an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Thirty Years of Gentrification in Austin
The story of gentrification in Austin is as remarkable as it is tragic. Every day stories emerge about the torrential loss of significant cultural markers, from restaurants and bars to murals and specific businesses in East Austin, the neighborhood that housed much of Austin’s non-White minority community and their institutions for most of the 20th century. There are also countless stories about housing foreclosures and fire sales brought about by the increasing taxable value of the land and subsequent tax delinquency for many long-term, especially fixed-income, residents. Moreover, the outer edges of gentrification in Austin have expanded dramatically as an ever-growing number of neighborhoods have been swallowed up in the wake of wholesale redevelopment that has swept across the city in the last three decades.
In recent years scholarly work about gentrification in Austin has expanded with the same intensity as the phenomenon itself. Academic scholarship on gentrification in Austin extends back to the early 1980s, although the term “gentrification” is not used in this body of work. It is the explicit focus of a 1981 report from UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs on gentrification pressures on the Rainey Street neighborhood, which is sandwiched between the Central Business District, the Colorado River, and IH-35. Despite significant changes in the 1990s, surprisingly little has been written about gentrification in Austin, or more specifically, East Austin during that time. In fact, I only know of two works that specifically address gentrification: Bassuk (1996), an undergraduate Geography honors thesis, whose title includes the term “gentrification,” and Ward (1998), a Ph.D. dissertation in Geography that provides a rather critical assessment of federally backed community development block grants and shows how they drove gentrification.
The situation changed remarkably at the turn of this century—in the last 20 years there has been a substantial outpouring of scholarship on gentrification in Austin, too much to reference in this short article. Instead of indulging in a comprehensive overview of the literature, I want to single out two studies to suggest that this growing body of scholarship is primarily the result of the expansion and intensification of gentrification. In 2007, the LBJ School released a seminal report called “Community Change in East Austin” (Wilson, Rhodes, and Glickman 2007). Although the study was about gentrification, its authors pointedly, and somewhat awkwardly, refused to use the term. Nevertheless, the report is an important benchmark, especially when compared to the Rainey Street report published in 1981. Back then gentrification affected only a sliver of what is known as East Austin, but by 2007 the geographical scope had significantly broadened to include a group of neighborhoods the authors of the 2007 report called “Central East Austin.” More recently, UT’s Schools of Architecture and Law released a vast study of gentrification (Way, Mueller, and Wegmann (2018). The territory covered by this report is huge, encompassing what has come to be known as the city’s “eastern crescent,” “an area shaped like a backward letter ‘C’ that begins due north of downtown Austin just outside of U.S. Highway 183, and follows the highway as it heads southeast and then due south before bending to the southwest and mostly ending due south of downtown and Oltorf.” The report argues that today most of the population and the residences in the inner eastern area of the city are under enormous gentrification pressures.
The causes of this demographic-cum–racial and cultural transformation of East Austin are complex, but they are all connected to the fact that Austin has experienced almost three decades of unrivaled and unprecedented economic growth that has made the city a global lodestar. There is voluminous literature that looks at how the plight and future of these neighborhoods are connected to several elements of the city’s growth dynamics. A large strain of this literature has focused on how the City of Austin’s planning and design strategies have played a substantial role in the gentrification of East Austin (see Tretter 2016; Busch 2016). There has been special attention paid to the “unintended” consequences of city policies and programs that have promoted redevelopment of the city’s existing urbanized areas to draw newer development, especially residential development, away from its ballooning suburbs and satellite cities. There is also concern about how these policies have formed central elements of Austin’s growth strategy. Another strain of this literature focuses on the changing social composition of the labor force in the new information-knowledge economy and its reurbanization. Austin, Florida (2002) famously argued in the early 2000s, was an emerging hub of economic vitality in the new economy because it was a center of creativity, attracting new information-knowledge workers with a unique blend of what he called the 3Ts—technology, talent, and tolerance. Members of what Florida has called the “creative class”—creatives from Gen Xers to Millennials–are increasingly shaping the demographic and class changes in Austin, especially in East Austin.
