Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gentrification and Weirdness in Austin

There are many blue college towns in mostly red states, but people in Austin are particularly aware of their plight. In the 2004 election, Travis County was one of a handful in Texas that Kerry carried. The city’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird,” is partially a commentary on the perceived homogeneity of the rest of the state, while also referring to the city’s status as a center for hippies, alternative country music, and racial openness during the sixties and seventies.

In 1984, Michael Dell began selling computers out of the Dobie Center, UT’s skyscraper dormitory that looks as if it belongs on the set of Blade Runner. Nine years later, he moved the company to Round Rock, a northern suburb, where it matured into one of the largest corporations in America.

Austin has experienced enormous growth since Dell expanded the city’s economy beyond the administrative and academic spheres. Austin is not a town with a rich legacy of historical architecture, but even so, the proliferation of one-story houses in sprawling suburbs is remarkable. The city has made some sustained attempts to foster tighter development, including preserving the marvelous riverside Zilker Park and, more recently, building a light rail line between the northern suburbs and downtown, but opposition to zoning is so vehement that development continues apace. The most rampant construction has occurred to the west of the city, in the Hill Country, where views and lake access have drawn many of Austin’s wealthiest citizens. Meanwhile, on the East Side, in a geographic region known as the Blackland Prairie due to its rich soil, property values have until recently stayed quite low, despite the excellent access to downtown. The inhabitants were mainly black and Latino.

City-wide property values rose so high, however (housing prices have fallen less in Austin than in most cities; there is little evidence of recession here), that some affluent Austinites, especially those with a taste for the urban and hip, began pushing into new real estate territory. Their energy is transforming the city. A bevy of new condominiums, as tall as anything on the skyline, have ascended over the past two years, leading locals to quip that the town bird is “the crane.” They are thickest in an area near the river known as the Warehouse District, which has outlived its appellation and centers on a cluster of new retail developments, including the headquarters of Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, the East Side is transforming, lot by lot, into a center for contemporary architecture. Dusty old Victorian shacks sit across the street from plastic and glass cubist creations. While the money that has moved into the downtown condos is ostentatious, the East Side has acquired a hipster veneer. Tattooed bicyclists wait in line at East Side Pies, while old black folks eat barbecue in the shade outside Louie’s on MLK.

These two new housing trends have caused quite a bit of consternation among native Austinites. Concentrated housing is demonstrably healthy for so sprawled and parched a city, but on the other hand, the locals like their yards, and they resent the nouveau-riche atmosphere around the condos. On the East Side, things are uglier due to the racial and class nature of the competition. A number of graffiti have appeared, warning yuppie whites to keep out, but migration has not been staunched. The new light rail, which was built on an existing right-of-way, actually travels through the East Side, oddly missing such obvious destinations as the University due to its eastern arc. It is, however, attracting new development to the East Side, as new condo complexes, with their signature New Urbanist combination of commercial and residential space, are springing up around stations such as the rather conscientiously named Saltillo Plaza.

It has been intriguing to watch white Austinites, usually a very proud species, struggle to reconcile the tensions between their liberal impulses toward environmentalism, multiculturalism, and fairness that are, in this instance, competing. My own feelings are that while gentrification is causing a great deal of disruption on the East Side, it benefits those locals who are willing to sell out, since the property values are now so high. Austin is a surprisingly segregated city, and the mixing that is going on among blacks, whites, and Latinos, is probably a good thing, though it may be short-lived. Change is inevitable; stasis is impossible, though that does not condemn the East Side to becoming an enclave for the rich and hip.

In any case, Austin may have been “weird” back before Michael Dell got started in Dobie, but these days, it faces the same raft of challenges as all other western American cities that are coming of age. Last November, Obama managed to capture Harris (home to Houston) and Dallas Counties, as well as a wide swathe of counties in the Rio Grande Valley, but Austinites almost seemed miffed that the blue of Travis County was not alone in a sea of red.

1 comment:

Ari said...

Uh, Kerry carried several heavily Hispanic counties down South.