The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Ella: Fighting to Save a Few

screen-capture-6.pngAny life spanning seven decades is bound to have its share of twists, turns, and dreams deferred–maybe some that are never realized at all. After I had been meeting for months with Ella, a petite and loquacious seventy-two-year-old woman, she told me, “You know, I didn’t really want all this stuff to be like this. I wanted that brick house, two-car garage, and a husband and all that respectability. I always wanted that stuff.” Instead, Ella raised her two children alone and took on a career she hated, plumbing, to provide for her family.

Yet if you listen to her for long, you begin to realize that Ella has a different dream now, one forged in large part by her neighborhood’s seemingly endless struggle for resources and recognition over the last sixty years. A quick walk through Ella’s neighborhood, known as St. John’s, nestled in a small corner of northeast Austin, tells part of the story. Its narrow streets have few sidewalks, and many blocks contain overgrown vacant lots. A few newer brick homes with freshly planted flowers sit side by side with more dilapidated houses enveloped in chain-link fences sporting “no trespassing” signs. Less-than-friendly dogs roam the streets freely, often startling me on my periodic jogs through the neighborhood. Rusty old cars, tires, and discarded furniture are common fixtures in many front yards.

Statistics tell another part of the story. According to the U.S. Census, the neighborhood’s median annual household income in 2010 was $29,237, compared to a citywide median of $52,453. Of the children in St. John’s, 43 percent currently live in poverty, and 26 percent of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds are out of school or unemployed. Although Ella’s neighborhood now occupies less than two square miles, today it is inhabited by almost ten thousand people.

Ella, who wears her white hair closely cropped and is perpetually searching for her eyeglasses, is now retired. Every once in a while, a small hint of the inevitable fatigue that comes with age reveals itself in what Ella describes as her memory “glitches.” Most days, though, her energy still seems nearly boundless–in fact, each time we met she had another new idea to share with me, often related to her efforts to mentor a small group of black and Latino teenage boys in her neighborhood, whom she feels everyone else has given up on. “Every time they come over to my house, I try to give them a new dream,” she told me as we sat together on her maroon plaid couch, where most of our conversations over the last year took place

Ella was just seven years old when her family moved to the St. John’s neighborhood, at that time the northeastern edge of Austin. Although the entire neighborhood today can be walked in less than an hour, St. John’s used to be a sprawling rural area that was home to hundreds of black families, many of whom were former sharecroppers. Back then, Ella told me, there was nothing there. “It was a great dairy farm, and the cows had tromped the land down to where it was land of no use, and who would want land when you can’t grow anything on it? So let’s give it to the black folk.”

The city eventually installed one water fountain in St. John’s. For many years, though, there was no electricity, paved roads, or sewage–only outhouses. Men and women walked two miles to the nearest bus stop to go to work in the city. Like everything else in Austin in those days, schools were segregated. Children from the neighborhood were bused to an all-black school in the more urbanized central East Side near Rosewood and Chicon. As Ella recalled, “We were the St John’s kids–we were like the country kids’ bus.”

Although black families owned land in St. John’s, for decades discriminatory practices like redlining (marking maps of certain areas populated by people of color as “off-limits” for bank loans) made it virtually impossible for them to access credit to build or improve their homes. “We couldn’t do upkeep,” Ella explained, “so they could say, ‘Blacks are trifling–they won’t fix up their property,’ but everyone else could go and get a loan and then pay it off over time.” Moreover, the companies that did come in and offer to finance home building often did so in predatory ways. “If you missed one payment, they’d come and try to foreclose on you.”

When Ella eventually moved back to St. John’s in her early forties, one of the first things she did was buy a home. “My parents sold this lot [adjacent to theirs] to me for ten dollars. I was always taught that the only way to be secure was to own something.” A few years later, she missed a payment on the house, and the building company tried to foreclose on her, “but I was educated by then, so they couldn’t touch me.” Her parents, though, “were shaking and scared, and they said, we have to leave. . . . But if you leave, you can’t fight.” When the company came to tell her parents to get their things and leave, Ella stood her ground. “I said, ‘What you need to do is you need to get the hell off my property,’” she told me, emphasizing each word as she spoke. Ultimately, Ella was able to keep her home, but her frustration with housing companies and city government only grew. “You’ve got a community that’s been out here for [decades], and you put no money in–not a penny. That’s where my anger came.”

By 1980, St. Johns’ bore little resemblance to the neighborhood Ella had left some twenty years earlier. Drugs and prostitution were rampant, and many black families had left. Taking their place was a growing Latino population, which today makes up about 70 percent of St John’s, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. When I asked Ella why she thought the neighborhood had changed, she explained: “You couldn’t get any loans, you couldn’t improve your house, you couldn’t live with any kind of dignity, so people gonna leave. All the blacks who wanted something left.”

As the city of Austin was growing, the land on which St. John’s had been built was becoming increasingly valuable given its strategic location just north of the University of Texas, the state’s flagship public university, and its proximity to a major highway. Much of the western portion of the historic neighborhood had already disappeared, bought out and replaced with a sprawling new mall and other commercial developments. “They wanted us out of here,” Ella told me matter-of-factly. The city made a concerted effort to get the remaining black families to sell their land, and when that didn’t work it implemented certain zoning changes, like permitting apartments and duplexes in addition to single-family homes, a move designed to encourage new in-migration to the neighborhood. The result? Today, 86 percent of St. John’s residents are renters.

To Ella, the city’s policies seemed arbitrary. “The code inspector seem to watch everything we do, but they overlook the yards all junked out. They gonna find someone building something that looks good because you must not be paying your taxes,” Ella observed wryly. Once, when an inspector came to her property, she remembers telling him, “It seems like every time a black person makes a move, you guys [the city of Austin] are right there. Where were you guys when we didn’t have but one faucet of water?”

Access to credit was another recurring problem. When Ella tried to get a loan to build her house, as a single mother she found it almost impossible. “As a single parent I had no credibility,” she said. But, she added, laughing incredulously, “If I had a husband to put on the note, he didn’t have to work or bring in any money, but they would approve my loan.” At the time, there was really only one company that would finance homes for families living in St. John’s. “So I went to [Jim Walters], and for $22,000 they would do the home for me.” It sounded like a good deal, until they told her she had to have another $5,000 for the hookups to city services. “I had no cash money, so they said, ‘We’ll refinance the $22K and lend you enough money so you can get a hookup.’” With the refinancing, though, her note soared from $22,000 to $38,000. She knew it was a rip-off, but she signed it anyway. She shrugged as she told me, “I didn’t have any power.”

It was a balmy Tuesday evening in September, and the monthly neighborhood association meeting was about to begin. I looked casually around the room–of the eight women and four men gathered, Ella was the only black person in attendance. (Afterward, she told me that normally there are a few others, but the meeting date had been changed at the last minute.) The big agenda item at this meeting was a vote on the community’s development priorities, which would then be sent to the city council for consideration in the next budget cycle.

Plastered on the back wall was a laundry list of possible projects, ranging from park space to bike lanes to sidewalk improvements. We were each given ten red dots, which we were instructed to distribute among the projects based on our preferences. Dots in hand, we stood up and moved toward the wall to examine our options. A few of the men present were newer to the neighborhood, and they occasionally turned to Ella to ask her where different places were located. A discussion ensued about the relative merits of a kids’ splash pad versus expanded green space. Ella and I finished placing our dots on the wall and took our seats, waiting for everyone else to finish. One of the neighborhood association leaders began taking pictures and suddenly called out to Ella from across the room. “Ella, can you come back over here and pretend to vote again? I need some color in this photo.” Without a word, Ella stood up and walked back to the wall for the obligatory photo op.

“I’m the token black person,” Ella told me once, when I asked her about her involvement with the neighborhood association. “Is that okay? Is that all right with me?” she asked semi-rhetorically, already anticipating my next question. Without skipping a beat, she answered her own query. “It’s all right as it can be, because no one is trying to get that spot. And somebody needs to be there.”

Ella still shows up for association meetings and even holds an official (though to her, mostly symbolic) position, but she has no interest in dealing with “paperwork,” as she calls it. What she most enjoys are “hands-on” activities, like hosting a block party on National Night Out (NNO), an annual event intended to help neighbors connect with each other. When I arrived at Ella’s house for NNO in October 2013, a dozen Latino kids were already there, playing tetherball and volleyball in her backyard. Two large plastic tables were stacked with pizza, crackers, cookies, bottled water, and of course Ella’s special homemade Kool-Aid–in red and purple varieties. Ella asked me to help serve the pizza while she went around asking each of the kids their names, ages, and the schools they attended. “I need to have all the info about these kids to know what their needs are and how to help them,” Ella explained to me later.

Ella’s passion is to help teenage boys whom she feels most local organizations have been unable to reach–the ones who are dropping out of school. She sees a younger version of herself in their discouragement. “There’s a lot of hurting people, and I know some of the kids can be saved.”

Pamela Neumann is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Broadly, her research interests include gender-based violence, environmental inequality, and contentious politics in Latin America. Her dissertation examines how routine state practices impact the everyday lives and legal decision-making of women victims of domestic violence in Nicaragua. She has also conducted research on women’s participation in development programs in rural Nicaragua and community perceptions of environmental contamination in Peru. Her work has been published in Gender & Society and Social Problems. The above is an excerpt from her chapter in Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City  (University of Texas Press, 2015).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on May 24, 2016 by in activism, Race, Uncategorized and tagged , .
wordpress blog stats
%d bloggers like this: