an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
It is said that Austin’s “violet crown” comes from the purple glow of the horizon emanating from the western hills at sunset. Its first known reference came from an 1894 article in the Austin Daily Statesman celebrating the day Austinites voted to build a granite dam over the Colorado River (1). While providing power to the city and lighting the famed Moontowers, the dam burst a decade later, killing several people (2). Another early reference came from an O.Henry story referring to a splendid private residence in the western hills (“one of the fairest buds in the City of the Violet Crown”), a home likely high enough to be safe from floodwaters (3). Austin’s boosters have for a long time promoted the natural beauty and the resources of the city. And the city is beautiful. There’s the way the wind and light ripple through the trees in the late afternoon, the view of the hills at sunset from the bridges over the river, and the enchantment of Barton Springs. However, just as the upper class folks the western hills could enjoy the best views of the violet crown while the low-income people of color neighborhoods resided in flood zones, the access to Austin’s beauty, and the definition of it, have been grossly uneven.
This place is enchanted. That’s what I thought when I first saw Barton Springs. My friends and I, all minus one (who himself was one of those dreaded transplants from California) were from out of town, peered through the chain-link fence into the still, dark water. I was stunned by what I saw: the steep hills leading into what was the longest human-made pool I had ever seen; the large pecan trees leaning over the pool; the rush of the water going through the dam and continuing into the stream below, leading into the lake and opening up to the twinkling, well-scrubbed skyline. Our host, Ramon, goaded us to hop the fence and roam around the pool, even take a dip if we were so inclined. We’d been on the road for about a week and had already snuck around the ruins of St. Augustine, Florida and roamed the streets of New Orleans, acting the part of the young and free ruffian musicians, and had a reputation to uphold. We quietly hopped the fence, shimmied across the walk way over the dam to the far side of the pool, where we sat on the hillside chatting, smoking, and staring into the inky dark pool. We were too chicken to swim though, perhaps spooked by the light emanating from the pool hall on the other side (so much for our reputation). After awhile, we slipped back to the other side and hopped back over the fence and walked back to our car. Before leaving, we jammed out on the giant marimbas in the playground adjacent to the springs under the faint moonlight. Accustomed to the hum of New York City, I remember how eerie and wondrous the quiet nights of Austin can be.
When I revisit this anecdote, and others from my short-lived tenure as a dilettantish singer-songwriter, it strikes me how often we were naive and oblivious to a larger picture. We spent weeks on the road, living out of a car, sleeping on the floor at the homes of friends, and barely catching a glimpse of the places we passed through. Austin was somewhat different, though, because I knew was going to move there a few months later to start grad school. While passing through for those few days, I began imagining what my life would be like once I started living there. All the things about Austin that I don’t need to repeat here (music, weirdness, laidback people, etc.) were somewhat fresh back then, or at least didn’t cause me to hold back eye rolls like they do now; I was excited at the prospect of calling the city my new home.
Rather quickly after I moved here, I learned what Cecilia Ballí described as “What nobody says about Austin” (4)- which is to say that it is the most segregated city in Texas, that the African-American percentage of the population has dropped about 20 points over the course of eighty years, and that low-income communities of color are being rapidly displaced to the outer margins of the city, and those that stay are feeling increasingly unwelcome. While “nobody” is a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that these facts are not mentioned on the weekly rigmarole of Austin placed at or near the top of one list or another for being the most sustainable, or having the most robust job market, or best quality of life. No, the segregation and marginalization codified in the 1928 Master Plan and formally and informally upheld through the decades has no place in that narrative.
As Andrew Busch argues in his dissertation, Austin’s civic leaders and boosters have gone through great lengths over the years to promote and preserve the image of the city as a kind of bucolic, pastoral paradise set in a pristine Hill Country environment with an ample supply water (5). Austin was the not-quite-a-city relatively free from the urban blights of grimy industrialization, rampant crime and poverty, and public health concerns. The word “enchanted” was in fact used in the promotional literature produced by the Chamber of Commerce to describe the city’s waterfront and hills. The city parlayed such an imaginary into attracting and retaining a highly educated workforce for a burgeoning post-Fordist technology industry, while simultaneously developing a reputation as progressive oasis that artists and eccentrics could call home. Such a narrative and imaginary masks the existence of the “tank farms” that Eastside activists worked so hard to eradicate in the 1980s, as well as the recently closed Holly power plant, both long-time environmental hazards implanted in Eastside neighborhoods. Urban ills were not absent from Austin, just geographically contained and discursively swept aside in the favor of the troika of weirdness, environmental preservation, and (smart) growth that generally make up the discussion over the soul of Austin.
The pervasive unwillingness to constructively engage, or even acknowledge, such history continues today. Take for example a post on the city of Austin website entitled “Why I live where I live” (Thanks to Rocio Villalobos for posting this on facebook). A 20-something white male and a recent transplant from Kansas City, the writer was “attracted to the Austin of breakfast tacos, homeless celebrities, “don’t move here” t-shirts, running trails, quote-a-long movies, parks and festivals, and mustaches” (6). While it’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of moving here because of the shirts that say not to, his mini-litany of virtues is an astonishing feat of compartmentalization. The social and political fabric of the city reduced to trinkets and eccentricities. This is exacerbated by the fact that he lives in Clarksville (because it is bikable to his work- which to be fair is the main thrust of his post), a historic African-American neighborhood founded by freed slaves in the 1870s. He provides no recognition of this history or of his role in a rapidly shifting community.
