Environmental passion on one side of a city, neglect on the other – how ‘weird’ is that Austin?

The enduring struggle to educate White liberals and self-styled “progressives” from West Austin who are slow to comprehend and understand the unique challenges of urban environmentalism, gentrification, inadequate facilities and the failures in health care, education and transportation in a city so otherwise proud of its liberal sheen

Carousel Caption: Humans and birds alike enjoy a sunny day in the waters of Town Lake
Photo: Ryan Wellby

From its annual birthday party for Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore over the past half century to Texas’ only nude beach, to its tolerance for hippies, bats, live music and liberal politics, Austin’s reputation as “weird” is hard won. Just two things to remember:

First, an oasis is only as dramatic as the surrounding desert. And second, the trappings of Austin’s weird politics have never lent the city the progressivism many assume in comparison with such liberal bastions as New York, San Francisco or even Madison, Wisconsin.

Austin’s weird reputation was built by contrasting its policies and atmosphere with other Texas cities: the petrochemical and oil economy of Houston, the finance centers of Dallas, the military and Latinx cultural centers of San Antonio and El Paso. However, the weirdness of Austin does not have roots in progressive politics. The city’s leaders, its mayor and six-member city council representing the growing population in recent decades, were mostly from the city’s West side. Between 1970 and 2010, 15 of 17 mayors and half the total council members were from the same four zip codes on the West side of town.

Picket at Austin’s Federal Building asks,
“All the way with LBJ, where?”
Photo: Austin History Center. Thanks to ATX Barrio Archive

The neighborhoods on the East side endured 90 years of the at-large system to select council members, the system that enabled the disparity, without much representation at all. The infamous “gentlemen’s agreement,” an informal deal ironically similar to backroom deals that Progressive Era reformers wanted to remove from politics, was made in the 1970s to allow for a seat for the city’s Black and Latinx communities, but also ensured the representation would remain a safe minority, so that their affecting policy change on the council was improbable. The council’s seat system was devised following the 1951 election when an influential leader in the Black community named Arthur DeWitty nearly won. The next year, “seats” were created. Candidates ran for a seat on council, but still needed a majority of the city’s vote to win. Candidates of color were all but guaranteed to lose until they were supported by the incumbent council and the influential business community that hand-picked the two candidates in a system rightly distrusted by minority communities.

“They always chose their ‘boy’ who wouldn’t make waves,” said housing advocate Joseph Martinez.

The contrast with Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso

Austin may consider itself more liberal than other Texas cities, and other cities often return the compliment. But Houston sent Barbara Jordan to the Texas State Senate in 1966 and to Congress in 1973. The first Black Congresswoman from the South, she pushed for changes to the Voting Rights Act in its 1975 reauthorization. She knew from her constituents that Spanish speakers faced undue difficulty in voting on English-only ballots, which suppressed their vote. She successfully argued that federal oversight needed to be expanded to include areas with large numbers of non-English speakers, such as Texas. Henry Cisneros was elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1975, becoming the city’s first Latino mayor since 1847 in 1981. Dallas got its first Black mayor, Ron Kirk, in 1995. El Paso’s first Latino mayor, Raymond L. Telles, was elected in 1957 and he was later appointed ambassador to Costa Rica by President John F. Kennedy. In Austin, however, Black and Latinx communities remained on the margins of politics and Austin elected its first Hispanic mayor, Gus Garcia, only in 2003.

The color barriers were broken for both communities in the 1970s; the first African American city councilor, Berl Handcox, was elected in 1971 and John Trevino, Jr became the first Latinx councilor in 1975. In spite of persisting de jure and later, de facto segregation, the East side thrived and nurtured vibrant communities. These same vibrant communities, full of neighborhood camaraderie, cheap restaurants with great food, churches and barbershops, are now ironically at the forefront of gentrification, as newer, whiter, wealthier residents are attracted to the features that were created from adversity.