Florida’s ideas about the creative class are part of a larger discussion about the rise of a segment of the professional middle class, their economic contributions, and their rejection of mainstream (bourgeois) values (Chiapello and Boltanski, 2011). The more bohemian sensibilities of the countercultural movement of the 1960s resonated with a large segment of this population, from technically skilled workers to cultural producers, what the Ehrenreichs termed the Professional-Managerial Class (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979). Some even suggest that the incorporation of irreverent ideas and practices saved capitalism from the economic crisis of the late 1960s. In a recent sketch of “four decades” of bohemianism in Austin, Long (2017), like Florida, describes Austin’s bohemianism as the creative fuel that has propelled the city’s astounding growth, and he argues these new “creatives,” often called “hipsters,” are the latest iteration of a tradition of Austin bohemianism. Earlier iterations of the Austin bohemian figure can be traced back to the city’s countercultural movement in the 1960s, culminating in the character of the Cosmic Cowboy, the “redneck-hippie,” personified, perhaps even ensouled, most famously by Willie Nelson (see Mellard 2013). Long (2017: 292) also notes the emergence of a new iteration of this bohemian figure in the late 1980s, “a new breed of Austin bohemian: the slacker.”
Long goes to on to suggest that what is so unsettling about the current bohemians is their geographies of settlement, that is “where” in Austin they are choosing to reside. Past bohemians, Long (2017: 289) argues, “found cheap housing in the mostly white, undervalued neighborhoods of a once sleepy college town, but the new bohemians are relegated to the recently integrated, gentrifying neighborhoods of Austin’s poorest minority districts.” While I do think Long is correct to think about the land conflicts in East Austin as the result of an expanding geography for Austin’s creatives, I want to dwell a bit on the figure of the Slacker, because I think the image of Austin since the 1990s as a hub of Slackerdom has sat comfortably with the removal of non-White people from the city. I suggest that Richard Linklater’s figure of the Slacker was not a victim of a transforming city but rather a willing participant in a socio-cultural transformation.
Slacker: Prefiguration of Austin’s Urban Change
In Mike Davis’ remarkable book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz, he suggests that portrayals of Los Angeles tend to fall into one of two genres: sunshine or noir. The former is a utopian vision that presents the city as prosperous, uplifting, and socially civil, the latter a dystopian portrait filled with desperation, depravity, and social unrest. Noir portrays an unsettling history of the region’s racism, spatial exclusion, social marginalization, and racial expulsion. Davis claims that despite the robust presence of noir found both in films and novels stretching back to the 1930s, the sunshine narrative remains the city’s dominant one. He claims: “Virtually alone among big American cities, Los Angeles still lacks – a scholarly municipal history – a void of research that has become the accomplice of cliché and illusion. … Los Angeles understands its past, instead, through a robust fiction called noir” (Davis 1992: 36).
Unlike Los Angeles, Austin has not developed significant film or literary scenes, although Austin did become identified in the 1990s as a center of independent cinema and a “hotbed of low-budget cinematic creativity” (Macor 2010, 140). There are no measures I could find detailing the economic impact of literature, but in 2010 the film industry in Austin was estimated to have the smallest economic impact of any part of Austin’s creative sector. Moreover, no genre through-line has emerged within Austin’s movies and literature, certainly nothing that has singularly shaped how people inside or outside Austin understand the city. Even Austin’s most-celebrated authors and directors, such as Billy Lee Brammer or Robert Rodriguez, do not write or make movies in which the city figures as a character in their work. Brammer’s The Gay Place, published in 1961 and arguably the most famous literary work about Austin, only loosely refers to the city. Rodriguez is also based in Austin. He has made and financed other movies, and along with Richard Linklater, he is largely responsible for seeding an inchoate local movie industry. Still, he has not made one cinematic portrait of the city and its life.
