an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Like many grad students, I always expected a fairly definitive end to Austin, a time when I was called upon to fulfill my life’s work after years of honing my craft at the University of Texas. This past summer that end came abruptly when I was offered a position outside of Cincinnati with a start date that required me to pack up (plus create two classes) and go in the matter of three weeks. So after eight years in Austin, the end was swift, but not very painless.
But endings often contain beginnings. Upon coming to Cincinnati, a much older and frankly more embattled city, I realized quite viscerally what years in Austin can make one forget: Austin has a far lower percentage of African Americans than almost any other major American city. Being an urban historian who works on Austin, this was something that I already knew statistically. But coming to Cincinnati (and I am a native of Chicago) the publicly integrated aspect of my new neighborhood was immediately apparent. On the streets outside my apartment, down the block, in stores, restaurants, and other public venues, blacks and whites were sharing the same spaces and occasionally interacting. Even on my numerous trips to Walmart and Target on the urban periphery the different demographic profile of the Queen City was obvious. Cincinnati is far from racially harmonious; it is even notorious for recent riots and a shocking number of police shootings per capita. Although not always tension free, different races coexist through much of the city.
Austin’s history in fact is one defined by the slow, consistent outmigration of African American beginning in the 1920s and continuing unabated to the present day. Although in some decades Austin has gained black population, since 1920 the percentage of black Austinites has decreased in every census. Austin’s spectacular growth (likely the subject of other material in this collection) since World War Two has been almost entirely white and Latino; today the city has just around 7% African American population, down from almost 20% in 1920. It is the only major metro area in the U.S. that I’m aware of that has a higher percentage of African Americans living in suburbs than in the central city. As a renter in three minority neighborhoods for the last seven of my eight years in Austin I saw firsthand the process of gentrification as it moved from Central East Austin to the very Eastern reaches of the city. In the final location I lived in Austin (Springdale Hills), a neighborhood over 95% percent African American in 2000, four other white households moved to my block between 2009 and 2012, and children of deceased parents sold at least two homes to younger whites. This is a process that continues largely unchecked throughout most of the Eastside.
While the city and other Austin boosters do not discuss this trend publicly (they prefer to focus on the enhanced diversity provided by Asian and Latino immigrants), it has largely been the historical policies of the city towards labor and strong opposition to integration up through the late 1960s that account for this trend. Even in the 1920s African Americans, most of whom provided agricultural work, were undercut by white farmers’ preference for Latino migrant labor which was seen as cheaper as less militant. The now infamous 1928 City Plan, which codified and legalized ‘separate but equal’ in Austin, drove Westside blacks from their homes, some to East Austin and some to other destinations. The call for African Americans to participate in industrial production for the World War Two effort drew others to California, Chicago, and Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas. The decisions to locate garbage dumps, industrial facilities, and power plants in Eastside neighborhoods made life there less pleasant and drove residents of means out as well.
But it was the decision to ‘modernize’ Austin, through both aggressively courting early technology business and by remaking the city using federally-sponsored urban renewal programs, after the war that lies at the heart of the end of blackness in Austin. Like many Southern cities, at the end of World War Two Austin leaders knew that the demise of the traditional agricultural economy was already a foregone conclusion. For them, replacing that economic engine meant growing the city in a new mold, based less on an older agricultural model and more on research and development. Many Southern cities chose heavy industry or energy; citing the university and natural beauty as the region’s key desirable traits, by the early 1950s Austin leaders had wisely identified “industry without smokestacks” as the city’s growth model. They immediately began to focus on retaining skilled technical workers from the university and attracting research and development relocations from the north and east. Service sectors jobs available to African Americans in many other cities often went to UT students. After losing vital agricultural jobs in the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans who suffered at the hands of a segregated educated system were once again left out of Austin’s growth paradigm as the city actively eschewed a strong blue collar labor market and unions.
To increase the size and power of the university (from which this industry would certainly emanate) and to beautify central Austin for knowledge workers, in the 1950s the city also embarked on urban renewal, which systematically destroyed large portions of minority neighborhoods (through eminent domain) along with remaking downtown in the interests of business elites. The university’s eastern core remains as a symbol of dispossession – urban renewal made no effort to relocate the mostly impoverished residents whose sole form of capital, their property, was taken from them. This problem was compounded in 1967 when Austin residents voted down the city’s Fair Housing Ordinance by a three to one margin (in easily the most attended referendum in the city’s history), effectively sanctioning racist real estate practices in the city. And so in the midst of vibrant growth in the 1950s and 1960s Austin’s black community was restricted, restrained, and systematically excluded from the modernizing paradigm.
In the midst of these changes, the city was forced to formally drop restrictions on integration in 1968, setting off a decade long battle over school integration, busing, and residential desegregation. By the late 1980s, the former hub of the African American community along Eleventh Street was a prototypical ghetto, as African Americans of means left Eastside neighborhoods for growing suburbs and outlying sections of Austin, but rarely the Anglo westside. After a two decade battle, in 1998 real estate developers, environmentalists, and the city reached an agreement which mitigated development on Austin’s environmentally pristine western edge and funneled growth downtown and to the central Eastside. The move was hailed as a victory for both developers and environmentalists, but the process set off a round of gentrification that has displaced thousands of minority residents from their Eastside neighborhoods – neighborhoods that ironically were their only choice for residence just 50 years ago.
And so the slow, sad end of blackness in Austin should come as little surprise given the heritage of exclusion and the lack of interest in educating or employing African Americans that the city has shown for the better part of the last century. The closing of TC’s Lounge, to my knowledge the last of the old Eastside juke joints, in 2010 signals even the end of an enduring space of integration in Austin, the nightclubs which harken back to Austin’s chittin circuit. While as elsewhere African American communities persist and maintain, in Austin their disappearance has been consistent and has roots in the city’s policies and consistent dismissal of African American concerns.
In most instances, the “end of Austin” is perhaps imagined as a trope used to cope with urban change. After all, it is difficult to square the city’s incredible demographic and economic growth with its end. Like many cities before, Austin is just now learning to deal with the process of creative destruction, a process most visible in urban centers. And it is that facet of urban capitalism that usually drives the “end of Austin” narratives. Capitalism destroys what people remember about the city when they first arrived, what they loved and considered authentic. In this way endings are often personal, tied to memories that inevitably fade as cities change. And most of these endings, like my move to Cincinnati, also contain new beginnings: a new restaurant, park, nightclub, or neighborhood. But the end of blackness is Austin is more final, more urgent, as it signals a true end of a real people, where a new beginning might be possible but is definitely not guaranteed.
Andrew Busch (Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 2011) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at Miami University. His work focuses on the intersections among urban development, race, environmentalism, and political economy. His current project,City in a Garden: Race, the Environment, and Progressive Politics in Austin, Texas, 1928-2011 investigates the development of Austin, Texas and the ways that ideologies of the natural and the urban shaped the race and class geography of the city. Busch comes to Miami from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas where he was an adjunct professor of Cultural Foundations. In 2010 he was nominated for the William S. Livingston Outstanding Graduate Student Academic Employee Award at UT, and he has published essays in American Quarterly and on barbecue culture in Texas. He also helped develop a public and oral history archive on Texas barbecue with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. His future projects include an analysis of the relationship between progressivism and neoliberalism as well as a history of Chicago during the 1970s and 1980s.