Like Handcox, Trevino, and Emma Long in her tenure as councilor as Austin’s first female council member and a pioneer for civil rights in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, individuals in local government pushed Austin’s progressivism forward, while for the most part, its majoritarian council did not. Austin’s reputation was earned partly due to its reputation as cultivator of artistic and musical expression, and partly in contrast to the southern brand of conservatism that rules the culture of other Texas cities. Its reputation as the weird, liberal and yes, progressive, city in Texas was exemplified by Jeffrey Friedman, Austin’s young long-haired hippie mayor who was first elected to city council in 1971 at 26, and then mayor at 30. The culture he helped to flourish was one of laid-back optimism that gave way to an easy-going music and arts scene. Not only known for his long hair and mustache, Friedman was the city’s first Jewish mayor, and a “breath of fresh air” for the city’s politics, expanding citizen supporting involvement, controlled growth and diverse representation on new boards and commissions. He also created Austin’s first public ambulance service.

If you’ve ever felt the “Keep Austin Weird” ethos was a little…70s, Friedman is a big reason why. By the 1970s, Austin’s affordability and as the site of the state’s flagship university, attracted musicians, bohemians, and hippies, from all over.

This was the heyday of Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, whose Texas country style has influenced musicians and music lovers since. Country singers’ love for Austin was put into their songs, such as recently-departed Jerry Jeff Walker, who reminisced about his home state in London Homesick Blues, which he sang had, “the friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.”

‘Weird’ as a highly successful branding exercise

Even then, Austin’s weirdness was in a conscious contrast to the conservative establishment than dominated the rest of Texas politics. Friedman was influential, but he was no boss and tried to ensure diversity in representation. Unlike San Antonio’s political machines, the first run by Progressive Era mayor Callaghan, and the latter dominated by the Good Governance League, Austin was never led by a political boss or machine, and progressive reforms ensured Austin’s political system would circumvent the issues created by them elsewhere. The culture that grew from the city’s laid-back atmosphere may not have grown from policy decisions directly, but the majoritarian representation of the at-large council championed growth policy through local enterprise and development. The boosterism of the at-large council certainly advanced the “weird” culture, but less in any spirit of progressive policy than as a branding exercise that has been highly successful.

The stark contrasts between East and West persist today. Even different sides of the same street mark the differences, and the divergent histories, of the city. “Dirty Sixth,” on the West side of the highway, is the archetypal bar strip. Dirty Street is legendary. From college students, musicians, street performers to punk rockers, Sixth Street has drawn people of all stripes. East Sixth Street had its own watering holes and music venues for a mostly Latinx clientele. La Perla, on the corner of E Sixth and Comal St, is one of the last of the Chicano-owned cantinas. A lot of Austin stories can be told on either side of Sixth Street — and those stories reflect contrasting universes.

The resilience of the neighborhoods on the East side happened not because, but in spite of, government policies, and the disregard from residents of the city’s West side. The Aqua Fest boat races were demonstrative of the city’s treatment for the Latinx community through the 1960s. Later the Save Our Springs, or SOS, movement, formed by the wealthier White residents of West Austin to preserve Barton Springs, would shirk East Austinites in a similar way. The disregard was often not blatantly antagonistic, and the SOS movement helped save Barton Springs from becoming a dried up memory. But, the passions of White environmentalists did not extend across Interstate 35, where residents endured the literal downstream consequences of industrial pollution from tank farms, power plants, and recycling centers in their midst. The legacies of environmental injustice didn’t pierce the consciousness of the progressive environmentalists, or the “progressive” city leaders.

In 2012, the successful ballot measure to incorporate districts into Austin’s city council was sold to voters as an expansion of democracy, the means to increase localized representation of the city’s working class and communities of color. Making the case for re-defining representation to include the explicit representation of long-underrepresented communities, activist and council candidate Susana Almanza said in an Austin Chronicle article from 1997, “We’ve got to redefine what we mean by representation, just as we have redefined what we meant by environmentalism with the environmental justice movement.”  Connecting progressive government reform to environmentalism, a very Austin issue, illuminates how reforms of local government force the city into modern progressivism.

