an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
At the corner of Robert T. Martinez, Jr. and Holly Streets, on the wall of KLEEN Wash laundromat, Our Lady of Guadalupe graces her visitors with a loving gaze and an invitation to believe in miracles For as long as I have walked the streets of my East Austin neighborhood (eight years in August) – and nearly as long as neighbors have called her street Robert T. Martinez, Jr, instead of Canadian – the Virgin of Guadalupe has appeared before her neighbors, brought to life in a mural scene where her radiance beams down upon a reverent Juan Diego. Here, instead of the Hill of Tepeyac, her miracles unfold over the Austin city skyline. Whether we neighbors greet her on our way to wash and dry our laundry, catch up with one another in the parking lot, make a run to Mr. Mc’s, wait for the 22 bus, or make our way to the Lake, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a constant for us. While many of Holly Street’s bungalows have come to be replaced with “bird houses,” “salt and pepper boxes,” or other modern homes as new neighbors with new mores have arrived, she and the KLEEN Wash have held strong. In a neighborhood that’s changing so fast, her constant grace has been an anchor, and a powerful expression of the rich, Mexican-American, Catholic heritage that has shaped this barrio for well over 60 years.
This May, however, The End finally came for the KLEEN Wash. When my dogs and I dropped by this week to pay homage to the Virgin, we found her surrounded by construction fences on all sides, with hard-working men and their prybars towering above her and her heavenly angels as they demolished the roof of this stalwart neighborhood institution.
Apparently my face revealed what my heart was feeling. A voice from the roof called out to me, “don’t worry – she’s staying. This wall, and the mural, will stay.” When I asked him what was coming, he shared that the rehabbed building will house a café.
A café, it turns out, called the Launderette.
A café, called the Launderette, created by the Executive Chefs of La Condesa.
My insides knotted. My head spun, caught in a torrent of questions and contradictions.
This is all a good thing, right? I mean, how great is it that they’re keeping the Virgin? The mural is beautiful neighborhood art, and they’re being respectful. And the name, it’s honoring the building’s history, and the neighborhood’s too. Right? Maybe? So why does the name make me squirm? What has me so uncomfortable?
As if in response to my question, I heard the voice of one of my surrogate grandmothers in the neighborhood, who lives just down the street on Holly. Just last month she’d been talking to me about the neighborhood, the changes she’s seen, what this place has meant to her. Over the years I’ve known her, she’s shared some painful memories. She’s shared about what it was like when her son was shot in front of her home, left to die on her doorstep. Most recently, she talked about how it was hard to know what was happening in the neighborhood because her neighbors didn’t really talk to her, she supposes because of what happened with her boy. They kept their distance. But, she explained to me, she could always find out what was happening when she made her routine trip to the wash. With idle time waiting out wash and dry cycles, people talked. News circulated. Relationships formed. It was the friendliest place for her in the neighborhood, other than Cristo Rey, the neighborhood Catholic church. Even if she didn’t talk much, as she walked to the KLEEN wash and attended to her laundry, she got to know what was happening, who was around, and who belonged to her neighborhood. For those moments, she belonged, too.
From my dear friend, my own experiences at the place, and stories others have shared with me, I’ve caught a glimpse of the KLEEN Wash’s service as an essential social gathering space for the neighborhood. People naturally became regulars, a happy circumstance of their need to attend to their household responsibilities. It was an affordable and unpretentious space in a highly accessible, walkable location. Graced by Our Lady of Guadalupe, and endowed with many chairs, it was a welcoming and comfortable (enough) place to pass a few hours. Out front, neighborhood kids played and formed what turned into life-long relationships, while their moms caught up over loads in the wash.
