Downtown Austin, as seen from the city's impoverished east side. Photo by Gina Pina
More than Savannah, Athens, Atlanta, or New Orleans, Austin has earned a reputation as the only salvaged city in the South. That’s the memo delivered to Northern creative types: Skip the stifling humidity of Houston and the oil-money skyscrapers of Dallas, and only drive to San Antonio if you want to watch basketball games—Austin has the bands, the interior Mexican food, the international music and film festival, and it’s bursting at the seams with starry-eyed newcomers hoping to make their way. I was looking forward to all this when I landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport four years ago. I was belatedly off to college, and Austin had always seemed pretty cool from afar. The promises were simple: a growing city with a fertile scene. Austin never lied about those, but it became clear after a while that I wasn't asking the right questions.
One look at the census tracts makes it clear, as does I-35, the grey line splitting the uber-wealthy west side from the impoverished east side. According to the Atlantic, Austin stands as the tenth-most segregated metro area in the entire country. For all of its desire to be removed from the rest of Texas, Austin is in familiar company here. (Some of the other cities in the top ten are San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.)
I remember exactly when I first noticed it: my first year in town, wandering around the heart of the city, unwittingly crossing through Red River and Sixth Street. It was an immediate shift. Property value sank, and the sidewalks were now populated entirely with black and brown faces. Casting my gaze back west and seeing all that pallid skin bumbling around in merry debauchery, participating in all those Austin promises, made me feel a little guilty. At that moment it was clear that Austin had some unfortunate secrets, because no matter how liberal or progressive your reputation might be, a history of segregation will always rear its ugly head.
“The first city plan that Austin leaders came up with was designed to be segregated, but they couldn’t legally write that into effect,” says Andrew Busch, a visiting assistant professor at Miami University who wrote his dissertation on the history of segregation in Austin. “The city was built to be separate but equal under Jim Crow. Parks were built for African Americans, and parks for whites and Latino schools were placed in very specific parts of the city. In 1930 you’d see African Americans scattered all over the city, but ten years later they were all on the east side. Then, in the early 60s, the city built I-35 right through the divided area.”
The highway still stands. Jutting across the edge of downtown, a manmade dividing line establishes where “Austin” ends and Austin starts. The city didn’t just refuse to integrate; it built a massive concrete barrier to remind minorities where they belong.
“Austin is one of the only cities I know that has a higher population of African Americans in the suburbs than in the city,” continues Busch. “The racial and economic geography is inverted. In most cities, you have a downtown with a lot of money, and then some areas around that that are bad, and surrounding that are the suburbs that are wealthier and whiter. It’s the total opposite in Austin.”
Right now, Austin stands as the only fast-growing city in the country that’s actually losing people of color. The schools remain segregated by the same designer gerrymandering that split Austin apart at its inception. It’s night and day. West Austin and East Austin. “People are interested in conversations about testing, they’re interested in conversations about accountability, but as soon as you bring up the idea of white kids, brown kids, black kids, and kids of different background going to school together, you’re going to hear crickets in the room,” said University of Texas education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, who completed a study showing that Jim Crow–era segregation persists in Texas.
Every conversation I’ve had about Austin with outsiders has been punctuated with positivity. We are the ideal. Everyone has heard cool things. Everyone is planning a trip to SXSW next year. The culture has done an excellent job of propping up the mirage. Your first trip through “Austin” will take you through about 40 streets. You’ll see exciting people in action and freshly painted concept restaurants on every corner. You’ll see a parade of tattoos and $12 sandwiches. If you’re lucky, you might even get to visit the gentrified parts of the east side, dine in WuWu Sushi, or buy beer from the Quickie Pickie. You’ll see the new condos molded in young concrete and stand in the shadow they cast over El Taquito on Riverside. You may not see a single one of the Latinos that reside within its borders, although they make up 35 percent of the population. Austin will do anything to make you believe in its promise, even if it must feast on its own.
But how can we posture ourselves as an exception when we know what’s happening outside our windows? There seems to be a perception in the Austin community that because we have rock clubs we’re immune from societal ills. In the face of the numbers, Austin falls right back in line: a rich Texas town that holds on to its whiteness for dear life.
Austin incentivizes the rebranding of its slums, pushing people farther out into hill country to make room for incoming tech companies. We all know this; it’s an open secret. But rent is cheap, and the vibes are chill. It’s hard to feel like a bad guy when you’re just looking out for yourself. Gentrification tastes good. It’s certainly not unique to Austin, either—plenty of cities have done their best to keep the races separate, but there’s only one whose cultural motto is a demand to keep the city weird.
“Keep Austin Weird.” That’s the ever-present, often parodied motto. You’ll find some version of those words in every yuppie café within the borders: “Keep Austin Local,” “Keep Austin Wired,” “Don’t Dallas My Austin.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it says something about the way we perceive ourselves.
There’s a belief among Austinites that our city needs to resist outside pressure, and that we’re the ideal. Nothing needs fixing beyond the traffic on MoPac.
The pride of that mindset is poisonous. Someday, Austin will need to realize that not everything is OK.
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