Revitalization vs Gentrification, Part 1

East Austin IS Changing – But Who’s Gonna Benefit?

I was not born in East Austin, just like many other Black Americans who now call the Greater Austin area home. I have been here some 19 years, and though more Blacks live outside of East Austin than within – by an ever-growing margin, only a fool fails to recognize the major roots of the Austin Black community are in East Austin. It continues to be the focal point of Black politics. Black church life, Black heritage, and Black culture are, to a large degree, based on the east side. What this means (your personal position on Austin’s African-American lifestyle-o-meter notwithstanding), is East Austin’s stability, and virility – it’s positive growth – continues to be important to the health of the African American community at-large.

African Americans settled in parts of East Austin just after the Civil War. Those brave souls weathered hate-filled and oppressive times for many, many decades, but still somehow built a thriving and vibrant community. What a testimony to the strength and resilience of our people! This current generation, however, has witnessed the weakening of the community and, though outside forces have played a part in its downfall, primary responsibility is our own, personally and corporally. Property and lives have caved in to spiritual deterioration, to low self-esteem, and to drug and alcohol addiction. Apathy, fear, and lack of understanding have also been our bedmates.

Though most of her residents have stayed true to right living, have worked hard, and strived to maintain their property, all have been affected by the lack of resources, the dearth of enough true leadership, and the moral failure around them. The very heart of the neighborhood has been tested, and the consequent lack of commercial vitality in the community is but one by-product.

For the past several years, great changes have been taking place on Austin’s east side. Community leaders and neighborhood groups have mounted a diligent campaign to revitalize East Austin and re-empower her. Like the mythical Phoenix, the Eastside seems to be rising from the proverbial ashes, and is beginning to show signs of a new vitality and sophistication.

On 11th street, state-of-the-art buildings are replacing the hulled-out ruins of a bygone era. Mainstream restaurants and stores infuse Airport Blvd. with new commercial life. New homes and renovations replace ex-crack houses, and small apartment buildings and 4-plexes are being erected on many streets – from Comal on out to Webberville Rd. There are new people, too. Faces never before seen are now present every day. New neighbors bring friends and relatives and restaurants and bars and lifestyles different from the East Austin of old. Certainly, none of this is wrong – in fact there is a certain wonder and a fundamental beauty to much of what is occurring. But all the beauty is not of the innocent variety, and all of the new, pretty things are not necessarily designed to enhance the lives of the current residents.

Revitalization, in its purest form, refers to a process in which there is a “giving life back to”, or “stimulating the life of”, an existing body. As a socio-economic term, and as it relates to East Austin, it has to do more with the building up of the existing neighborhood in order to enrich the lives of the people who currently reside there. It is NOT the improvement of the houses, roads, businesses, and amenities of a region with the intention of making it aesthetically pleasing or financially profitable for others (i.e. new residents, new land owners, and financial speculators). When improvement is made to an economically impoverished area by a wealthier group of outsiders, and the first focus is not to better the lives of the downtrodden or current population, but instead to increase the financial holdings of this outside group, it is not classical revitalization – it is gentrification.

Those “in the know” already recognize East Austin’s advantageous proximity to downtown Austin – a few blocks to only a few miles away. (…and with little to no traffic!) Most do not know East Austin remains, and is now being exploited as, a most cost-effective area for real estate development. Initial cost for land versus profit potential makes the Eastside even most desirable, indeed. Where these and other factors exist, attempts at gentrification are inevitable. We are, after all, a capitalistic society. In Old English society, the gentry would seize the land of peasants or buy it “for cheap”, improve it, and rent it out to tenant farmers, or sell it for a great profit. They were not as rich as the nobles of the land, but they had money and power, and would not hesitate to prey upon those less fortunate, for their own personal gain. It was no concern of theirs if the former residents or owners were displaced or suffered great loss.

East Austin must beware of gentrification operating under the guise of revitalization.

There has been, particularly of late, a great call to action and a gathering of minds. African American committees are collecting data and drawing up proposals to share with city leaders. Town meetings are being held, and those in attendance have been invited to share their insight for inclusion in these proposals. It is a wonderful thing to see.

“Mo” money is coming. Money to improve the overall quality of life for Blacks in Austin. Finances to correct some of the wrongs – to rectify some of our ills. Funds to revitalize East Austin. As these needed dollars pour in; as both the topography and the socio-psychology of East Austin changes, let us pay attention to who is spending money on whom, on what – and why. If we are not diligent, we may find ourselves living in – or being forced to vacate – another man’s East Austin in just a few short years.

May the leaders of the African American East Austin community have the wisdom, the integrity, and the boldness to properly oversee the ongoing revitalization process and well navigate the changing East Austin landscape. If they do not – we all will be somewhat diminished.

Copyright 2005 Brian K Burns All Rights Reserved