The singular exception might be Linklater and his portrait of Austin in his hit 1990 cult movie, Slacker. Importantly, although Slacker is only one of several movies that Linklater made in Austin—Dazed and Confused, Newton Boys, Waking Life, and Boyhood—the movie sets itself apart by making its central character, the Slacker, synonymous with Austin, even though it does not make explicit reference to the city. Rice (2012: 122) poignantly describes it this way:
[Slacker] follows a number of unnamed characters and their unrelated narratives around the streets, small stores, and public sites in Austin. Rather than telling the story of any particular character, Slacker actually tells the story of Austin and its one-time “slacker” culture of drifting, underachieving college-aged oddballs. The camera follows various people around the streets of central Austin, up and down the main streets, into local bookstores and coffee shops, through parks, and into small diners.
Slacker appears like a documentary whereby the viewer is led on a voyeuristic tour of a subcultural world, which is implied by the narrative devices and naturalistic filmic elements that sculpt the time and space of the movie and serve to heighten the importance of the cityscape’s role in the drama. The focus is neither on the scenes nor on the characters. No scene is longer than a few minutes, and every character who leaves the frame never returns. There are no protagonists, “there is no central conflict to be resolved, and no climactic turning point. Characters are not developed, and we witness no epiphanies” (Radwan, 1999: 40). Linklater also relies on naturalistic cinematography and a naturalistic screenplay. The cast consists almost entirely of amateur actors and non-actors, or “real people,” who Linklater found or already knew, like the editor of the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, Lewis Black. In the movie’s official screenplay, there is only a discussion of the location and “character types” for the movie’s 55 scenes. There is no “script” as such, which means that the movie’s circumlocutory dialogue is almost completely improvised and amateurish. Most of the film is shot outside in natural light, and the “neutral positing of figures within the frame” creates an “egalitarian” feeling among the characters and their surroundings (Radwan, 1999: 39). Finally, the city’s landscape is appropriated as the movie is set in a raw or unaltered state.
But who exactly is the Slacker? “People judge them [Slackers] as lazy,” Linklater said in an interview published in the Slacker book that came out after the movie’s success, “but actually they are aggressive nonparticipants in a society they don’t see much point in” (Linklater, 1992: 18). Linklater characterizes “the Slacker” as a wholly alienated person, one who is post-political (embodying the sense that no political party in the United States represents his/her interests), post-consumerist (living off consumer excess), post-work (unable or unwilling to seek full-time employment), and, most importantly, wholly embracing of “creative indolence” (Linklater, 1992 7).
Nevertheless, Linklater’s reflections about the Slacker as a literary figure are opaque. For sure, the Slacker is a kind of postmodern Bohemian, but there is more than the suggestion of a shared genealogy with the figure of the Flâneur, the casual urban wanderer of 19th-century European cities, and, in the case of the artist, the casual urban worker. Like the Flâneur, the Linklaterian Slacker is “idle” and “curious” (Seigel 1986: 29). He rejects the need to hold routine white-collar jobs, but he remains inside and disciplined by the markets where he sells his goods. He venerates the power of his art and desires “to smash the Industrial Revolution with a kind of creative indolence” (Smith 2008: 4). The Flâneur wandered the city and made the “new urban spectacle” the “raw material” of his art (Wilson 1992, 94). It became the source of his inspiration and stimulation. He turned loitering, the “aimless wandering through the city streets itself [into] a method of productive labor” (Buck-Moriss 1997: 185).
