For more than 50 years, East Austin was a neighborhood, home to the overwhelming majority of Austin’s African American and Latino families. Schools, community newspaper offices, barbecue and taco joints, beauty and barber shops, clubs, Mexican restaurants and storefronts that sold everything from hair supplies to groceries, filled out neighborhoods with brick and wood-frame homes, libraries, public housing and shot-gun shacks. And goodness knows, there were churches on nearly every other corner.
East Austin had its problems with crack houses, drug markets and other crime as the city and police department looked the other way and steered resources west to prevent crime and vice from crossing Interstate 35. Nonetheless East Austin was home to vibrant neighborhoods with people who looked out for one another, held block parties and crowded into churches and parks on weekends.
I know because I moved there in the late 1980s as a single parent with my children. Though I have moved north, I still attend church in East Austin.
But you wouldn’t know that East Austin, given the description in a advertorial neighborhood profile appearing in the Homes supplemental advertising sections in Sunday’s print Austin American-Statesman:
“A decade ago Austinites would rarely dare to venture to the east side of the I H 35 corridor. Though the city has never been home to truly seedy or sinister areas, going east of the highway prior to the mass gentrification of downtown was not advised. However, now that the neighborhood has been purchased by California investors and trendy millennial homeowners, East Downtown is one of the city’s most desirable locales.”With that, another knife was plunged into an open wound. It’s no wonder social media blew up with criticism:
“Dear Austin American-Statesman: You need to do A LOT better than this. I know you’ve had staff reductions but surely someone there knows that following the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, by law Blacks and Mexican-Americans were forced east across what is now the I-35 corridor. There have been families and businesses there long before it was “East Downtown.”That was posted by A.J. Bingham, founder and principal at The Bingham Group, an Austin-based government and public affairs consultancy.
Such advertorial or “content marketing” articles are commonly published by newspapers in advertising supplements such as the Statesman’s Homes section. In some cases, the articles are paid by a specific advertiser, such as by a subdivision looking to sell homes. In this case, it was one of a series of neighborhood profiles in the Homes section and not tied to a specific advertiser. To keep the editorial and advertising efforts independent, advertising supplements are run by the advertising department, while news and editorial coverage is handled by the editors and reporters in the newsroom.
Regardless of how it came to be, the newspaper apologized for the article via social media on Saturday night and in print on Monday.
I can’t speak to the creation of this particular advertorial, but I can speak to why such words cut so deep.
It starts with understanding the city’s history and its part in displacing people of color with policies, such as the city’s infamous 1928 zoning initiative referenced by Bingham that moved African Americans out of neighborhoods, such as Bouldin Creek, Wheatsville and Clarksville, as well as the Sixth Street business district by essentially forcing them to move east of I-35, mostly north of Lady Bird Lake.
That was enforced by denying black people city services, such as utilities, unless they lived in East Austin, and imposing restrictive covenants to ban them from other neighborhoods.
Redlining and other similar discriminatory policies also led to barrios for Hispanic families.
In the past two decades as Austin’s growth exploded, East Austin suddenly became valuable real estate because of its proximity to downtown, walking distance to the Capitol, downtown hotels, bars, shops and businesses.
So the city and its powerbrokers, helped by local and out-of-state developers, turned their sights on East Austin, moving swiftly to buy out landowners and build new houses, businesses and condos, forcing out out many longtime residents who could no longer afford skyrocketing property taxes.
Many properties that owed back taxes were sold on the courthouse steps for far less than their market value. Other homeowners, unknowing of the city’s and developers’ plan to create “East Downtown,” sold out — tired of living in an area neglected by the city, Austin school district and business leaders. In selling out, they aimed to give their families a better life in neighborhoods with better schools, parks and city services.
Ironically, the old Johnston High School campus, now Eastside Memorial High School, a predominantly Hispanic and low-income school, is slated to house the mostly white and affluent Liberal Arts and Science Academy if the school district’s $1.04 billion bond election is approved by voters in November.
Gentrification — or the second mass displacement of Austin’s people of color — has been in full swing for about two decades with much success. Many community leaders now are trying to save what little they can of East Austin as mass media continue to erase and rewrite the history of Austin’s black and Hispanic residents.
The Statesman’s advertorial inflamed those conflicts and deepened the hurt of people facing a white-out of their culture and history in this city.
And for the record, it’s not “East Downtown” or “The East End.” It’s East Austin.