Americans who moved out of East Austin between 2000 and 2010 identified unaffordable housing as their leading motivator for leaving. Additionally, 24 percent cited underserved public schools and 16 percent cited institutional racism as their reasons for leaving.
Austin’s housing costs have continually risen since the late 1990s. U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2010 shows Austin was the third fastest-grow- ing major city in the nation. At the same time, Austin was “the only such city that suffered a net loss in its African American population,” according to Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African American Population, another report from the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis. Though the city grew at a rate of 20.4 percent, the African American population declined by 5.4 percent.
Austinites have a common colloquialism for those who were born and raised in the city: “unicorn.” Because of the bursts of population growth in the past two decades, it often seems like Austin-born residents are few and far between. However, the unicorns will tell you that’s not actually the case.
“Unicorns are everywhere. You just don’t know where they are,” Hen- derson claims. “There’s a recent study by the city government that found that 70-plus percent of our homeless population are native to Austin or Central Texas. Sometimes the person that you walk past on the street used to own the house that you live in now. And their grandparents built it with their own bare hands.”
Unfortunately, gentrification has spread out of the bounds of East Aus- tin and into historically Latino neighborhoods in South Austin.
“If you were to visit South First Street, South Congress and South Lamar, you wouldn’t know that in the ’90s, it was still a visible barrio,” says Alan Garcia, founder of ATX Barrio Archive and a graduate student at UT. “There’s a reason why there’s still a lot of old Mexican restaurants on South First Street. There was a community of Mexican Americans along these major roads.”
Garcia’s family first emigrated from Mexico in the late 1990s. Back then, Garcia remembers South Lamar Boulevard was “an affordable place to live, with access to businesses, grocery stores and work downtown.”
In order to tackle the challenge of displacement in a growing city, the Uprooted report analyzes other gentrifying neighborhoods: Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C.; the Guadalupe Neighborhood in Austin; and the Inner North/Northeast area of Portland, Ore. The study identifies 10 lessons Austin can learn from these locales and implement, the first of which is to “make meaningful and robust community participation of those most affected by displacement a priority in the planning, implementation and ongoing oversight of efforts.”
To Austinites affected by displacement and those advocating for these communities, participation extends past the lip service the City has historically paid and into involvement with decision-making.
“There’s a difference between doing something good and shifting the paradigm,” says Ghislaine “Qi Dada” Jean, an activist, organizer and half of local hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm. “Oftentimes, what gets support is doing something good like getting backpacks for kids. But what does it look like if our communities actually gain more power and not just be receivers of charity?”
HOW TO START THE CONVO
Listen and uplift. Minority communities have been speaking about targeted injustice for generations, but structural oppression keeps them stifled. Make an intentional effort to seek them out and listen.
Make space. Decisions regarding displacement are often made behind closed doors. If you are in a position of power, advocate for representation within these spaces.
Support local minority-owned businesses. Charity only serves minority communities for the short term and is often seen as lip service. Businesses being priced out by skyrocketing rents need community support—both financial and cultural—in order to stay afloat.
Embrace a people-first mentality. In order to effect long-term change, advocacy for minority communities needs to be consistent and driven by the needs of the people rather than by monetary gain.