Who Defines a “Good Neighborhood”?

Not many people know this who are still alive, but Rosewood Avenue was the second name of that street in Austin, Texas. Many people refer to Tulsa, Oklahoma and the massacre that occurred mostly because of its nickname: “Black Wall Street.” To that end, the community that was demolished was considered irrelevant, but the money that could have been made is the focus of most of the history. However, in 1923, the Rosewood massacre occurred in Florida, and that township was more than a neighborhood within the dominant narrative. Only one White family existed in this community, but everything from the land to the rest of the businesses was owned and operated by Black people. Essentially, one could say that this was a “Black Utopia,” where the Black community lived in relative peace until someone came up with a “solution” to remove it. Thus, the name “Rosewood” was chosen for the street in Austin, Texas after the Black community was “assigned” to live away from where other “decent people” lived.

From the beginning of the City of Austin, Black people were all over Austin based on the availability of land and communities created after emancipation. When looking at how Juneteenth was celebrated, one can see how scattered the Black community had been, including parks all over the city and even train rides between communities. The manic rush to control the Black population within Austin was all centered around one purpose: “good” neighborhoods need to be preserved, and the presence of Black people creates “bad” neighborhoods. Thus, when the “negro district” was created in 1928, city officials believed that the worst of the population would be sufficiently contained. Suddenly, Black people who had previously been in established communities, like Wheatville, were coerced into locating in one spot so that city officials could control how Black people lived within the city limits. It could be considered poetic justice that after municipal governments all over the United States concocted this plan to control Black people and take over land, the stock market crashed on such greed.

However, regardless of the stock market, Black people in Austin were already in East Austin–as was the Chicano community, slightly south–and so the community began to develop. Businesses developed with a consistent, guaranteed customer base, and people put together neighborhoods that were able to thrive in close quarters. On the same street, there was a medical clinic and a dentist’s office, and both were right down the street from the pharmacy once it moved. There were multiple coroners, and instead of going away, they merged, and almost all the Black mortuary services are still in existence today. Schools developed, both public and Black owned, as well as parks purchased with community resources. Black churches thrived and reached out to the downtrodden, knowing that fewer resources would be kept to aid the neglected areas. While racism was still evident throughout daily life, Black people created neighborhoods to rival any others around the city, and for a time, the city left the Black parts of town alone.

Unfortunately, urban renewal destroyed the relative tranquility of the Black community in the 1960s–including the demolition of the Black fire station–and the designation of East Austin as the “Desired Development Zone” scraped most of the remaining residents outside the city limits. Once again, the Black and Chicano communities were left struggling to find a place where we could be allowed to exist without the salacious real estate industry preying on us. This begs the question again: what designates one neighborhood as “good” and another neighborhood as “bad”? Sadly, the truth is that whenever Black people inhabit a community, city officials will grant themselves permission to destroy it, and with the raging quest to extract even more from these historic areas, it is unclear that there will be anything left of Black Austin to discuss.

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