an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Eliot Tretter: Most of the books about Austin are written by people that are considered white. Still there is a large number of books, especially recently, which have covered of aspects of Austin’s non-white peoples, and these books do focus on the social inequalities within the city. Although lesser known, there are some especially important works by African Americans about African Americans in Austin. The two that stand out to me are John Brewer’s 1940 An Historical Outline of the Negro in Travis County and more than 40 years later, Bentram Allen’s 1989 Blacks in Austin. Your book is an important contribution and stands out for as being the only autobiographical account of black life in Austin I know of about in the 1970s and 1980s. Did you realize the small number of accounts that have been provided by African Americans about Austin when you authored the book? Did you read any other books? Did these inspire you?
Darwin Hamilton: No, I wasn’t familiar with the two authors you mentioned or their books. Ada Simond, was an Austin resident, historian, and family friend. I remember visiting her home as a child, but at the time I didn’t know much about her contributions to the history of Austin. Simond wrote a series of children’s books that chronicled the life of a fictional black family living in East Austin at the turn of the century. In her weekly Austin American-Statesman column, “Looking Back,” she shared with all of Austin the history and heritage of the local African-American community. My father provided her a portrait of my great- grandfather William T. Dedrick, in his Masonic drill team uniform and helmet, for her children’s book Let’s Pretend: Mae Dee and Family Join the Juneteenth Celebration. His portrait is also the one used as the center piece of the mosaic tile mural at the site of Austin’s African American Cultural Heritage Center, which is my ancestral home that I write about in my memoir.
Tretter: The portrait you paint of Austin in the 1970s and 1980s is quite different than the one presented in many accounts. Your account is noticeable for not mentioning the environmental politics, the city’s music scene, the exploding technology industrialization – Aside from a reference to your working in high-tech semiconductor company inside your prison compound. I am wondering if you have thought about the difference your story might have about what “Austin life” was like in the 1980s?
Hamilton: I was familiar with the idea that Austin had a music scene because my father was a jazz musician – he was a drummer and often played the nightclub scene with his band. I also remember the late 1980s when SXSW was still in its infancy because it was during this time that my older brother and I were hanging out on 6th St. during the weekends. I was still quite young during the 1980s, but I remember the era quite well because it was a part of my coming of age. South Congress, now called SoCo, during the 1980s was where the 11th St. pimps took their white prostitutes to work the stroll, and I remember always seeing news stories about Texas legislators getting busted in prostitution stings. Of course, these are stories of Austin’s subculture that I think most are either unaware of or would rather forget.
Tretter: When I was reading the book, I could not help but notice some similarities between your book and Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X. When I asked you if you had read that book, you mentioned to be that you had read the book before writing your autobiography. Did that book influence your own thoughts on your life in Austin? Did it impact the portrait you presented? I should say that in the paper I have written for this collection, I kept coming back to X’s figure of Detroit Red. For me, the black slacker X presents, stands in stark contrast to the slacker so venerated in Austin. I wondering if X’s portrayal of that hustler figure was influential in how you have come to understand your life as D-boy?
Hamilton: When I read Haley’s biography of Malcom X, I was 19, in the Travis Co. Jail awaiting trial and Spike Lee’s film Malcom X had just come out in theaters. I wasn’t that familiar with him at the time, or much of his background as a hustler. Upon reading further I was more inspired by his evolution and development while incarcerated, rather than his life of crime, simply because I had eyewitness accounts of pimps, hustlers, and players prior, during my youth. Also, I was already turned on to Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim’s, aka Robert Beck’s, fiction books about the inner-city subculture and lifestyle of pimps, hustlers, and con men, all of which are often referred to as “players.” My brother shared those books with me as he had discovered them during his brief incarceration periods in the late 1980s. I’d say it was him, his older peers in the streets, their stories and those books, that had more of an influence on me as a teenager prior to my incarceration.
Tretter: During the time period covered in the book black life in Austin was certainly at a nadir. Many people reading this, newcomers to Austin may not realize the impact of the crack epidemic on East Austin because the transformation of East Austin is stark. Moreover, it may not be apparent to newer people that have settled in East Austin how the changing nature of jobs in Austin did not really benefit non-whites. To give you an example, there was a booming housing market in Austin the 1980s, which completely missed East Austin. I am wondering if you could comment on your thoughts about these changes in the 1980’s and how much East Austin did not gain from Austin’s growth during the period.
Hamilton: Growing up east of I-35 during the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, eastside residential homeowners didn’t see hardly any appreciation in value for their property. When my parents went through their divorce in 1980, our home was appraised around $30,000, which was considered a median value and above the average price for most of the houses in the area. The eastside was always left behind, without much commercial investment, and so our home never appreciated much annually during those two-and-a-half decades. Living east of I-35 meant that you couldn’t even get a pizza delivered from nearby Mr. Gattis or Pizza Hut locations that were within a five-mile radius west, off the UT drag and W. MLK Blvd, due to the remnants of segregation and fear of crime. I remember in the early 1990s when the first Pizza Hut franchise opened in Eastland Plaza, off Oakwood Springs Dr and Airport Blvd, that would deliver in the area. Until this day, it’s still the only one in the area.
Tretter: The other significant factor that influenced the lives and livelihoods of non-whites in Austin in the 1980s was the outcome of its urban renewal’s schemes of the 1960s and 1970s. Few people might understand the extent that programs radical altered housing and life for non-white Austinites. In your book you do not mention these programs, but you describe the how the city’s urban renewal authority in the 1990s, then involved in large redevelopment project that exists along East 11th Street, took your house and land. I wondering if you can talk about what happened and what you learned? I also interested to know if encountered this earlier period of urban renewal in Austin? Finally, I should mention that you and I have been in the process of trying to reacquire the land that was seized from you. Had it been taken more recently; we would have been able to repurchase it. If you were able to get the land back now, what kind of use would you want to see on that site?
Hamilton: Now we get to the heart of the matter. I learned a lot about eminent domain or condemnation, as I discuss briefly in the chapter Vs. Eminent Domain of my memoir 25 Years Later. I was somewhat familiar with urban renewal because as a child when my father was alive, he was heavily involved in the community with different organizations and attended meetings that discussed plans for redevelopment in the 1980s. At one time he even worked for a real estate company before becoming a teacher. I remember him always talking about, “They’re coming, and they have to pay me relocation money for every tree, shrub, etc.” and that we were “sitting on a gold mine” because of its location and proximity to downtown and that the city couldn’t “grow anywhere else but east.” I now know exactly who “they” were/are, that he was speaking of, that being the city of Austin and the Urban Renewal Agency.
During the summer 2003, the city of Austin’s Urban Renewal Agency wrote us, my brother and I, a letter, stating that they wanted to appraise our property. They had already aggressively been buying up most of the parcels on blocks 17 and 18 on E 11th St., in 2002, and had already purchased the east and west neighboring, adjacent lots to ours. Once the appraisal offer was presented to us, it was very insulting, given the knowledge I already had about real estate values in Austin at the time. So I refused the offer, which was followed by take-it-or-leave-it letters and threats to file lawsuits if we didn’t take the offer. I then began internet searches for everything I could find about eminent domain and the condemnation process. I would also go to the public library and study everything I could find about real estate appraisals for residential and commercial property and the appraisal approaches used to determine value.
What I learned during the course of this was when an area has been deemed a “slum” and “blight” for approval to receive a HUD Urban Renewal Block Grant, the funds are supposed to be used for revitalization and public-use projects, like infrastructure to improve roads, utilities, schools, libraries, public agency offices, etc., not economic or commercial development. When the city acquires property with HUD dollars, they withhold the sales values from the market of realtors, and you must file an open-records request for that information. Also, the property sales values in that area cannot be used as real estate market comps to determine the value of your property. Therefore your property is treated as its own island, even if your next-door neighbor’s property sold for a million dollars or there’s a multimillion-dollar development across the street from you or a block away. In the free market those properties have a positive impact on the value of your property. However, in an area designated for urban renewal it’s as if those neighboring properties do not exist. These tactics are used to lowball and take advantage of private property owners because it places them at a disadvantage and presents challenges in finding comparable properties to assess valuation.
I consider these policies and practices contemporary tools and weapons, equivalent to the swords, gunpowder, and bullets used in the past to colonize and seize land from indigenous and marginalized communities. Historians call it Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, or “a good thing.” However, those impacted by it call urban renewal code for black and brown removal, and gentrification “domestic colonization.” Municipal governments throughout the country all too often succeed at this because marginalized communities don’t have the financial resources to fight legally and pay for counter appraisals to meet the burden of proof regarding the value of your property. Property owners who’re considered the condemnees are basically David v. a Goliath of resources and a team dedicated to achieving land grabs. Then people from those marginalized communities must relocate and start all over by looking for comparable housing, and sustain their livelihood while civil litigation is pending after the property has been taken by a municipality if they choose to appeal. In my case, and I’m sure countless others’, the public-use clause was abused as it was applied vaguely in definition by those who execute condemnation proceedings. For example, the city of Austin never had a site plan for the lot prior to, during, or after citing they needed our property for a public-use project. Upon questioning them during the hearing, nothing was ever produced, not even a report, blueprint, or rendering. Now, here we are 15 years later, and there isn’t a site plan or blueprints of a “public use project” from when you and I attempted to repurchase the property based on a Texas statute that the original owner has the right to repurchase and must be served notice to repurchase the property after 10 years, if/when no progress has been made. Amendments to the statute basically allow a municipality to take property based on the premise of a public-use project, and as long as that is/was stated as their intended purpose, the law allows them to hold the land as it appreciates in value, like a land bank, in perpetuity without any effort or elements toward progress on the project. This is the Austin that most folks and migrates loves, but who have no idea. This kind of history and storytelling about Austin isn’t widely published and discussed.
Darwin Hamilton is a fifth generation Austinite, and senior accountant, having served in state government for over two decades, a criminal justice activist, advocate, and author of his self-published his memoir 25 Years Later: A Sentence from Crime to Redemption, Resilience, Advocacy and Leadership. His op-eds have been published in the Austin American Statesman and by the ACLU of Texas. He’s a 2018 graduate of Leadership Austin – Essential program and JustLeadership USA (JLUSA) cohorts. His personal mission is to change criminal justice policies and practices and reduce the stigma of formerly incarcerated people. He does this through his own example, and through his inspiring and powerful story-telling. He serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors with Grassroots Leadership, Advisory Board member of Inside Literature and member of the Oversight Board of Travis County’s Public Defender Office.
Eliot Tretter is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Undergraduate Advisor of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary. He received his Doctorate from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and before coming to University of Calgary, he was a Lecturer for many years in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Tretter has written on a wide variety of subjects in urban geography, including housing, environmental racism, sustainability, smart cities, the knowledge economy, the political economy of culture, urban political ecology, and urban governance. His work has been published in urban studies and geography journals including Antipode, Society and Space, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and Urban Studies He is author of Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin, published by University of Georgia Press in 2016. His latest book project, tentatively titled Petrocity, explores the complex and contradictory effects of Canada’s hydrocarbon extraction on Calgary’s urbanization. He currently resides in Calgary and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland.