an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
If one were to visit Austin for the first time, one might see a bustling and busy town, expanding and growing beyond its transportation capacity. A closer look at specific neighborhoods might reveal a deeper picture—changes understood and experienced at a more personal level. This project seeks to examine one geographic area of Austin,1 a defined space2 if you will, that has experienced significant shifts through the perspective of a long-standing religious leader,3 Rick Banda.
Rick is the pastor of a non-denominational church. While the church is small, its influence expands well beyond the walls of its building, due largely to social-justice supporting ministries. Rick Banda’s involvement in the north central Austin area is recognized by many, including local police, other churches, the Capital Area Food Bank, local businesses, surrounding schools, and government offices. I believe this recognition lends significance and validity to his account of change within the area. It demonstrates a “native” status. What follows is a conversation between he and I regarding over two decades of changes within the community surrounding NACC.
Over Two Decades of Change:
Racheal: When did you first become involved with NACC?
Rick: In the summer of 1995 I was invited to visit the church by my brother who attended NACC.
Racheal: How were you involved with NACC?
Rick: In 1996, I was invited by the [then] pastor of NACC to lead a men’s ministry and that led to [my] further involvement with the church. By 1998, I was serving as an Associate Pastor and Elder in the church. In 2002, the families of NACC moved to Cedar Park to begin a new ministry. The leadership on NACC decided to give the building to me in order to continue working in the neighborhood.
Racheal: When you first arrived to NACC, what was the surrounding neighborhood like? What did you notice?
Rick: Well NACC was completely alienated from the neighborhood. It was like the neighborhood had its own life and NACC had its own life. There was a high disinterest on the part of the neighborhood for the church. NACC was pretty much all white, except I am Hispanic. There were a lot of apartments around the church and a lot of Hispanics and blacks. More a minority population than white.
Racheal: Can you tell me a little more about the history of NACC?
Rick: Yes. In 1972, NACC was founded by Anglo families arriving from the North East of the U.S. Most were transferred to Austin by IBM as it began its new plant. The church was made of middle to upper-middle income families. The location was picked because it was a suburban community at the far north part of Austin. In 1995 the church was made up of about 300 attendees that were pretty similar to each other. There was little diversity. When I arrived in 1995, these families were beginning to wrestle with the changes in their church community and the fact that the church was not prepared to minister to the new types of families arriving with different languages, cultures and their poverty.
Racheal: So you would describe that the area had been suburban?
Rick: Yes, the area had been a suburban area earlier on, but when I started participating with NACC the area had already been turning urban. As I had understood from those who had been there for a while, Austin had been growing the fastest in the north direction and that area was just swallowed up as Austin expanded. That started in the 70s and the 80s. When I arrived the neighborhood was becoming a rental neighborhood. From owners moving out to renters coming in and apartments coming in. A very transitioning population.
Racheal: What do you think caused or influenced these changes at that time?
Rick: Low quality apartments, renters coming in. At that time there were East Austin black pastors complaining to us that their populations were coming over to us. That the North Austin area was becoming a cheaper living area. They were also working at gentrifying the East Austin area and that resulted in pushing East Austin into this community … a lot of minorities into this area. So when the white owners saw that they started renting out or selling.
Racheal: So you feel like it was the gentrification in East Austin that accelerated changes in North Austin?
Rick: Uh huh. They had to go somewhere. This area was next cheapest place.
Racheal: So when you went in 1995, you saw kind of the tail end of this process?
Rick: I think in 1995 it was already a rental neighborhood. The lower priced apartments were already here. The low-income minority population had already pretty much taken over. And I experienced a lot of that in the church. Especially dealing with a lot of single women and children that needed help. It was hard because then six months later they’d be gone.
Racheal: So, as you participated from 1995 to now, what were some main changes within the community that you have noticed?
Rick: What was not here in 1995 was the refugee population. That was just beginning.
Racheal: So how did that affect the neighborhood?
Rick: That brought more diversity, more poverty. They couldn’t speak the language…. There was a lack of community identity or…ownership.
Racheal: Do you know why refugees were coming to North Austin?
