Gentrification: the unbending fulcrum dividing Austin

From yesterday’s demolition of ‘negro shacks’ to today’s growth model ‘yoked to whiteness’

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash
Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

The cornerstone of Austin’s plans for its downtown, a convention center built in 1992 next to the creek named for Austin’s first mayor, Edwin Waller, is ironically an inadvertent monument to a liberal city’s very troubled past.

For the Austin Convention Center sits atop a former African-American settlement that was displaced in the 1920s when the first formal lines of segregation were drawn in Jim Crow era Texas. Austin’s first city plan in 1928, in fact, called quite specifically for policies to rid Waller Creek of the “negro shacks” by withholding municipal services to blacks living outside a designated “negro district.” That history is lost on no one, framing in many ways the larger debate over Austin’s past and debate.

But while the “1928 plan” is now widely accepted as the advent of the segregation that still haunts the city, the narrative neglects any detail of what was destroyed in the creation of the district, laments Nelson Linder, head of Austin’s NAACP. In fact, there were some four large and 11 smaller African-American settlements throughout the city, aided in their creation by the “Freedmen’s Bureau” founded by President Abraham Lincoln a month before the end of the Civil War as the agency of Reconstruction. Among the settlements that evolved were Clarksville, named for Charles Clark who started a community on two acres in what is now West Austin. Another was Wheatville, adjacent to the west side of University of Texas campus today, founded by James Wheat.

While the Bureau was short-lived following Lincoln’s assassination and succession by southern Democrat Andrew Johnson, the nascent communities in Austin endured until that 1920s plan and some lingered beyond; the last one in fact, in West Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood, lasted until the 1970s. But it too finally fell to eminent domain to make way for the freeway known locally as “MoPac” for the Missouri Pacific Railroad that operated on the adjacent right-of-way until 1982. Rare and compelling footage of that displacement was captured by University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film.

Another holdout enclave was the African-American neighborhood of Breckenridge near the university campus. In 1971, a new museum constructed at the site, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, was dedicated at the university. It commemorates the life and career of a native son, the architect and champion of America’s Civil Rights Act. And, it was built atop the site of a Freedmen Bureau settlement. The land was seized and the residents displaced by the university through eminent domain, the school having been granted use of that legal tool by the Texas Legislature in 1965.

Back to the earlier displacement, at about the same time as Austin was formally segregating its African American community — nearly 40 percent of the city early in the century — its once small Latino population began to grow dramatically in response to a growing need for labor, particularly agricultural labor. While Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were not subject to the same de jure restrictions as the city’s black residents, realtors, mortgage lenders and landlords largely abided by an unwritten, de facto color code. By the outbreak of World War II, Austin’s demographic contours were largely complete. East Austin began at East Avenue, today’s I-35. It was black north of 10th Street, Latino south of 10th Street to the Colorado River, with small groups of Lebanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans on the edges. West of “La Calle Ancha,” or the “wide street” as it was called, was largely white. It still is.

One footnote in this history is that of L.C. Anderson High School, named for two brothers. With roots going back to the Austin Independent School District’s first school for African Americans opened in 1884, it first carried the name of Earnest Anderson, who headed what is now Prairie View Texas A&M University, an historically black university. It was renamed in 1938 for its principal for 34 years, Earnest’s younger brother, Laurine “L.C.” Anderson. Born to slaves in Tennessee, Anderson was nonetheless able to attend Oberlin College and Fisk University after the Civil War and he arrived in Austin in 1880, following his older brother to Texas. The younger Anderson retired in 1929. After retirement, he continued to teach Latin at the school in East Austin until his death in 1938.

His school meanwhile, remained an institution until closed in 1971 by federal desegregation order. The name, L.C. Anderson, was given to a new high school built two years later in Northwest Hills. Today, the George Washington Carver Museum in East Austin, near the site of the original school, has an exhibit on the original high school and the contributions of its many alumni. The new school still bearing his name, however, has not so much as a plaque to remember Austin’s pioneering educator, born into slavery, who became a principal and teacher of Latin to generations of African American students.

The double helix of Austin’s technological DNA

These racial and economic fissures were to be fortified and deepened beginning in the middle of the 20th Century by two distinct sets of technology that were brought together and intertwined like strands of DNA. These technologies ultimately created both the global technopolis that Austin was to become, as well as the city’s enduring irony: the ever more liberal city that over the next half century would also grow ever more economically and racially divided.