Yet there are significant differences between the Flâneur and the Slacker, especially in the habitus implied by Slacker’s dramaturgical structure. Firstly, there is widespread agreement that a distinguishing feature of the Flâneur was his immersion in the social life of the city and his participation in newly formed quasi-public spaces, the Arcades. Flâneurs needed the crowd because their persona came both from their public presentation—being seen, being consumed— and from their ability to consume public presentations, being able to see the city (Sennett: 213). Yet, Slacker is structured so that in many cases mostly solitary persons (or couples and small groups) run into each other on an otherwise mostly empty sidewalk, drawing that person or small group into some indoor (hence implicitly private) location, and then a solitary person (or less frequently a small group) wanders back out onto the sidewalk, until the sequence is repeated. Cumulatively, the effect is to suggest that there is not much of anything like a street life in Austin, and there are no scenes that take place in quasi-public spaces like, for example, shopping malls. Consequently, the need to be immersed in the crowd, with the prospect of a salutary dissolution of one’s subjectivity in the city’s public social life, which characterized the Flâneur’s voyeuristic adventures, is neither available to nor even desired by his latter-day Austin counterpart. The Slacker is not an “occupant and observer of the [quasi-] public sphere” (Wilson 93). Moreover, as Harvey (2006: 56) argues, the Flâneur could be “more than an aesthete, a wandering observer, he [could be] also purposive, seeking to unravel the mysteries of social relations and of the city.” In Slacker, the insinuation of the viewer into the city’s subcultural life does not provide critical social commentary. Yes, there are some politically charged vignettes, but nothing to suggest there are unapparent social forces shaping the conditions of the Slacker.
For Linklater, Slacker represented a “monologue from the margins,” but it is notable how few of the characters in Slacker are socially or culturally marginalized (Linklater, 1992: 4). Yes, women are more explicitly characterized as a part of the Slackerian world, unlike the Flâneur and their Flâneuse counterpart. There are, however, only two African American characters with speaking parts in the film. There is, in one scene, a vendor of black-power paraphernalia who only serves to amplify his foreignness in Slacker subculture. Moreover, among the few African Americans who appear in the film as background players, most are performing physical labor. The only visibly Hispanic character, a taxi driver, never speaks. In the singular reference to Austin’s East Side, there is a mention of somebody named “Chico,” who, another character claims, is interested in buying Madonna’s pap smear. Nobody is visibly Asian. It is not an overstatement to say that non-white people are largely omitted from Linklater’s portrait of Austin and its Slacker-scape.
African Americans and Hispanics have been a vibrant and significant part of Austin for the last 100 years. Their cultural contributions to the city have been significant, especially for the music scene. While the history of discrimination against them and segregation is well-known, in the 1980s non-whites would have been found throughout Austin’s physical and cultural landscape. To be sure, when Slacker was being conceived and filmed in the 1980s, the plight of the city’s communities of color had hit epidemic proportions as a result of a combination of disastrous urban renewal efforts originating in the 1970s, the crack scourge, and the transformation of the region’s labor market, which was becoming increasingly socially and technically stratified. Yet nothing in the film would even suggest that these kinds of people lived in Austin in large numbers.
Furthermore, I would point out that Linklater’s characterization of the Slacker is implicitly racialized. His vision of the Slacker as a rather non-threatening, pro-capitalist figure is not the only literary image of the Slacker that is available. Bryant (2003: 2), for instance, notes that there is another literary figure of the Slacker, especially among African Americans, the “surly Slacker”:
was the white man’s worst dream: the slave or (after Emancipation) the laborer who refused to knuckle under, who repeatedly ran away, who deliberately slowed down work, surreptitiously or openly throwing sand into the master’s machines. He was the out-of-control black man, the surly slacker, the belligerent troublemaker, and occasionally the killer of whites.
This is certainly not Linklater’s Slacker, who is nothing like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, the surly Slacker whose life-fortunes were always foreclosed because of his actual social marginality.
What becomes apparent is that for Linklater the Slacker is somebody made in his own image: a middle-class, college-educated White man. Linklater’s Slacker is someone who can take advantage of society’s excesses and the privilege of rejecting the norms of the dominant social order and still find a way to embrace his creative spirit productively and lucratively. Linklater brags about how he financed Slacker by maxing out his credit cards, so despite his social transgression he always remained creditworthy. He recounts with some pride how his success as a film-entrepreneur was born out of his “not buying” into mainstream society and foregoing formal training as a filmmaker (he did not attend film school). He discovered a way to access the University of Texas film facilities without paying tuition. Yet it is hard to see how these same opportunities would have been afforded to a surly Slacker like Bigger Thomas, who was never anything but uncreditworthy, always out of place in mainstream White society, and trapped by the misfortune of being non-White. For Linklater, the Slacker’s exit from society is always predicated on his ever-possible and, hopefully, profitable re-entry into the mainstream social order, a fortune that is always denied to the surly Slacker.
