College of Liberal Arts

Long-term Residents of East Austin Report Loss of Community Amid Gentrification

Wed, Mar 7, 2018
"Rhapsody," pays homage to the longstanding African American institutions and community buildings of East 11th Street, which was once Austin's jazz and blues mecca. Image by Wally Gobetz.

Those who have withstood the test of gentrification to East Austin’s historically black neighborhoods hold overall negative views of the changes they believe disrupted the area’s sense of community, according to urban policy researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. 

As previously reported by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis (IUPRA), Austin was the only fast-growing major city in the United States to show a decline in African Americans between 2000 and 2010. The reason: Rapid gentrification to Austin’s former “Negro District” — established through Jim Crow in 1928 — priced out long-term residents, uprooting and displacing them to the surrounding, more affordable suburbs. 

Within the decade, East Austin’s white population increased by 442 percent, the black population decreased by 66 percent and the Latino population decreased by 33 percent.

“African Americans who were previously so singularly confined to East Austin became singularly displaced by gentrification,” said IUPRA researcher Eric Tang, UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies. “Few people have been able to hang on, and they aren’t hanging on because the changes are beneficial. Rather, they’re hanging on because they feel a responsibility to black and brown East Austin — a right to the city.”

Tang and Bisola Falola, an East Avenue researcher and UT Austin geography and the environment alumna, interviewed long-term East Austin residents who chose to stay, finding that 74 percent held negative views of the rapid change taking place around them. While nearly all (93 percent) voiced concerns about raising property taxes, respondents felt change had delivered its deepest blow to their sense of community.

Perhaps most telling of that was the decline in the number of children, a group that once accounted for 30 percent of the neighborhoods’ population and now makes up less than 12 percent. As gentrification began, families were the first to leave, seeking economic relief and better schools, researchers said. In their place, passers-by walk their dogs where children once played, engaging with their pets more than with their neighbors, as some respondents pointed out. 

“A true metric of gentrification is the loss of children,” said Tang. “Children are the glue or the common thread that hold a community together, bringing vibrancy and visibility to the neighborhood. The loss of children took away a sense of community that was once at the heart of black East Austin.”

Respondents reported feeling left alone and left out of decisions to “improve” their neighborhood, with 93 percent indicating they did not patronize new restaurants in the area because they were either uninterested or felt unwelcomed.

“Changes are happening to them, not with them,” Tang said, adding that some residents reported feeling as if their new neighbors would rather they just disappear. In fact, more than 70 percent of respondents said they had been routinely asked to sell their homes by prospective buyers — citing the offers as aggressive and insultingly low compared with market value.

“East Austin has been resilient through segregation, civil rights, desegregation, urban renewal, the drug epidemics of the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the re-zoning and re-development of downtown,” Tang said. “The people who stayed reflect that very sense of resilience that once encompassed all of black East Austin. As a city, we should be doing more to address these issues of race and culture that profoundly and disproportionately impact our whole community.”

This is the latest in a series of three IUPRA reports on the impact of gentrification in Austin: “Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population,” published in 2014; “Those Who Left: Austin’s Declining African American Population,” published in 2016; and finally, “Those Who Stayed: The Impact of Gentrification on Longstanding Residents of East Austin,” published March 2018.

IUPRA is one of three units that comprise black studies at UT Austin. Developed in 2011 through the collaboration of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, the John Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies and the College of Liberal Arts, IUPRA was seen as an important method for understanding the impact of public policies on African Americans and other communities of color throughout the Diaspora. 

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