Another example is the Austin Trails Foundation which recently called for public input in the master plan for the southeast shore of Lady Bird Lake (7), referring to the “renaissance” of a previously “underutilized” portion of the trail (thanks to Carmen Pulido for calling attention to this). The implication being that the new high-end condos on Lakeshore Boulevard and their residents necessitates a re-imagining of that parcel of lakefront- one that aligns more closely with the bucolic urban amenities consistent with the whiter sections of the city. The phrases “newcomers” and “renaissance” echo the same frontier language–as if no one had lived there previously– that has accompanied gentrification and uprooted communities for decades (8). The website for the new luxury homes in the South Shore district reveals young people lounging in the grass with a bottle of wine against the glow of the setting sun, staking their to the enchanted Austin (9).
Returning to my night of petty trespassing in Barton Springs, what I originally saw as just a rather harmless indiscretion, a moment of feeling enchanted by the beauty of Austin, I now see as a reflection of my privilege. If we had been caught, there would be a higher probability of being warned to leave before involving the police. If the police were involved, there was a much lower probability that the incident would have ended violently (as what happened to Larry Jackson). As four white/white-presenting males with clean records, the consequences of our actions were diminished, while our access, and sense of entitlement, to the enchanted Austin was much greater. It is part of the same attitudes and processes that have kept the westside of Austin more pristine compared the east, that allows newcomers to treat the city in an ahistorical, apolitical manner, and rigidly maintains the wall of segregation that continues to impact this city.
If the enchanted Austin is tied to the exclusive Austin, what does that mean for enchantment? What does that mean for justice? In her book The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett acknowledges that while enchantment–which she defines as a sense of wonder, often from a surprise encounter–is often wrapped up in forgetfulness and suspension of critical faculty, it can also foster a ethic of generosity towards others and when utilized properly can be used to realize political aims (7). Though somewhat skeptical, I would like to believe her. I think in order for that to happen, first we would have to redefine what is considered enchanting and enchanted would have to be redefined to reflect the desires of all strata of society, not just white elites. After all, as Tane Ward points out in his piece for this site, Barton Springs and the whole region have been considered sacred and enchanted for thousands of years (8). Second, the access to public space must also be equitable, and this access must go far beyond legality and even economic status. As Joshunda Sanders eloquently writes in her piece, it is exhausting for people of color to be both “hypervisible” and “invisible” in public, to constantly be both educating and assuaging the anxieties of well-meaning white folks like myself (9). Third, it will require an end to the denial about race relations in Austin. bell hooks writes that for those of us committed to cultural transformation, to living in an anti-racist world, “there is serious need for immediate and persistent self-critique…this interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fostering a fundamental attitude of vigilance rather than denial” (10). As we move into the heady days of geographic representation in the city council, spreading gentrification, water shortages, sky-rocketing real estate prices, we’re going to need to marshal all of our critical faculties, the righteous outrage of history, and a sense of joy and life.
A potential source of hope came on Mother’s Day weekend, 2014. A collaboration between the choreographer Allison Orr, the African American Cultural Heritage District, and the Huston-Tillotson baseball team celebrated both the beauty of movement in baseball as well as African American heritage in Austin. The historic Downs Field, site of many Negro League games, was gorgeously cast in the light of the fading sun that gave way to the electric field lights. My friend Bill and I watched as the players synchronized their swings and throws and kicked up dust as they ran around the bases, playing shadow ball and evoking the ghosts of this little-known history, I saw hope for more spaces of enchantment to open up across this city.
(1) “City of Austin – Austin History Center: City of the Violet Crown.” Austin History Center, n.d. http://www.austinlibrary.com/ahc/faq3.htm.
(2) Jonathan Burnett. Flash Floods in Texas. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
(3) Elliot Tretter and Melissa Adams. “The Privilege of Staying Dry: The Impact of Flooding and Racism on the Emergence of the “Mexican” Ghetto in Austin’s Low-East side, 1880-1935,” in Cities, Nature, and Development: The Politics and Production of Urban Vulnerabilities (ed. Sarah Dooling and Gregory Simon). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2012.
(4) Cecilia Balli. “What Nobody Says About Austin.” Texas Monthly, February 2013. http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/what-nobody-says-about-austin.
(5) Andrew Busch. Entrepreneurial City: Race, the Environment, and Growth in Austin, Texas 1945-2011. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2011.
(6) Charles Meyer. “Why I Live Where I Live.” Imagine Austin Blog, March 20, 2014. http://www.austintexas.gov/blog/why-i-live-where-i-live-0.
(7) “Ann and Roy Butler Trail at the Southeast Shore – Master Plan.” AustinTexas.gov, n.d. http://austintexas.gov/seshore.
(8) Neil Smith. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge, 1996.
(9) “South Shore District.” Grayco Partners, n.d. http://www.southshoredistrict.com/.
(10) Jane Bennett. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
(11) Tane Ward. “Finding Loston.” The End of Austin Issue 4, December 2013. https://endofaustin.com/2013/12/19/finding-loston/.
(12) Joshunda Sanders. “The Most Beautiful City in the World.” The End of Austin Issue 4, December 2013. https://endofaustin.com/2013/12/19/the-most-beautiful-city-in-the-world/.
(13) bell hooks. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press, 1995, 55,
Jonathan Lowell is a PhD student in geography at the University of Texas at Austin. He is writing a dissertation on urban farms and gentrification in Austin. He is also a practicing poet and is working on a chapbook entitled Postcard Habitats.