The Springs that were saved, Barton Springs draws bathers year round
Photo: Alex George

The environment surrounding Austin is beautiful, to be sure. Lady Bird Lake provides the backdrop for famous Texas sunsets, the means by which to stay fit, and the opportunity for residents to cool off during the hot summer months. The waters of Lady Bird Lake and Barton Springs are integral to the natural environment and the culture of Austin, as much as any bar or musician’s songs. Environmental policy became the landmark policy area for activists in the city, and in the process redefined the city’s image. And at the heart of this sentiment, almost a local ideology, is the now mythic campaign by Austin activists that was the SOS initiative to hold back development along Barton Springs and atop the aquifer that feeds it.

Because just south of downtown, Barton Springs sits atop Edwards Aquifer, a unique environment that’s home to several endangered species, namely the Barton Springs Salamander and Austin Blind Salamander. The springs are the primary discharge point for the most northeastern corner of the aquifer, which runs under New Braunfels creating the largest springs west of the Mississippi, to San Antonio and southwest Texas, providing swimming holes and drinking water for millions. By the 1980s, pollution from construction, industry, and environmental racism threatened to ruin the natural resources that keep Austin beautiful.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is north_hill.png
In undated picture from the 1960s or 70s, sunbathers on the North hill at Barton Springs
Photo: Austin History Center

Liberals trade downtown growth for West side’s green preservation

An emblematic example of Austin development policy creating the city’s ideology and sense of place is the mainstream environmentalism of the SOS movement. The movement of homeowners coalesced by the late 80s around opposing development over Barton Springs in the name of environmental conservation. In a chapter for Lone Star Suburbs: Life on the Texas Metropolitan Frontier, Professor Andrew Busch finds that neighborhood and advocacy groups found themselves backed into a NIMBY-ism corner which required encouraging development in some areas or denouncing growth altogether. Essentially, the implicit deal of the White liberals and the real estate developers was to protect the West side and allow downtown development, without considering the literal downstream consequences for lower-income minority communities on the East side. The pursuit of place, preserving the pristine beauty of Austin’s natural water resources contributed to its sense of place and culture, while undermining economic and environmental leisure opportunities for those downstream to the East. Both outcomes are quintessential and characteristic of Austin’s progressivism.  

In 1991, East side activists founded People Organized for the Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), Austin’s first and oldest environmental justice organization. It was PODER that sounded the alarm over a “tank farm,” a facility for storing petrochemicals, one of several on the East side, that leached into the soil and groundwater. PODER built a coalition of environmentalists that demanded the farm close. In his 2017 book City in a Garden – Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Austin, Texas, Busch noted that by 1991, journalists found decades of complaints by residents, “and the city had done nothing.” The scandal was embarrassing to city leaders when it garnered national headlines but it served as a win for PODER’s coalition when the facility was finally closed in 1993.

After launching PODER, founder Susana Almanza’s activism has spanned issues of environmental racism in East Austin, battles with major oil and tech companies over pollution, opposition to development promising jobs that did not hire or train locally, a successful campaign to end the Aqua Fest boat races on Lady Bird Lake that had spectators trashing an East Austin neighborhood, and much more. But throughout, the one consistent challenge has been the enduring struggle to constantly educate White liberals and self-styled “progressives” from West Austin who have been – and remain – very slow to comprehend and understand the unique challenges of urban environmentalism, gentrification, inadequate facilities and the failures in health care, education and transportation in a city so otherwise proud of its liberal sheen, she says.

 “It’s been a rocky road from the start. I think there’s a lot more understanding of the meaning of the environmental justice movement as distinct from mainstream environmentalism,” she said. “But it’s always one or two steps forward, one back.”

