Austin is America's fast growing city that is also losing its Black population. That trend is fueling a larger conversation about gentrification of the historically Black neighborhoods in East Austin as well as the future of representation by Black elected officials.
While the population of East Austin's black neighborhoods, established by forced segregation, continue to decline, efforts to preserve its colorful history continue.
There is now an African American Cultural & Heritage Facility, located in the African American Cultural and Heritage District which is intended to help preserve historically Black institutions like Huston-Tillotson University and the Carver Museum and Library, as well as historically Black-owned businesses and churches. Rosewood Courts, the first public housing project in the United States — thanks to LBJ — was recently recommended by the Texas Historical Commission's State Board of Review as an addition to the National Register of Historic Places.
All this to preserve to the footprint of African Americans as the feet themselves continue to flock away from the City's urban core.
More below the jump…
In 2005 the city updated its City of Austin Quality of Life Scorecard to reflect that, “African-American residents experienced a strikingly different quality of life from other Austin residents.” It then recommended a host of policy changes in 5 areas at were reviewed by community leaders including: Police Interactions, Housing and Commercial Development, Education and Employment, and Economic Development. The review process led to the addition of Neighborhood Sustainability along with total 56 initiatives in the various categories that were then presented to city council.
According to a recent KUT story, “Some of the reasons for the decline are believed to be the gentrification of Central East Austin in recent decades, leading to rising property values and property taxes, and additional factors like public education, employment and high-profile incidents involving Austin Police.” In 2010 after the census Michael McDonald, the Assistant City Manager, told the Austin American Statesman that in some traditionally Black East Austin neighborhoods property taxes have gone up 400-600%.
“In 2004, the American-Statesman reported that minorities – and African-Americans in particular – were more likely to have force used against them than white citizens.” That has reputation has been cemented by several high profile incidents involving Police shootings of African Americans in East Austin. A more recent report by the Statesman showed that use of force from 2009 – 2011 increased over 130% in East Austin as opposed to just 7% when you crossed I-35.
It must be noted, for now anyway, that for a city with such a segregated past, and dwindling Black population, Austin has a surprisingly high amount representation in terms of Black elected officials and influential community leaders including: Mayor Pro-tem Sheryl Cole, City Manager Marc Ott, and Austin American Statesman Editorial Board member Alberta Phillips. Meria Carstarphen, who just accepted the superintendent job in Atlanta, was the first African American and first woman superintendent of Austin Independent School District. The city also has African American representation in State Representative Dawnna Dukes, current but outgoing County Judge Sam Biscoe, as well as Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 Yvonne Williams, and Sheriff Greg Hamilton.
The difference with the Dukes, Biscoe, Williams and Hamilton is that their jurisdictions extend beyond the borders of Austin proper and include areas in Northern Travis County where many of Austin's Black former residents have relocated. Until 2012, Travis County also had an African American Tax Assessor-Collector, Nelda Spears, who has been replaced by Bruce Elfant (not African American). However, after the November 2014 election Travis County will likely boast a new African American District Clerk, Velva Price.
In a piece last year entitled, “Future of African American Influence in Austin At Crossroads” I asked whether or not, “we are in the waning period of a short golden age of African American influence over the city of Austin.” The answer to that question is still unknown, but at least a few of the new 10-1 Austin city council districts have Black candidates running. Only one, District One, is considered a “opportunity” district for African Americans. This was a point of contention during the Charter Revision Committee when the option of at-large districts was on the table. In a nutshell, the argument in favor of an at-large seat (and fewer district seats) was to pull the full strength of the Black vote from across the city, many in the Asian community also thought this same strategy might benefit their community. The argument for 10 districts without an at-large seat was to give the best chance to create a district where African Americans were concentrated enough to provide for a real opportunity to elect a member of council.
The term “African American opportunity district” does not imply that the district would be majority African American. Austin's City Demographer Ryan Robinson said given the population changes the city would need as many as 24 districts for anyone to be a majority African American.
So far candidates for District One include 5 individuals, Andrew Bucknall and Norman Jacobson who are White, and Ora Houston, DeWayne Lofton, and Sam Osemene who are Black. Other African American City Council candidates include (likely) Mayoral candidate Sheryl Cole, Fred Mcghee in District 3, Darrell Pierce in District 8, and Robert Thomas in District 10.
Only time will tell if Austin's city leaders and remaining Black population can reverse the current course and reinstitute a cultural, and economic impact that will keep the community on the map of the city's future — beyond the historical designation which serves as a reminder of what once was and could have been.
You can follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.