Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
If there is a single side of town in a Texas city that serves as the poster child for gentrification, surely it is East Austin. The area east of Interstate 35 once was home to Austin’s deeply rooted African American and Mexican-American families. East Austin today is increasingly white and affluent, with soaring real estate values, significant displacement of minority families, and a place that is less about community now.
A newcomer would be hard pressed to discover the historical and cultural context of the network of neighborhoods that date back to the mid-19th century.
There is an interesting 2018 study of East Austin gentrification titled, The Uprooted Project, funded by the City of Austin and carried out by University of Texas at Austin academics. The study offers significant depth and detail about the capital city’s rapidly transforming East Side and a tool kit for community leaders who want to avoid the same thing happening in their cities.
Add to that Fault Lines: Portraits of East Austin, a volume of documentary photography by Austin photographer John Langmore published this month by Trinity University Press that is a look back a decade or so at an East Austin that already was disappearing.
Langmore tells the story through the eyes and words of two long-established families, one African American, the other Mexican American.
Wilhelmina Delco, 90, is a civil rights pioneer whose family moved from Chicago to Austin in 1952. She became the first African American to hold elected office in Austin when she was elected to the Austin Independent School District Board in 1968, three days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. She later served 10 terms in the Texas House of Representatives, and then as chairwoman of the board of trustees at Huston-Tillotson College, a historically black university located on Austin’s East Side.
“What I fear most is that one day my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will never know that a thriving black community ever existed in East Austin,” Delco laments in her first-person essay in the book.
Johnny Limón is a 66-year-old patriarch of an East Austin clan whose numbers eventually grew to 1,500, what he called “our own voting bloc.” His parents settled there in the 1930s, paying $500 for the family’s first house. The four Limón brothers were soon operating a grocery and an auto repair shop, classic family-driven enterprises. Johnny and his nine siblings were all born in the one-bedroom home. A cousin, Johnny Treviño, became the first elected Mexican American on Austin’s City Council.
“When I was growing up, there was a deep sense of tradition in East Austin,” Limón recalled in his own essay. “If you met someone from the older generation you always kissed their hand, and we referred to the men as Don and the women as Doña. This applied no matter how rich or poor a person was or what they did for a living. I kiss the hands of my older aunts and uncles to this day.”
Both Delco and Limón reminisce about neighborhood, family and friend ties, cultural celebrations, and a way of life that is fast disappearing, a life where everyone in the neighborhood knew one another, and where nothing was really lacking except, of course, money.
Langmore didn’t start his four-year documentary project until 2006, and already East Austin had undergone significant change. When I first became acquainted with Austin in the 1970s, East Austin then and through the ’80s and ’90s was the part of town where Spanish was commonly spoken. It seemed back then to be another world, distant in more ways than one from the predominantly white center city of government, university, and the music industry.
Some of the book’s images capture iconic moments, like worshippers with heads bowed and eyes closed at Saint James Missionary Baptist Church, or the mime ministry there showing African Americans in whiteface. Others, like the Juneteenth photos, seem posed with subjects preening for the camera.
Other images show people enjoying life, despite their lack of material trappings. In one image, young Mexican American children at a birthday party search the grassy park grounds under a tree for fallen candy from a piñata. A Sunday evening gathering at Edward Rendon Sr. Park captures multiple generations of car buffs along with one man lounging on his custom-chopped bicycle, all sharing a laugh in the parking lot.
History usually provides a touch of irony to such change and loss. East Austin was designated by city fathers as the part of town where freed slaves could establish homes after the Civil War. That designation was officially codified in 1928 with the so-called Koch Proposal, a consultant’s segregationist blueprint for making everything east of East Street, now I-35, the “Negro District.” It was an overt plan to prohibit black people and Mexican Americans from owning property elsewhere in the city.
People of color were able to live wherever they could afford to buy after the civil rights movement of the 1960s finally reached Texas. The spaces that African Americans vacated in East Austin were quickly occupied by Mexican Americans experiencing a population explosion statewide. By the time East Austin gentrification began accelerating in the early 2000s, Latinos outnumbered blacks. Today, both populations are in decline in East Austin.
On the positive side, blight and vacancy have given way to infill development, and many goods and services previously unavailable in that part of town can now be found there. There is a vibrant nightlife with bars, restaurants, clubs, and coffee shops sprouting everywhere to attract the more affluent population of millennials, tech sector employees, and downtown workers.
On the downside, multi-generational families cannot afford the taxes on rising property values. Low-income newcomers can no longer live to close to downtown service-industry jobs, and are now being forced into housing farther out with longer, time-consuming, expensive commutes. There is less diversity and a striking lack of community that comes only from generations of families calling a place home.
What happened to East Austin should be prevented at all costs from happening on San Antonio’s East Side. It’s not too late. Gentrification is well under way on the near East Side, of course, but there has been no widespread displacement documented. San Antonio’s East Side has suffered far more blight and vacancy than East Austin, visible even today in the great number of residential lots and light industrial spaces that lie dormant.
Elected leaders, community activists, and progressive-minded developers sensitive to the needs and interests of longtime residents need to come together to explore avenues for revitalizing neighborhoods with new residents, investment, and businesses while safeguarding community traditions and devising protections for longtime residents who cannot and should not have to bear steep tax increases.
The UT report offers something of a blueprint. Incentivizing development of more affordable housing is essential, since no amount of smart-job creation can address San Antonio’s high rate of poverty and population of low-income residents who lack the education or skills to vie for such jobs. San Antonio’s history as one of the most economically segregated cities will be slow to yield to a healthier dynamic, and even then, only with smart, visionary leadership.
Langmore’s book will not slow the pace of change in East Austin. It will only remind those of us who came to know Austin many decades ago what has been lost there. For cities fortunate enough to still have time to do something about it, the message seems clear: move quickly or else.