After the years-long and successful tank farm fight across Interstate 35 with PODER, SOS organizers became instrumental at activating people to show up and testify at council meetings, write letters to the editor, and dominate the local government’s agenda

 “Every day you could count on them doing something in the media,” said Joseph Martinez, President of the Guadalupe Community Development Corporation on the East side. “They ran a fabulous campaign, and it was the perfect place to do it. But, what harm did it do? The council did nothing at all on the East side during that time because everything in council was Save Our Springs.”

SOS took advantage of the upcoming 1992 municipal election and wrote a referendum for an ordinance to protect Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer.  The petition received more than 30,000 signatures, and once on the ballot, passed easily in a 2 to 1 margin, much to the chagrin of pro-growth members of city council and even interventions by the state legislature. SOS had overwhelming popular support for its mission.

Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin, by Eliot Tretter published in 2016, examines the movement and the compromises struck between environmentalism and development that led to the downtown skyline becoming packed with cranes and skyscrapers.

 “Though the term ‘development’ usually does not bring a smile to the face of Austin’s environmentalists…downtown development should,” noted Charlie Betts, director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, a public-private advocacy group for the central city. Downtown’s evolution into a hotspot for new housing, entertainment, and restaurants was largely due to a 1995 land development code change that first allowed for the construction of homes downtown.

Ultimately, SOS achieved long-term success in a city that typically sided with developers by trading Barton Springs for downtown. In 1997, environmental “smart growth” proponent Kirk Watson was elected mayor after a campaign proposing the merger of economic development and environmentalism, along with what was known as the “Green Council,” and two bonds were passed by voters. The first was a hotel occupancy tax to pay for a new downtown convention center, the second was a water/wastewater surcharge to keep 15,000 acres over the Edwards Aquifer undeveloped.

Watson went on to be elected to the Texas State Senate in 2006 and represented District 14 in Austin until 2020, and is now Founding Dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Policy wins that bridged economic to environmental policy wins for SOS directly affected people experiencing homelessness with displacement from downtown, and indirectly contributed to more environmental racism and inequality for Black and Latinx communities on the East side.

The enduring questions from Austin’s environmental movements are similar to its Progressive Era reforms: progressivism, but for whom? In many ways, Austin has come a long way. Politically, the local government has taken intentional strides to increase the scope and quality of representation in the city. However, the regressive elements of both Austin’s politics and culture were able to live long beyond their normal shelf life because the image the city projected was a liberal veneer without pursuing liberal policy. A districted council may have the ability to step in and pursue a more equitable agenda that takes into account and prioritizes both environmental conservation and the preferences of a geographically distinct constituency.

In today’s political environment, land development continues to be a contentious issue, with unequal consequences for the East side. For example, displacement of communities of color continues to be a consequence from movements to increase density and affordability in central Austin. Activists like Almanza worry that a coalition, formed of community leaders and councilors from the East side, may not be enough to ensure representation for the needs of lower-income workers, concentrated to the South and East sides of the city. Proposition A, Austin’s Project Connect referendum just approved on the November 2020 ballot, will expand the existing Red Line light rail, build new lines throughout the city, an underground tunnel to downtown, and lastly, expand bus lines.

Sometimes the coalition holds, sometimes it frays, she said. Land development is a difficult issue for a cross-city coalition because many liberals aspire to increased density in response to affordability challenges, where on the East Side the experience has been that this usually leads to displacement. Similarly, Austin’s transit referendum, Proposition A, was and is supported by many so-called “progressive” groups on the promise of reducing use of cars and congestion. But the plan, to be paid for by all in the city, will almost entirely serve the needs of citizens who live West of I-35. It also will likely mean higher fares for public transit and they are already burdensome to many low-income workers and commuters.

 “Once again, we’re taking care of the West Side first,” said Almanza. “The Austin Metro board never really listened to us.”

Tomorrow: A century late, Austin completes the “progressive era” – Part IV of VI. The 10-1 system transformed the Austin City Council from at-large to single-member districts. This led to a more diverse council, but the upheavals taking place in 2020, from the Covid pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout, to uprisings against racial injustice, have put the need for more far-reaching government reform into clear perspective.


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