The Slacker Colonialist and Austin’s Expanding Geographies of Gentrification
In an interview several years after Slacker was released, Linklater said that he did not realize at the time that the movie was “documenting the end of something” (Quoted in Rice 2012: 122). He said he only came to realize later that he was recording the last days of a subculture in Austin, a subculture that was transformed by the 1990’s technology boom and the erosion of Austin’s low-cost lifestyle, especially the availability of cheap rent. Had Linklater filmed in Austin’s suburbs he would have seen the changes that were being wrought; instead, images of Austin’s pre-boom landscape are depicted strongly. Set almost entirely in a small section of the city around the University of Texas campus, the landscape presented in the film is dominated by worn-down single-family houses, empty lots, and aging warehouses. Despite Slacker’s limited geographical setting, both the movie and the figure of the Slacker became synecdochic of the city. For example, in 2005, Dan Halpern, then travel writer for the New York Times, called Austin “the laid-back slacker capital.”
It strikes me that nothing about Linklater’s Slackers is incompatible with the people who replaced them. Texas author James Haley, in his contribution to the Slacker book edited by Linklater, suggests that the original Slackers were none other than Texas’ settler colonists. For Haley, settler colonist figures like Stephen Austin, Davy Crockett, and Mirabeau Lamer represented an irreverent enterprising spirit not characterized by Max Weber’s ascetic capitalist. These settlers were Slackers because they rejected a set of dominant values and they were successful. They embodied an entrepreneurial spirit more akin to Florida’s creative nonconformists, whose ingenuity and rebelliousness is the basis for their wealth. In fact, there is at least one moment when Florida (2002: 183-184) effortlessly transubstantiates the spirit of the Creative into the body of a Slacker. Florida recounts meeting a man with “spiked multicolored hair, full-body tattoos, and multiple piercings,” who, the reader is told, is a “slacker … [who] inked the highest-paying deal of any graduating student in the history of his department [at Carnegie Mellon University].” The job this “Slacker” took was with the Austin-based software company Trilogy. Linklater laments the transformation of Austin, but it might be that the Slackers who were displaced by the Creatives may not have been enterprising enough—they were, unlike Linklater, simply Slackers who could not profitably return into the mainstream.
Of course, what Haley does not say is it that the wealth of Texas’ settler colonists came from the enslavement of African Americans, the expulsion of Mexicans, and a genocidal war fought to steal land and wealth from Texas’ Indigenous peoples (Anderson 2005). Instead he relies on and rehearses a colonialist trope, especially common in Texas, that these settlers were entitled to the lands because of their wit and intelligence, and that these territories were “manifestly destined” to be theirs. Here too, this narrative of the Slacker accords with a common understanding of the current dynamics of gentrification in Austin. Just as Texas’ (non-White) native population was displaced by the advance of the White settler colonists, in recent decades Austin’s (non-White) natives have been gradually removed from the city’s landscape as its Slackers-cum-Creatives move east. For instance, this figuration is evident in recent commentary by Michael Hall (2016), a self-proclaimed, although former, “Slacker.” Hall envisions Austin’s essence as embodied in the city as the “slacker village” and he laments the loss of the Slacker, its replacement by the new Creative, and the effects of gentrification on Austin’s “East Side.” Yet, he also resettles these colonial iconographies and dismisses the opposition to these changes. In one passage, he claims, “Has Austin lost its soul? A lot of people think so, though they’ve been saying that since the settlers displaced the Comanches and Apaches. It’s hard to evolve, even as your city does.” Here, Hall repeats a common colonial theme: resistance to these changes as ineffectual, as backward looking. Implicitly he is drawing a line between Austin’s non-White “natives” and Native Americans and making the removal of the latter just as inevitable as the former. Yes, tributes to the presence of Austin’s “natives” will remain, but only as physical monuments or toponyms that dot the geography, attesting to their previous occupation of the land. But they will be largely written out of its future history by the advancing spirit of Slacker-cum-Creatives, and these new settlers will continue to enjoy fortunes that recall those of their colonialist predecessors, and at a similar cost.
