an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
In 2013, popular Texas Monthly magazine published a collection of commentaries on Texas’s major cities, and two of them were about Austin. One, written by John Spong (a Texas Monthly staff reporter), titled “All Grown Up,” suggested that although Austin’s physical and social environment had changed substantially over the previous twenty years, the city still retained an abiding culture of tolerance to difference, a culture that not only provided the city with its great quality of life but was the main factor in propelling its phenomenal growth. While reserving animus for those who complained that the city’s growth had changed it for the worse, Spong amicably parroted the tall tale (that has been repeated ad nauseam) about the large role the city’s culture played in driving its rapid urban development. Notably, his article attracted very little commentary, critical or otherwise.
The other commentary, penned by Cecilia Balli (an associate professor of journalism at ut Austin), was titled “What Nobody Says about Austin.” In it she declared that Austin was the most segregated city in Texas and that its citizens refused to confront the lingering impact of white supremacy on the city’s governance. But perhaps most importantly (at least in terms of the public response), she insinuated that while Austinites were supposedly renowned for their tolerance to difference, their open-mindedness was, by and large, extended only to the quirky behavior associated primarily with “white” people. Balli’s article prompted a vigorous discussion in Austin’s blogosphere, and while there was some support for her editorial, it was overshadowed by a torrent of outrage.
Although Balli can be faulted for some factual errors, ahistorical assumptions, and hyperbolic claims, the vast majority of the negative responses to her article did not point to any of these issues. Instead, they relied on racist, misogynist, and other ad hominem attacks that, more than anything, showed how intolerant Austinites can be, especially to those who cast even a small amount of shade over the city’s excessively sunny image.
The articles by Spong and Balli poignantly represent two of the most common conversations taking place in and about Austin today. On the one hand, there is an interminable debate about whether the changes in the city’s physical infrastructure are good, principally as they pertain to Austin’s cultural life. On the other hand, there is an ongoing discussion about Austin’s stark pattern of racial segregation and how what is considered “Austin’s culture” is pregnant with notions of whiteness. Both of the authors, despite speaking to only one of these discussions, are optimistic that the problem they identify can be solved. One suggests that there is no cause for alarm because of the durability of a local sensibility, and the other, while concerned, believes that a new multicultural sensitivity to difference will emerge. However, both authors overlook the more fundamental question driving both of their discussions: who has relatively more control over who (or what) bears the costs associated with how the city has been developing?
In my new book, I demonstrate how the past and present patterns of urban development in Austin have been strongly influenced by a historically varying, but still relatively stable, system of asymmetrical power relations that has engendered both uneven development among neighborhoods and inequalities among peoples. From urban renewal programs to Smart Growth planning efforts, those people who were in a relatively more vulnerable position than others (for a variety of reasons) have shouldered more of the costs associated with changes to the city’s urban environment. Moreover, a series of growth coalitions with different, albeit similar, political configurations have had determinately more influence over local governance and the policies and programs that were (or could be) enacted to facilitate specific changes in Austin’s urban form. If there is any hope of resolving the issues brought up in these popular discussions, the discussion has to recognize the significant role of social, geographical, and institutional unevenness, both historically and contemporarily, in shaping the varying fortunes and fates of different people and places.
Eliot Tretter is Assistant Professor of Geography and Undergraduate Advisor of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary. Before coming to UofC, he was a Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the political economy of urban development, especially in the emerging fields of critical sustainability and knowledge studies. He received his PhD in Geography from Johns Hopkins University. His academic work has appeared in the Journal of the Urban Affairs, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Antipode, Geopolitics, The Professional Geographer, Urban Studies, and Environment, Space, and Place. He is the author of Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Racially Segregated City and Shadows of a Sunbelt City: the Environment Racism, and the Knowledge Economy (University of Georgia Press).