Twelve years ago in the city of Austin, there was a new development up in North Austin that was going to house tech companies, luxury goods, and people who worked in the former and could afford the latter. The land was mostly vacant, and it stood on a highway island in proximity to a mixture of housing and businesses. Austin had developed another parcel of land in the middle of the city before, and it had proven to be an asset to the neighborhood around it due to the elimination of abandoned land in the middle of the city (supposed deterrent to delinquency). The previous development was called “The Triangle,” so named because of the shape of the development; this new development would be called “The Domain.” Both of these developments were in predominantly White areas in Austin, and both of those areas remain predominantly White to this day.
This year, “The Domain” is coming to South Austin in the form of “Domain Riverside,” but things are a little different. Most of the residents are not White, and while there are several businesses, many of the business owners are not White, either. The area chosen to be developed is near a highway, but for the most part, it occurs on a busy street which is often blocked by traffic during the commuting hours. However, the most important aspect of this area is that it is not abandoned, not even close. Not too long ago, the tech company Oracle was given tax abatement to build its campus off the lake in the middle of town, and developers began surrounding the campus with luxury development. Nobody wanted Oracle to be located in this neighborhood because of what it would mean for the community, and the people were right. Like the days of urban renewal, the real estate industry is coming to displace communities of color in the name of “progress.”
When a neighborhood being developed is full of White faces in Austin, there is extensive engagement and not just the residents are involved. The city staff and government remain in heavy dialogue so as not to disturb the ethos of the community. Most of the building is planned so that people are unable to see the working class, just like the bus depot at Domain North is almost completely separated from any of the stores and housing. Above all, the message sent to the constituents from both the city and the developers is that the development will not happen if the neighbors are disturbed by anything other than traffic. There may be some light tension, but the slight ripple usually smooths out into an asset for the people who still live in the area.
Neighborhoods of Black and brown people have a completely different experience as has been documented with Decipher City as well as activists and scholars all over the world. Despite any community organizing, there is little engagement from the local government because by the time the community knows about the plans, the local government has decided for them. Based on the previous results and effects, no one appears to care that the transit-accessible area is already enjoys a multiracial and mixed income population, or that the homeless population lives in equilibrium with the people in the surrounding housing. Domain Riverside will serve as the broom to sweep out the working classes and “reclaim the land” for those who can truly “appreciate” their location. To add insult to injury, property taxes and rental rates will increase because of the “enhancement” to the community.
When looking at the history of urban renewal in Austin–one of the most traumatic upsets to the built environment to the Black and brown communities during the 1960s–the reasoning was the clearance of “slum” and “blight.” In theory, the city was looking to make an area more attractive, which is why the city repeated the process in 1999 to East 11th and 12th Streets near downtown. Those who lived in those areas understood “urban renewal” to be a racist displacement policy. On paper, the city looked down its nose and snidely stated that the area was a desired development zone and that the rest of the city should be protected because of the Edwards Aquifer.
Domain Riverside is so offensive to the residents not just because they are being forced to make more money or move, but because all the developers had to do was apply. The developers felt no need to spend actual time in the area and understand the ecosystem that existed, so there was no reasoning and technically nothing wrong with the neighborhood. They have no knowledge of how the buses mean that people can afford to easily live without cars, or that the ethnic businesses and markets are accessible and affordable–and serve the needs of the residents. No, all they saw were dirty homeless people and cheap, unnecessary businesses, and in their minds the area was ripe for the taking. People were for The Domain but against the subsidies, which made sense because no one would want rent or property taxes to be raised to fund a developer. So many people were against Domain Riverside, but just like all of the urban renewal and displacement schemes of old, the city showed the Black and brown people that it had already made up its mind.