Rick: Low prices. These apartments were willing to negotiate rent with the agencies to lower prices. This was a diverse, unorganized, low-income community and so it was easy [for the agencies] to pack a bunch of the refugee population in here. And I would say the neighborhood association was probably not very active at that point, didn’t see what was happening to it. Where other places might have been more active. With renters rather than the homeowners, there was less attention given to this area, making it easier to place refugees here and for the area to change.
Racheal: Was there anything else besides the refugee population addition that encouraged changes in the area?
Rick: With lack of ownership, lack of long-term leases…there was less resistance for crime, gangs, drugs, and such. With low prices it attracted single mothers who couldn’t afford much. This caused some problems with families and also opened up opportunity for gangs and violence. The appearance of yards and houses deteriorated. Things were not kept up—no gardens, landscaping, lawns. Houses are not well maintained. Multiple people living in houses leads to more cars jammed up on the street. The apartments were so cheap they just put up metal fencing to separate. Also the changes to the area caused an increased homeless population. They began camping in the area, building camps and leaving trash when they moved on.
Racheal: How did all of these changes affect NACC?
Rick: Well when I came to NACC I found that the congregation tried to adapt but found itself struggling to do so. I was added as an Associate Pastor which [being a Mexican American] gave some diversity to the church staff. I brought a new culture about how to do church and that caused some struggle. Overall the congregation felt ill prepared for these new demands on NACC. Several of the families started to attend other suburban churches and leadership of NACC decided to move the ministry and in 2002 they gave the facilities into my charge and they all moved to Cedar Park.
Racheal: How would you sum up what all of these changes and shifts have meant to you as a pastor at NACC?
Rick: In order to spiritually minister to people we had to begin ministering to them physically, we had to address language issues, culture differences. It went from being a traditional church ministry to a constantly changing ministry.
What We Can Take Away
The uneven development of late capitalism, coupled with environmental and global factors, has had no small impact on the city of Austin. This is illustrated through this accounting of one space. As Austin continues to shift and change we must consider the repercussions for people, institutions, non-profits, social spaces, local businesses, and the like. The pastor and church described here found that meeting change with a responsive, creative, and flexible engagement created a new sustainable life and identity. Currently gentrification efforts in the north-central Austin area are underway through “The Rundberg Project.” This will no doubt affect continued and significant shifting in the area.
In depth and thoughtful histories are useful tools. Not only do they remind us what Austin has been, they also provide context for where we are headed, since spaces are continuous productions of themselves. Although this work takes up a small part of Austin, a larger context must always be kept in mind as space is both discursive and dialectical 4,. Perhaps understanding the shifting that takes place within our city will also further illuminate how neoliberalism functions, give a comparison for looking at other cities and spaces, and develop insight into how we can approach and address our city’s present and future states.
1 Located in the north part of Austin exists a small protestant Christian church known as “NACC.” The pastor of NACC, Rick Banda (all names used with permission), has been at the church for twenty years and has seen many geographical, social, and economic changes in Austin over the years, but he has been particularly attuned to changes within the north-central area. While his involvement and influence currently span the greater Austin area, the historical accountings here can be understood as limited to a very specific geographic area existing north of Hwy 183, south of Braker Lane, east of West Burnet Road, and west of North Lamar Boulevard.
2 Austin, like all places, is a space, or a set of spaces. Space, understood through a postmodern critical human geography lens, is produced (as described by Henry Lefebvre in his book, Production of Space) over time and is the result of center and peripheral forces converging and creating ruptures. The north, central area of Austin is one such example of this dialectical production.
3 It should be mentioned that I am the eldest daughter of Rick Banda and have my own experiences, but I seek to share his, not mine. Having been a child when my father first began participating with NACC, I did not understand, nor do I remember, all of the dynamics of the neighborhood, church, or his involvement. Additionally, not having lived in the same household with my parents for over ten years now, I am not intimately aware of all that he observes. Since it is he that is recognized within the Austin community, it is his perspective I seek to present.
4 Taken from a postmodern critical human geography lens as laid out in Henry Lefebvre’s book, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 2000) and Edward Soja’s book, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 1989).
Racheal M. Rothrock is a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin. She is majoring in curriculum and instruction and specializing in cultural studies in education with a portfolio in Mexican American studies. She has lived in and around Austin her entire life and her work with marginalized middle and high school students has supported her dissertation research focus on middle school teachers and teaching.