The first strand of this technological double helix was the hydrotechnology that grew out of the spate of federal dam and flood control building of the 1930s New Deal, largely designed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. If the application of that technology in Central Texas has a father, that would be then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, who as a young lawmaker picked up where the Texas Legislature’s left off after the creation of the quasi-state overseer, the Lower Colorado River Authority in 1934. Most critically, Johnson got the federal government to foot most of the bill for the series of dams and lakes that were to rise in contradiction of the Hollywood image of dry and dusty Texas. Two earlier dams on the river, at the site of today’s Tom Miller Dam creating Lake Austin, had collapsed in the early 20th century, both casualties of Austin’s chalky, limestone geology. The new high dams overcame the past dangers by marrying the design of so-called “gravity dams,” that ensured safety through their concrete mass and weight, with those relying solely upon their form to impound water. The first of these, the one creating McConaughey’s and Roddick’s Lake Austin, was begun in 1937 and completed in 1940. The last of seven, the Longhorn Dam built by the city and creating downtown’s Town Lake that was renamed Lady Bird Lake, was finished in 1960.

Texas’ Colorado River may not be the “American Nile” as its namesake river to the west is sometimes called. That larger, longer and more famous Colorado became during that same era of unprecedented dam engineering, the “most controlled, litigated, domesticated, regulated and over-allocated river in the history of the world,” as described in the seminal 1986 book on the transformation of the arid Southwest, Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner. But the lesser of the two Colorado rivers that runs through Austin might be called “America’s Tigris.” For just as the ancient King Nebuchadnezzar II channeled and rechanneled the 6th Century BC Tigris in what is today Iraq to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, among the “Seven Wonder of the Ancient World,” the dam building on the lower Colorado created an urban civilization and green paradise scarcely less profound. And a sure wonder in Texas.

The second side of this double helix – that which enabled the new techno-civilization to rise atop the virtual hanging garden — was that of electronics, what today we would more likely call digital technology. Austin’s technology sector, of course, has many “fathers” and even a “mother” despite its male domination. University of Texas physicist Richard N. Lane, the lead founder in 1955 of Tracor, a defense electronics manufacturer, is often on that list. George Kozmetsky, the businessman, philanthropist and dean of the same university’s business school in the 1960s, is often cited as the “father” of it all, particularly for bringing IBM to Austin in 1966. Many accounts give the title to Admiral Bobby Inman, the leader of a federally-backed chip-making consortium, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or MCC, that came to Austin in 1983. Along with another federally-backed chip consortium, SEMATECH created in 1987, these initiatives put the city in a new league. The “mother” of Austin-as-Technopolis is universally regarded as Laura Kilcrease, creator of the Austin Technology Incubator in 1989, now the oldest technology incubator in the United States.

If there’s a “grandfather” of it all, however, it is the little-remembered Richardson Wood, a planning consultant hired by the Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1948 to advise the city on economic development in the new post-war era. His advice ran counter to the logic of other Texas cities at the time, all scrambling to attract manufacturing and energy industries. In the new atomic age, cities with a population of highly skilled professionals, a fine university and ample lifestyle amenities would rule, Wood told the chamber and the city council.

“This simple, yet novel, idea reinforced the dominant economic ideology in Austin and became the foundation for Austin’s postwar planning regime,” wrote Andrew M. Busch, author of ‘City in a Garden – Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas,’ published in 2017. Wood’s pitch to the council was, “create an economy and lifestyle based on skilled labor.”

And so Austin did. In spades. And it was – and really remains – the interplay of this Janus-faced doublet of technology that made the remarkable transformation possible. The hydrotechnology enabled creation of a “natural” environment appealing to a new class of knowledge workers. Those workers, with a huge assist from the University of Texas, federal research spending and the cultural and music scene that are co-actors in the drama, enabled the creation of a dynamic economy that powers all that makes Austin unique, or even weird as the city’s slogan goes.

Environmentalism with astigmatism

The earliest environmentalism to emerge, a proto-environmentalism within this dynamic of lake shore amenities and growth driven by a knowledge-based economy, was not far from today’s convention center site. It arose in the late 1950s over the future of Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake, then filling adjacent to downtown as the Longhorn Dam was nearing completion. In anticipation, the chamber announced a plan to move its headquarters to the soon-to-be lakefront. This was read by many in Austin as a move to ultimately privatize the lakefront property. A letter writing campaign to the city council and the American-Statesman had the desired effect. The chamber backed off and moved its headquarters elsewhere. A historic twist on it all came a half century later, perhaps ironically or perhaps as kind of an end piece to Austin’s first environmentalist campaign. In 2014, the part of the area intended for privatization, a bit of shoreline on the lake’s south bank, was named “Vic Mathias Shores.” It was the late Mathias who was head of the chamber in the late 1950s when the move was made to commercialize what is now a park in his name.