The KLEEN Wash, as it turns out, is a great example of what urban planners (like me) are taught to call “third places” – a place that’s distinct from home and from work, where people gather informally, converse, and generate the kind of loose, familiar relationships that form what scholars like Robert Putnam like to call “social capital.” I guess if you call it “capital” you help some people remember that it has value, who otherwise might forget about the time and space required to support neighborly relationships, or who might take a sense of belonging for granted. The term “third place” reached its apex, arguably, at a modern time when people noticed that something was missing; the car-oriented physical form and fragmentation of suburban community life had them seeking out such social spaces intentionally. Jane Jacobs celebrated such essential urban social places in The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Drawing from her inspiration and a growing awareness of the costs of urban renewal and “placeless” suburban growth, urban planners got pretty excited about “third places.” Usually when they use the term, they’re talking about the importance of including a pub, a coffee shop, a general store, or some other place that fulfills many of the social roles filled by the KLEEN Wash, but where one can expect light and friendly conversation over food and drink.
Wait a second. Wow! Well, that’s exactly what the new Launderette aspires to be: a “neighborhood café and companion grocery…[s]erving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a classic café setting.” Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki promise their future patrons “real food” instead of “exotic pairings and gastronomical acrobatics.” How great that they aspire to be an unpretentious neighborhood gathering place, right? And Our Lady of Guadalupe will still be there with her welcoming presence, too. They’re even calling themselves the Launderette, to acknowledge the social gathering spot before them. Like the best fusion cuisine, they’re taking the best of the past culture and adding a modern twist – that’s just what Chef Ortiz is celebrated for with La Condesa, isn’t it? It’s really thoughtful, no? Certainly it’s a million times better than a Starbucks, or some soul-less outside franchise. I should be thanking them for being so culturally sensitive, right?
So why am I still squirming over this change? What is it that I’m not addressing?
I have a feeling there’s a lot I’m not naming, but I’ll start with the big white elephant in the room. The sad truth is, this tide of “neighborhood change” hasn’t been lifting all boats. It’s so fast it sometimes looks more like a tidal wave, carrying with it a fight for survival in which there are clear winners and losers. Where there’s a forced choice between “KLEEN Wash” and “Launderette,” old and new. The tide has been so relentless that it’s been given a name, “gentrification,” and nearly all of us who care about justice – in East Austin and the city as a whole – resign ourselves to the inevitability that the flood of economic capital of new neighbors will displace those neighbors with less economic wealth who have resided here for generations. In East Austin, “those neighbors” are the ones who created the beautiful mural with its promise of miracles, who cultivated the original vegetable and flower gardens for which Garden Street was named, and who fought long and hard for the closure of the power plant at the end of Holly Street. The same neighbors who paid taxes for generations just like every other household in the city, but had to wait to get their fair share of infrastructure improvements, like paved roads, sidewalks, park facilities, and quality schools. They had to wait for many of these services until now: a time when new, wealthier, and often whiter people have moved in, and rising property values and their associated taxes threaten to displace long-time neighbors before they can really even enjoy the improvements. Sure, there’s a nice restaurant with “real food” and a neighborhood grocery selling “healthy food,” but at what cost?
Who will get to eat there? Who will belong there? Who will be left out by the new Launderette? Where will KLEEN Wash patrons do their laundry? Will Frank’s Coin Laundry up the street have enough capacity? Can people still walk there? Will those who used to congregate at KLEEN Wash be able to afford to hang out at the Launderette? Will they still feel at home? Or will there be a totally new clientele, with well-meaning, middle and upper class whites and Hispanics who’ve been consistently moving to the neighborhood over the past decade and who are willing to pay a little extra for the “neighborhood charm” afforded by the retro-chic name and the Virgin herself? Are these symbols – the laundry history and the adored mural – sacred relics or simply savvy marketing? Are they symbols and altars that have been built by past generations only to be appropriated and commercialized by new businesses and residents?
