Gentrification has been in the news a lot in Austin lately. The Jumpolin saga touched a lot of nerves, and then there was the report that ranked Austin as the most economically segregated city in the nation. Just yesterday, a number of businesses in East Austin woke up to find some pretty nasty stickers affixed to their shop windows.
I’ve lived in Austin for 12 years, and the gentrification of the East Side has been part of the Austin conversation the entire time I’ve lived here. On some level, I get why people are upset about it. What I don’t get, though, is why West Austin is–and as far as I can tell, always has been–missing from that conversation.
Let’s look at that economic segregation report. If you actually read the report, you’ll find this nice little nugget:
Economic segregation is driven by the choices made by more advantaged groups. The creative class is more segregated than either the working class or service class. College grads are more segregated than those who did not finish high school. The wealthy are more segregated than the poor—indeed they are the most segregated of all groups, and by a considerable margin.
In other words, Austin’s Economic segregation can be attributed to the rich choosing to live in areas where they will be surrounded exclusively by other rich people. You can see this really clearly by looking at a map of Austin, broken down by median family income.
You see the big swath of dark blue? That is where the rich people live. They live there in neighborhoods that are frequently gated and at the end of long private drives. They live there in neighborhoods that are entirely inaccessible by transit, so if you are employed as one of the help, you’d better be making enough to have a car of your own.
Of course, the wealthy have lived apart from the rest of the city in West Austin for a long time, dating back at least to the ’20s. It’s a little-discussed fact that Clarksville (where the present median list price for a home is $1.23M) was a historically black neighborhood, founded by a freed slave. At least, that’s what it was until the city forcibly removed all people of color from that area as best they could. At the same time, neighborhoods like Hyde Park were developed that explicitly excluded people of color.
Austin isn’t at all unique in having a chapter like this in its history–in fact, nearly every US city has some dark race-related policy in its archives somewhere. But I’m bringing this up because those neighborhoods that were forcibly made into all-white, all-wealthy parts of town still very much are. It seems as though this fact is so deep in the background of our city’s understanding of itself that we pretty much take it for granted. In all the raging against the way the East Side has been changing, there’s been little to no mention of the neighborhoods that East Side residents were intentionally excluded from in the first place.
Meanwhile, residents of those wealthy neighborhoods continue to organize and agitate for the right to make their neighborhoods more exclusive. They’ve pretty successfully stymied development, fought affordable housing in their areas, and put gates on public streets. Each of these efforts is made for some sort of theoretically valid reason (cut-through traffic, losing neighborhood “character”), and is frequently cloaked in social-justice like language, but the end result is to make the wealthier parts of town more off-limits to everyone else.
So when people like PODER protest the gentrification of East Austin, I certainly get it. In the rising real estate values of their neighborhoods they see another Clarksville brewing. Not to mention the fact that their neighborhoods are filling up with hipsters, and that’s got to be annoying. But to focus exclusively on the East Side is to miss at least half the picture.