In many ways, Town Lake was the fork in the environmental road. Two profoundly different, even assymetrical narratives of “environment,” have taken shape over that half-century: essentially the two contrasting reflections in the hall of mirrors that has become the downtown debate. One refraction of environmental concern seeks to protect natural habitat from the toxicity of human predation. The other seeks to protect humans from the toxicity of the environment. It is a viciously difficult incongruity to resolve.

Both visions, however, have their origins in the 1960s. Austin, as with many other cities in the era, both witnessed and began to participate in the rise of a national environmental movement. It was an era bracketed by publication of Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book on pesticide use and danger, ‘The Silent Spring,’ in 1962 and the founding of April 22 as ‘Earth Day’ in 1970 by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a date of events now marked in 193 countries. Another reflection of the zeitgeist was “The Limits to Growth,” a 1971 report reliant on pioneering use of supercomputers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that simulated the looming impact of economic and population growth. It sold 30 million copies and was translated into more than two dozen languages. Against that backdrop, Austin’s emergent new environmental movement began in the late 1960s and early 1970s to concern itself with the sprawl of expanding suburbs and the growing encroachment on the more truly wild elements of Austin’s natural landscape that merge with the man-made waterscape: the woods and trails and springs that extend further west over the St. Edwards Plateau. That plateau begins at the eastern edge of the Balcones Escarpment which marks the end of East Texas prairie and the beginning of the rolling West Texas Hill Country.

But in contrast to this era’s rising green consciousness, fast-growing Austin had America’s highest home building rate per capita in 1968. In that decade, the city grew from 51 to 86 square miles, a pace that has only slowed briefly at times of economic downturn. Today, Austin occupies 272 square miles. This rapid growth, including construction of the MoPac Expressway, the creation of the 2,200-acre Barton Springs Country Club in the city’s southwest, and the development of the Circle C Ranch suburb on Austin’s south edge, prompted deep concern over the impact on the Edwards Aquifer below – the source of a number of springs including those feeding iconic Barton Springs Pool. The pivotal development was Barton Springs Mall, which flattened a hilltop with views from the southeast of downtown and opened in 1981 as the biggest mall in Texas. What followed was the birth of a movement that coalesced into the “Save Our Springs Alliance,” or SOS, that forced the city to curtail development over the aquifer in 1992. It remains perhaps the biggest victory ever for Austin environmentalists and one that survived challenges that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

“The efforts to preserve hills, creeks, and lakes were one part of a larger struggle to preserve things that were ‘Austin:’ historical features, neighborhoods, cultural events, music venues etc.; things that gave the city its special feel,” wrote William Scott Swearingen in ‘Environmental City – People, Place, Politics and the Meaning of Modern Austin.’ Published in 2010, the book chronicles the battles of SOS and is regarded as a hallowed text by most in the city’s environmental community.

 “By the 1990s, the ‘environmental movement’ and ‘environmentalists’ were thought of as the main group that fought against ‘developers,’ who symbolized the Growth Machine,” wrote Swearingen.

And a different movement for ‘environmental justice’

Or rather, who fought against developers in some parts of Austin. For the environmental problems on the opposite side of the city, with a few notable and much-appreciated exceptions, were a bridge too far for this group and like-minded environmentalists. This reality, often characterized as “environmentalism vs. environmental justice” is hardly unique to Austin. Those battling inner city problems, like lead paint residue or toxic chemical release, have long struggled to get the attention of liberal environmentalists whose ideal of habitat is that with minimal human presence. “Urban renewal,” the sweep of federal programs that sought to raze “blighted” neighborhoods, selling the land back to private and non-private actors with part of the proceeds paying to house the displaced, is a well-chronicled failure of policy in many cities. In Austin, hundreds of black families were moved out of the city through urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s.  For African-Americans, this represented the biggest displacement since the 1928 plan, says Linder of the NAACP.

Zoning is usually much more lax in minority neighborhoods, which is the case in Austin where East Side zoning has long been “cumulative,” a term meaning anything goes: residential, commercial, industrial. Air pollution and toxic factory releases from the rapid industrialization of the 1980s first mobilized local activists and led to the founding of PODER, for “People Organized for the Defense of Earth’s Resources” in 1991. While SOS was protecting springs, engineering greenbelts and saving endangered species habitat, largely black and brown PODER battled to rid East Austin of a massive recycling center established in a residential neighborhood in the 1970s, relocate an oil-fired power plant similarly placed in the 1950s, and halt the expansion of, and ultimately remove, a sprawling and leaking gasoline storage facility known as the “tank farm” in the 1990s.

PODER’s founder, Susana Almanza, has been running the organization ever since and the successes have been many, particularly the so-called “Tank Farm Battle” that drew national attention as she and others in PODER took on six transnational oil companies. But little she says, compares with the battles against gentrification, often spurred on by a seemingly well-meaning city council that was, until 2014 and the advent of district voting, dominated by members living in northwest Austin.

“It’s been a constant struggle since the beginning, but nothing compares to the struggle against gentrification,” says Almanza. “It’s one thing to go up against a corporation. It just one body. But with gentrification you’re up against thousands of bodies.”

New neighborhood-based planning in the late 1990s brought the first condominiums to East Austin, selling Almanza points out, at 120 percent of Austin’s median income when the average income in the neighborhood was 30 percent of that same median. That was followed by the initial construction of the convention center in 1992 which led ultimately to the metamorphosis of nearby Rainey Street into a district synonymous today with food trucks, live music and partying in bars converted from the homes of the now-departed Latino residents.

Another early anchor of downtown development, a half mile west of the convention center, was the Seaholm Power Plant Redevelopment. It is a 90-acre project that since 2013 has converted a cast concrete power plant built in the 1950s into the home of a Trader Joe’s grocery, the “eco-chic” restaurant True Food Kitchen and a condominium complex with units priced between $500,000 and $2.1 million. Overlooking Lady Bird Lake, it’s dubbed the “Seaholm Ecodistrict,” and according to the city’s website it “reflects Austin’s spirit of originality and soul.”

What really put the the forces of gentrification in play, however, both downtown and to the east, was the embrace by Austin’s council of so-called “Smart Growth” in the mid-1990s. The concept was an outgrowth of a national urban design movement begun in the 1980s that advocated for walkable neighborhoods, improved public transit, open spaces and retail to entice city dwellers out of their cars to create true and diverse communities. Through this, however, a new kind of development coalition emerged, formally known as the “Downtown Alliance.” It linked the preserved open space and green amenities, now at last understood as economic assets by the business community, via a tacit agreement with the environmentalists, to the laboratory for a new kind of denser growth that would be downtown – and by extension into East Austin.

For these New Urbanist land use policies also designated East Austin as a “preferred development zone” and offered a host of incentives, including historic preservation subsidies, that have been a catapult for gentrification. Related and incendiary debates now spill over into the future of schools in an East Austin of smaller families, plans for a half dozen boutique hotels in the neighborhood and even a regional shopping mall to match Austin’s trendy, northside Domain, a complex anchored by Neiman-Marcus.

It is not that the city is blind to the transformation. In 2016, Austin created an “Office of Equity,” to devise programs to address the city’s troubled legacy. Last year, the city created an “Anti-Displacement Task Force” to recommend ways of slowing the trauma of gentrification. Also in 2018, voters citywide overwhelmingly approved – by 73 percent in fact – a $250 million bond issue to finance projects to aid low and moderate income homeowners and home buyers. But the new agencies have been riven by infighting and a serious launch of any initiatives has so far eluded Austin.

“We’ll wait and see, but where’s the evidence of any change?” asks the NAACP’s Linder. “It’s just business as usual.”

It is, suggests author Eliot M. Tretter in his 2016 book, ‘Shadows of a Sunbelt City – The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin,’ the same neglect of minority communities as before, just under a new and more palatable guise.

“The redevelopment potential of downtown was so great that it would offset any prospective downside of limiting growth elsewhere,” Tretter writes of the pro-growth/environmentalist coalition. “Environmentalists were satisfied because spatially, the agreement meant limiting development in a fragile ecosystem and promoting future growth closer to downtown rather than in the suburbs.”

Looking at this historical house of mirrors, one might be forgiven for wondering if the civic values of today are not too far evolved from those in 1928, those that blithely endorsed a plan to rid Waller Creek of its “negro shacks” and move what the white community did not want to see into a “negro district.” That’s at least one refraction of Austin’s history.

“Importantly, the city’s economy and geography were also planned to attract knowledge workers, develop desirable places for them to use, and keep them away from the city’s industrial functions and minority residents,” writes Busch. “As with water, the city’s growth model yoked suburbanized, knowledge labor, and environmental amenities to whiteness.”

Editor’s note: This article is edited and adapted from a monograph published in the November 2019 Downtown Issue of Urbānitūs.

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