What makes me squirm most is that we’re all pretty sure we know the answers to these questions. Past trends of churning economic cycles predict a linear process of gentrification. You start with a low-income neighborhood with a history of public and private disinvestment (which typically started in during the post-WWII, highway-supported “white flight” to the suburbs), located close to an urban center that has become attractive again as a place to live, work and play. Some hard working neighbors use their precious free time to rally the community in a fight for improvements and make some headway. They clean up vacant lots, maybe succeed in removing a toxic industry, or other locally unwanted land use (LULU’s, some call them). Attracted by low-rent and open spaces, artists and others who are comfortable at the margins step into abandoned buildings and give them new creative life. Gradually the neighborhood improves. Property values go up. The neighborhood becomes an attractive place for real estate development, and land speculation commences. Property taxes, go up. Way, up, especially compared to incomes. This is especially so in Texas, where we finance most of our public services through a regressive property tax system that disproportionately burdens low-income or fixed-income households. Households “cash out” to the ‘burbs. Some “sell out” on each other in family feuds. Some find themselves “pushed out,” unable to pay the taxes. New people with more resources move in, with the same legal right to be there as anyone else. The mighty march of “progress,” the crusade of capital, continues. And none of us can do anything about it. It’s too big. It’s a global thing, after all. It’s linear, predictable, and utterly inevitable. Natural. Who ever said this world would be fair, anyway?
All of this – the whole narrative – is the all too familiar Story of Gentrification. It’s the unrelenting conversation I’ve heard in my neighborhood since I moved here in 2006. It’s the same one that drove me to Austin from Boston, where I witnessed the same patterns unfolding around my rented home on Mass Ave in Boston, the line of demarcation between the South End and its artist galleries and Roxbury and its housing projects. The same thing I experienced as a volunteer with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and later as a staff member of the Urban Ecology Institute, working in partnership with neighbors on projects to enhance the social and ecological health of their homes and neighborhoods. I’ve been in this gentrification conversation awhile, as a neighborhood activist and a student and scholar of urban planning. And I’ve got to say: I’m TIRED of it.
The conversation of gentrification is ultimately a conversation for gentrification. In neighborhoods like mine, neighborhood change is complex and dynamic. At this moment in time, we probably have more diversity in terms of people’s individual gifts, talents, cultural traditions, education and resources than any other point in history, at least since the early 1950s. Yet, when we limit our conversation about neighborhood change to a conversation about gentrification, we flatten our neighborhoods’ complexity and the possibilities its diversity might afford. Our conversation of gentrification effectively limits ourselves to gentrification. We take this abstract idea about a linear process of socio-economic change and we reify it – we make it real. As we talk about gentrification, we dig ourselves into a familiar rut. We might complain about the rut, and the waste it collects, the injustice it generates. We might even fight the rut and say it shouldn’t exist. But stuck in the rut, we re-entrench ourselves the more we talk about it. We’ve created a conversational trap, in which no one has any real power (or responsibility) to get ourselves out, and it’s always the fault of someone or something else. It sows suffering, fear, and mistrust. It creates a world of victims and oppressors. It sets up walls and defenses. It kills the relationships that might otherwise foster community resilience. The conversation of gentrification quashes creativity and the possibility for creative solutions. It kills collective will. It sucks life out of living systems. It suffocates the realm of the miraculous.
I say, “it,” but “it,” is a conversation of our own creation. It is us. All of us. Each and every one of us who uses the conversation of gentrification as our own personal “out.” An out that justifies our choice to keep or build up walls between us and neighbors who are richer or poorer, browner, or whiter than our selves. An out that justifies our politics and our unchallenged opinions. An out that exonerates us from the responsibility of contributing to a neighborhood where everyone might flourish. We keep that conversation alive, even though it’s ugly, because it’s pretty safe, all considering. We don’t have to risk being vulnerable. We don’t have to risk dreaming, and having our dreams crushed again. We get to be right. We get to be in charge. We get to go along with our lives in their cozy patterns and our inherited privileges and proven survival strategies. We wear the garments of gentrification and the cloak of cynicism and resignation to keep us safe, comfortable, on our own, and in our familiar, isolated circles. We wear this protective armor to ward off the unpredictable, the unsettling, or the inexplicable. We wear it to keep us in control in our “safe” little trenches, where we don’t have to get to know and love our neighbors as ourselves and can hurl hateful epithets and allegations back and forth at each other.
