Steve Adler has been in a lot of recent trouble with his public reputation. After signing a pledge for racial equity, Austin has become more segregated, with a rising cost of living. The death of Garrett Foster brought a reckoning of policing in the supposedly liberal city. Finally, during the next surge of a global pandemic—and after Austin posted almost 14,000 cases in a single day—Adler cautioned people to stay home while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas. One of the most profound errors that is made in combating racism within the built environment is lying about current systems that perpetuate racism. People love to mention Jim Crow and colonization, largely because most of the authorities of that era are dead. Very few people talk about how segregation is maintained, because just like Adler’s hypocrisy towards a public health crisis, too many people want to say, “It was them, not me.”
The most often discussed element of racism within the city of Austin is the 1928 Master Plan, which established the “Negro district” and mentioned “unsightly Negro shacks.” This plan was passed after the enactment of the Standard City Planning Enabling Act and the Standard Zoning Enabling Act in 1928—right after the Tulsa massacre and right before the stock market crash in 1929. All of those facts are significant, and all of those actions were bad. However, in the year 1999, there was an urban renewal plan called “New Visions of East Austin” passed for East Austin by a democratic mayor, which helped establish the “Desired Development Zone.” This plan was heralded by the Save Our Springs organization, many of whom desired that there be no development in West Austin where they lived. Consequently, most Black and brown families were pushed and manipulated out of East Austin, as well as out of the historically Chicano neighborhood off of Rainey Street. That happened in 1999. There are people who have not graduated from high school who will never fully appreciate that East Austin was predominantly Black and Chicano. Unsurprisingly, not one group mentions this plan repeatedly, but everyone incessantly discusses the 1928 Master Plan.
Second of all, the Domain was approved, both the northern and southern versions, within the last 20 years. Luckily for large-scale developers, vertical mixed use is marketed without discussion of the racial circumstances that exist beforehand. The neighborhood to the east of the Domain is working class, so the notion that that area will remain a living wage for the residents who live there is a fantasy at best. I now live in the area where Domain Riverside is going to be headed, directly beneath the area targeted by the “New Visions for East Austin” plan. There is no need for revamping the development in the Riverside area, because it is already so mixed and there is nothing further to add. We have grocery stores, health care, office space, and banks; we also have fast food, check cashing, homeless encampments, and social services. The only reason to “introduce more luxury housing” is because somebody believes that the rich diversity which already exists here should not; that the only people who should live around Town Lake are those who have money, who have “earned the right to enjoy it.”
Finally, in 2017, the very controversial AISD school bond was passed, which allowed for the closure of several schools in East Austin. There was so much activism against this bond and several voices against this move. Many families argued that the schools slated for improvement could have been improved when the previous families had resided in East Austin. One school was torn down before anyone could even assess whether it should be preserved. (The school was later revived due to the outrage of that incident.) Instead, with a bunch of kitschy words and the ever-present condescension against any predominantly Non-White edifice, the schools were scheduled to be closed. Supposedly, the point is to expand the schools that the city believes are worth preserving, but the message had been made clear to anyone willing to hear it.
The 1928 Master Plan was hardly the only destructive plan to Black and brown communities. Brown v. Board and Berman v. Parker were both decided in 1954, proving that whenever the dominant narrative is told to cease its abusive behavior, a workaround is found. Existing in a city that protects anything but a Non-White community is an extremely stressful existence. That lack of sensitivity is why I-35 is supposed to be expanded, yet another destructive project to the Black and brown communities in 78723. Highway expansion is not necessary because work-force patterns have changed, and it is time for employers to evolve. Moreover, access to highways has been used to increase real estate values. If anybody drives by multiple new developments, they will see advertisements that imply the value of highway access, raising the costs and lowering the quality of living for those who live near them. There is no racially neutral way of expanding a highway, and focusing on or even mentioning the 1928 Master Plan in racial negotiations is irresponsible.
Even as a Black woman, studying the racial experience in the built environment is nowhere close to experiencing the destruction firsthand. I will admit to my own flawed support of development because of my flawed understanding of the implementation of mixed use. Until 2013, I always lived on the predominantly White side of town, so the effects of displacement never hit me, even though I was generally opposed to new construction. Because I used to enjoy open houses, I remember looking at new construction and exclaiming, “Who wouldn’t want to live this way?” Growth is accepting reality, rather than living in one’s imagination and expecting reality to follow suit. Essentially, the aura of most new construction has been this: White people are supposed to be in control, while Black and brown people are supposed to be grateful. Therefore, those who are serious about making amends need to actively make decisions that reduce the damage and include people who have lived through the destruction, not just facilitate endless conversations with outdated information.
The discussions around race and space are already complicated and people have the responsibility of improving the circumstances in which everyone lives. Talking about situations that happened before the current leadership absolves people in power of their responsibility to change. Again: deflecting from the current leadership is refusing accountability of current city policy that maintains and enhances segregation, pretending as though there are no racial consequences to development decisions. Across the country, planning departments and developers believe that the people affected by them should have had the resources and the clout to avoid being affected by the imagination of people that they have never met. Obsessing about the 1928 Master Plan cultivates dismissal of the current Black and brown experience in Austin, Texas. Most importantly, focusing on development in the past erodes the willingness to engage with the racial implications of current projects. The dominant narrative has been able to paint a rosy picture of itself for centuries. If people want to have honest discussions about the racial implications, with development decisions and city policy, they need to discuss the policies currently happening.
** Image taken from pixabay.com