The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

The Beginning, the Middle, and Not the End

Black/White HDR Capital
In the beginning, when Austin was born, it was named Waterloo.

Young, little Waterloo had humble beginnings as a small Texas town in the hill country, but Mirabeau B. Lamar quickly chose it as the Capitol of Texas for its beautiful, rolling landscape, believing that all great cities followed Rome’s tradition of “being built on seven hills.” Since this moment, Austin has been locked in a struggle between the small and the large, the old and the new, the quaint and the extravagant. Today, we even fear that the true Austin is dying, that we are reaching the End. However, the End of Austin can never occur if we open ourselves up to discussion about important issues, and work to preserve the aspects of this city that we love so much. Trust me, if you are reading this, it is not The End of Austin.

In order to protect ourselves from The End of Austin, we must remember Austin’s history. Before it was a hippie oasis, a little blue island in a sea of red, it was a segregated city marked by discrimination—and in many ways, it still is.

In the late 1800’s, during post-Civil War Reconstruction, two Austin politicians, Edmund Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Hamilton, offered land East of Austin’s original city square to recently freed African-Americans at a low cost. Austin suddenly became a popular location for African-Americans, and many freedman’s neighborhoods blossomed, including Masontown and Chestnut in East Austin, and Clarksville and Wheatville to the West. Educational opportunities for African-Americans were decidedly better to the East, as the only Black high school, L.C. Anderson High, and two Black colleges, Huston College and Tillotson College were located in this area.

In 1928, a master plan known as the “Koch Proposal” legally designated East Austin as a “Negro District” to prevent the necessity of additional segregated facilities throughout the city. Minorities became legally bound to the East side, as it was illegal for them to purchase houses elsewhere. Today, the segregated history of the East side remains a problem, as racial divisions are as wide as I-35 itself. The gentrification of the East side seems to be a symbol of the End times, especially for African-Americans, who feel increasingly unwelcome.

This history of segregation feels out of character for Austin, a city with a reputation for having a liberal, hippie aesthetic. In the 1960s, the Austin culture that we know and love today was born from the countercultural hippie movement and a new type of music, progressive rock. Music in Austin was characterized as a rebellion against the Nashville scene, combining traditional cowboy music with rock styles and countercultural concepts to create a new style unique to Austin. During the 1960s and 1970s, newcomers flocked to Austin for the prominent music scene, and stayed, resulting in the “weird,” hippie vibe that has characterized Austin for nearly half a century. Although Austin became a very progressive, accepting city, the segregated areas only became increasingly deteriorated through institutional neglect, and Austin became a deeply contrasted city caught between forward thought and racial isolation.

Today, Austin’s vibe has become a source of capital for the city, continuing to attract new residents. Luxury condominiums are sprouting up everywhere: Six residential towers and other smaller projects are currently under construction in Downtown Austin, and East Riverside and South Lamar are undergoing drastic changes, with the latter being razed almost completely to make way for new luxury apartments and businesses. This trend in housing is reflected in publications meant to attract new residents to Austin; the Austin Relocation Guide published by the Chamber of Commerce frequently discusses luxury homes and neighborhoods, even in the apartment section. The Relocation Guide often cites the affordable cost of living in Austin, but it primarily caters to those interested in downtown condos, typically ranging in price from $200 to $250 per square foot. For those seeking a more affordable option, the guide suggests “the hot area of East Austin,” the very area originally used to segregate minorities, as an ideal place for relocation.

This surge of newcomers and increased development has resulted in Austin residents becoming quite jaded and unwelcoming. We are becoming a city known for its bad attitude toward new residents, even going so far as to wear t-shirts reading, “Welcome to Austin. Please don’t move here. I hear Dallas is great!” Theatre en Bloc’s recent original production, Austin is a Place (You Are Here) addressed the struggle between the old and the new very well. Near the end of the show, a newcomer who had been riding an exercise bike throughout the entire play finally “arrived” in Austin, greeted by crowds yelling at him to leave and never return. When the newcomer gave up and decided to end his journey, he stopped pushing the pedals, and all the electricity in the theatre went off, symbolizing the need for new residents and change.

Austin is a cool place. It was destined to be attractive, and when it became so, people moved here, and kept coming. By closing ourselves off to newcomers, we are orchestrating the End of Austin. We are turning a laid-back, welcoming place into a close-minded, elitist city, and diluting our racial diversity. In order to preserve our city, we must welcome the new. But how can we do that and protect our current residents and prevent the things we love from coming to an End?

The only way to protect our city is to be open to discussion with those whom we disagree, and to take action to preserve what is important to us. We must welcome newcomers, but as long as our city feels segregated and traditional minority neighborhoods are drastically changed, we will continue to deter the vibrant, cultural diversity that we desperately need to survive. In order to protect what we love, we must join community groups, attend neighborhood meetings, vote in elections, and educate ourselves about the different opportunities to get involved. If you are reading this, you are taking a bold first step. Austin is bound to change, but we can ensure it is something we will shape together. As long as you are reading this, it is not the End of Austin.

Marett Hanes is pursuing a Master of Science in Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a BA in Theatre Arts from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, where she was awarded “Outstanding Honors Senior Thesis of 2011” for Creativity and Community: The Struggle Between Gentrification and Art in Harlem and Central East Austin. For the past year, she has combined her interests in education, fine arts, and social justice by working as a Teaching Artist for Creative Action. She hopes to preserve a livable, enjoyable future for all Austinites for decades to come, and to protect the racial and economic diversity every great city needs.

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2013 by in History, Politics, Race and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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