Although the trope of colonialism figures strongly in recent representations of gentrification in Austin, a connection between these two has recently been observed in other cities (Safransky 2014). In Austin newspapers one reads about East Austin’s creative pioneers; there was even an article on real estate in the Austin Business Journal, boldly titled “Go East, Young Man,” describing how Austin’s best real estate deals can now be found in East Austin. In these articles, there are echoes of what Smith (1996: 11) suggested more than 20 years ago:
The social meaning of gentrification is increasingly constructed through the vocabulary of the frontier myth, and at first glance this appropriation of language and landscape might seem simply playful, innocent. Newspapers habitually extol the courage of urban “homesteaders,” the adventurous spirit and rugged individualism of the new settlers, brave “urban pioneers,” presumably going where … no (white) man has ever gone before.
Still, as I have been arguing, in Austin there is something unique about the coupling of colonialism and the figure of the Slacker. What I want to stress is how much the Slacker is raced, how much it is classed, how much it is tethered to a settler colonial imagination. It is for this reason, I believe, that despite repeated claims that the Austin Slacker is dead, its corpse continues to be reincarnated to explain, and excuse, how Austin’s landscape has been remade and for whose benefit.
Contrary to those who mourn the death of Austin’s Slacker, I would argue the time has come for the figure’s dominancy to end. It should perish. It is too moored by Austin’s racial legacies and too complicit in Austin’s gentrification. It also serves a fatalism that holds that nothing can be done to make Austin’s future different. I do not know what figure will replace the Slacker, but I am certain the Slacker should no longer be pined for or resurrected. Instead, Austinites must find and create new symbols that reorient the Austin’s imaginations to new and different urban futures that are a more inclusive and more equitable.
Official Trailer Slacker
1990 – The Year Richard Linklater’s SLACKER Broke
Austin Film Society
Richard Linklater’s film SLACKER, made in Austin on a minuscule budget with a huge cast of local performers, is bound to be on anyone’s short list of most important Texas films, and is certainly the most Austin of all Austin movies. It was a national breakout hit – as these things go – and quite literally changed the national cultural dialogue in a lot of ways both substantial and trivial after it was released by Orion Classics in 1991. But, and this is the part of the story you may not have heard before, it almost never broke nationally. Only a few festivals accepted it, distributors didn’t think they could promote it, and, as you will hear him say in the new video that follows, he had downsized his expectations considerably, and was ready to execute a fallback plan of selling VHS tapes of SLACKER “in the back of Film Threat magazine.” But he wasn’t done yet. In the absence of national distribution, he took the movie to Scott Dinger, owner and manager of the Dobie Theater on the edge of the University Of Texas campus. Dinger agreed to play the film a couple of times a day and it became a sensation, selling out dozens of shows in the 200 seat auditorium. The secret, other than the high quality of the film, was the promotional efforts that Linklater and his cohorts made – inspired by several years of promoting film screenings for the Austin Film Society, which Linklater founded in 1985. At the same time, John Pierson, the producers’ representative who was shopping the film, was making headway in convincing the heads of Orion Classics that the film could find an audience, with the box office totals from the Dobie run as a convincing piece of evidence. The deal was done, and the rest is history. Here is a new, original video about the events of 1990 featuring interviews with Linklater, Dinger, and writer Alison Macor, whose 2010 book Chainsaws, Slackers, And Spy Kids covers the whole story as part of an overview of 30 years of Austin film history. Special thanks to the RICHARD LINKLATER: DREAM IS DESTINY filmmakers for originally finding much of the b-roll footage and photographs here. Enjoy.
Acknowledgements: I liked to thank Francois Cody, Mazen Labban, and Douglas Robertson for comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper.
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 UofC, he was a Lecturer for many years in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.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.
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