In effect, we wear this armor so that we don’t have to meet the gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe herself, or believe in her miracles. If we look into those eyes, we might have to listen. She might ask us for something. We might have to say yes to something we know we can’t do, something beyond all that we know to be possible. She might direct our attention to the crumbling walls behind her and the demolition of the roof above her and ask us to consider taking down the walls that separate us from each other, or the ceilings we place on our own potential, as individuals and as neighbors in community. She might ask to lay down our cloaks, our garments, our masks – putting us in danger or even requiring us to notice our own hearts of darkness. There, we might observe the cruelties we have unwittingly perpetrated against faceless others through our privileged positions in systems we leave unquestioned. She might even ask us to question them. And then, worse yet, she might ask us to do something that challenges all of our very effective survival strategies – opening our minds, hearts, and wills to possibilities bigger than our little selves, beyond the four walls of the Laundromat turned Launderette, the zoning variances, land use codes and master plans we squabble over, or greater than the little routines that give meaning and order to our lives.
If we dare to answer Our Lady’s call, we might invite chaos, we might invite failure.
We might also invite a miracle.
In this rapidly changing neighborhood, with our walls down and our vision unobstructed, we might see one another’s brilliance, be willing to give our gifts and receive those of our neighbors, and discover new opportunities to transform our well-worn ruts into reservoirs of possibility and collective action. Having met our shadows and darkest selves, we might learn to forgive ourselves and each other. Freed from our fragmentation, shame, and isolation, we might bear witness to our rich diversity and begin to forge new relationships. With each other. With our soil. With our ecosystems. We might create a future rooted in most sacred soil of the past, nourished by new gifts of the present.
Together we – in my neighborhood and yours and across the city – might awaken a wave of love and leadership that can overcome even the mighty tide of gentrification. Through our web of mutually beneficial relationships, our community might respond to the onslaught of outside changes with our core values and function unscathed. We might transform the conversation of neighborhood change from “gentrification” to “resilience.” We might collectively dream and create together. We might all belong. We might usher in grace for which we are underserving and unprepared.
But that’s all a little pie in the sky, don’t you think? We all know better. We know the mural’s just a mural, and the mural will fade, and the new walls will divide, and this place like others throughout the city will just be another battleground with winners and losers. In Austin, we know this truth like the back of our hand. Goodbye Las Manitas, hello Marriot. Good bye, Armadillo World Headquarters, hello C3.
Knowing this storyline, who could question that the Virgin of Guadalupe at the Launderette is just another victim, a once-sacred relic appropriated by a new wave of colonizers? Appropriation is her birthright, isn’t it, as much as her miracles? After all, didn’t the Spanish priests climb the Hill of Tepeyac to burn down the Temple of Tonatzin, of Mother Earth herself, to make way for the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe? Didn’t they use her to make a new way of life more palatable to the people and culture they were inculcating? Who could possibly question this age-old, unrelenting story?
I can. You can. We all can. Those of us who honor Our Lady of Guadalupe know that her miraculous works include uniting the indigenous and the Spanish people of Mexico, at a time of chaos. Far from a story of gentrification or colonization, Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us together to honor what is most sacred, to create our home together, to give our lives to something more powerful and glorious than the survival of our individual selves. She is the very symbol of resilience, of a resilient people. She is here to remind us that we have a choice in the stories and symbols we honor.
Endowed with such a capacity to choose and create, we could tell a story where Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to shine – at the corner of Holly and Robert Martinez, and in our hearts – so that she might beckon us to a greater place, a more spacious and gracious one that calls us into our higher selves, making room for us all to belong.
We could live into that story. We could live into a neighborhood and a city where we all care for one another, and plant her miraculous roses together. We can plant fig trees and plum trees, too, feeding each other when we’re weary or sick, just like those who have shared the same soil and love for their neighbors before us. We could listen to each other, learn from each other, and maybe even create innovative ways to live together in the face of diminishing water supplies, deteriorating infrastructure and ecosystems, and an inequitable global economy. We could give up the false idea that we’re really in control, without losing our power to act together. We could invite miracles.
If I may, there’s a miracle I would like to invite. At the feet of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I would like to invite the developers, the chefs, and my neighbors new and old to create a Launderette that rings true to its name. One that breaks through the false choice between old and new, that truly builds on the richness of the past while including new gifts of the present. One that becomes a revamped neighborhood gathering place where neighbors can walk to do our laundry in water and energy-efficient machines, and wait for our loads over a cup of coffee and neighborly conversation, along with a delicious meal. Where old East Austin meets new East Austin. Where life-long relationships continue to form, over the generations. Where, as we fold laundry, new possibilities for our community unfold through our conversation. This story is still possible. The new walls aren’t up yet. Our Lady sill shines. It might take a miracle, but the future’s still ours to create.
Fundamentally, we have a choice. We get to choose “gentrification” or “resilience,” KLEEN Wash or Launderette, or countless other stories we could create together. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong story. There is only the meaning that we choose, and the story we choose to live into.
On the corner of Robert Martinez and Holly, Our Lady of Guadalupe still shines over the City of Austin. What do you hear her asking of you? Will you answer her call to love, honor, and acknowledge our neighbors? What story will you honor with your life?
 Meghan McCarron, “Rene Ortiz and Laura Saiwkci Partnering with Fresa’s to Open Two Restaurants in 2014,” Eater Austin, November 19, 2013, http://austin.eater.com/archives/2013/11/19/rene-ortiz-and-laura-sawicki-to-open-two-restaurants-in-2014.php#more.
A Pennsylvania native and a Boston transplant, Elizabeth Walsh has been proud to call the Holly Neighborhood home since 2006 when she moved to Austin to study environmental justice and sustainable community development. As a doctoral candidate in the Community and Regional Planning (CRP) Program and the interdisciplinary Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering Program at the University of Texas at Austin, her dissertation research investigates how the design of low-income home renovation programs might enhance capacity for environmental justice and resilience in centrally located, gentrifying neighborhoods. Elizabeth is the co-founder of the Holly Neighbors Helping Neighbors initiative, a neighborhood, volunteer-based, green home renovation program intended to decrease utility bills while increasing health and safety. As a master’s student in CRP at UT, Elizabeth worked with classmates, PODER, and students at Zavala elementary to develop the East Austin Environmental Justice Project, a community mapping initiative focusing on children’s perceptions of environmental hazards. Prior to her move to Austin, Elizabeth earned a BA in Peace and Justice Studies with an Economics minor at Wellesley College, and worked at the Urban Ecology Institute where she led community forestry efforts. In her free-time, Elizabeth serves as the Secretary of the Holly Neighborhood Coalition and helps lead the East Feast Coalition, a network of East Austin neighbors committed to growing healthy food and communities together, including establishing the first food forest in a public park in Austin. She also volunteers as a board member with EcoRise Youth Innovations, a nonprofit that educates youth in the fundamentals of sustainable design through renovation of their own schools. She and her dogs, Brak and Charlie, can easily be found exploring the streets and parks of their neighborhood, visiting with their neighbors along the way.
Acknowledgements: Though these thoughts and words are my own, they emerged through conversations with many. Thanks in particular to Mariana, Mike, Adrienne, Bruce, Ada, Joseph, Victoria, John, Domingo, Will, Francois, Bertha, Jodi, Daniel, Dani, Carol, and Yolanda for your generous ears, perspectives, and insights. Thank you for all of the ways you challenge me to think and love more deeply. Thank you, Brak and Charlie, for keeping me out walking and exploring.