An Invisible Austin
(Note: This is a first (exceedingly rough and imperfect) draft of a story meant for a Texas-specific magazine, about the effects of gentrification on south and east Austin (though it could apply to most metros.) Frankly, I got overwhelmed with other work and personal stuff, and lost the juice for it after I turned it in (perhaps probably even before then.) I’ve moved on from this story, and that time, but felt it should live somewhere. I do not consider this “published,” since its a blog, so I may use it for other work.)
In his venerable classic, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote:
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
The much-discussed gentrification of Austin, Texas — and its pronounced hyper-escalation — have created sets of unfortunate consequences and exacerbated older, longstanding issues. These include food security, funding for schools, and health care to rising costs via eventual development of the areas they’ve just moved to. A winning combination to push back the monster, and his fire, haven’t been discovered.
In the middle of the controlled chaos, unable to create self-agency, are the families and children of the East, South, and increasingly rural areas. The effects of gentrification are not only those of the financial variety — they are often simultaneously effecting social and cultural dynamics.
LOSING THE VILLAGE
“One thing it does, it breaks up families. [We] had some of our friends that lived on East 2nd Street, so when they left, they had the grandmother across the street, and their aunt was just down the block, so they had a support system, says Susana Almanza, president of grassroots non-profit People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER.)
“If there was childcare needed or assistance needed with the family, it was just a matter of crossing the street or going down the road. That family support system has now been broken.
“That was a really sad thing, particularly for this family that I knew because they owned that (East Austin) home, but once they moved out, for the first time in a very long time they had a mortgage. It was a nice house and everything, but they had a mortgage, so then they were having financial problems, trying to figure out how they were all going to make this work. They were separated from their other family members. I look at it as a cultural impact because you [had] a village, where there’s a family there and the support’s there.”
“Then, they were having to figure out how they were going to share their one vehicle they had. They used to could walk down to the church. Now they can’t, so there’s a (lack of) spiritual support, too, that they’re now being disconnected. There was just so many [challenges] they were having to go through, in no longer being able to live in the urban core.”
From the Austin Chronicle (this writer):
“Austin’s lower-income residents continually find themselves unable to afford housing, or escalating prices of quality foods — two significant determinants of healthy outcomes. Now moving into Del Valle, Manor, Pflugerville, and the “unincorporated” hinterlands of Austin’s new outback, these “residents” will likely be farther away with each passing year. This will create an immediate need for amplified health care outreach, requiring efficient use of further increased funding.
“According to the American Community Survey, Austin’s population will be younger and darker going forward. Unless new equity measures are taken, it will also be poorer. 2014 estimates show whites account for 29% of those under the age of 10, but 65% of those aged 55–65 (and over). The out-of-state influx, the move to the suburbs, and gentrification will affect these numbers, but likely in the early-to-mid professional ranges. Given the relocation, but darkening, of what will eventually become the majority in Austin/Travis County, combined with financial inequities, there’s a chance of something of an economic apartheid — a dark crescent edging Downtown and the affluent west side.”
The City of Austin approved an 11% increase ($8.3) in FY 2016 funding — the biggest single increase in years — in the face of near-continuous increases for public safety, the fire department, and parks services, each to the tune of over 200% over the last 30 years. This was considered a monumental, and likely short-lived, victory. However, the first line of health care — availability of healthy food, especially in the context assumed by frequenters of the better-attended HEB supermarkets or Whole Foods– seems to be most in danger.
According to non-profit One Voice Central Texas, as of October 2014, “18% of residents lived in households with limited consistent access to food,” and we have a clear idea where these people are. Austin ABC affiliate KVUE news reporter Ashley Goudeau detailed: “In July 2015, the (City of Austin) Office of Sustainability made a map showing where Austin’s full service grocery stores are located. Staff found the most food deserts are in Districts 1 (includes Harris Branch and Colony Park), 2 (Dove Springs and Del Valle) and 3 (Montopolis), plus parts of 4 (Highland and Quail Creek.)
“There are parts of Del Valle that are City of Austin and many of those families have to travel 10 to 15 miles to the closest grocery store,” said Austin City Council Member Delia Garza, District 2.” (Politifact claims to have debunked this idea, but do so without much context, i.e. food quality, relative to even slightly more affluent areas.)
The lack of food, health care considerations, and the inability to meet the issues at he point of impact, lead to compounding levels of unending stress for children, laying at the mercy of the city’s economic structure. Studies, like one published in Science in 2013 It’s in the relentlessness of the everyday that builds unseen castles of silent despair.
“I have a kid right now, he has a mental health issue. We can already tell. His mother has diabetes. She’s about to have her fourth amputation. Four. He’s twelve. He is in broken home, and has a mental health issue, and there’s healthcare issues,” says Richard Franklin, president of non-profit Youth Unlimited. He doesn’t have anyone taking care of him at all. When they get him on Monday, they give him a bath at school, and new clothes to wear. Those issues are going on in our community, and no one is even aware of it.”
“This kid doesn’t know where to go. He has a mental health issue before he gets started. What happens when he’s in your school? Which happens. And goes around with that. He’s stressing the other kids. They’re dealing with his stress. There’s a layering of problems with mental health issues.”
“We can never silo any of these things without understanding the connectivity between the problems is what causes all of the problems. When mom is not there and the twelve year old son is at home taking care of the six year old daughter, there is a stress level that goes on there on a whole other level.
“I’ve got kids who are saying, “I can barely survive and you want me to come here and worry about your test today? I didn’t eat breakfast.”
HIERACHY OF NEEDS
Comparatively with north and west Austin-area schools, a number of east Austin/Travis County (largely Latino) students do not consider post-secondary education viable, with good reason. Del Valle High School, for example, boasts a graduation rate of roughly 90% according to the Austin Chamber, but only maintained a 32.6 College Readiness Index, with 36% of graduating students (in 2014) enrolling in either community college or a university — suggesting even those enrollees may not be prepared for the collegiate rigors.
Manor and Elgin’s high schools tallies and test scoring rank even lower, at a 12.9 and 12.5 readiness, respectively. (All CRI scores include information from 2012–2013 school year. Unless an unknown, anomalous event has occurred, recent scoring is likely similar.)
This is, of course, due in part to straightforward economics — general lack of across-the-board funding, from parent to system — but also issues in language barriers and cross-level outreach. “Our kids don’t go to UT. You have people who work at the university who are talking about diversity, who were in AISD, on the eastside, and they’re not recruiting [graduates from east Austin,] claims Franklin.
“My greatest fear is [that my son] is still going to have to take remedial classes when he gets to college, [because] he’s not going to be prepared. I’m not going to blame the board, or the system. It’s the state,” says Rebecca Birch, Del Valle school board trustee and public policy manager for Susan G. Komen Foundation. She is also Franklin’s wife.
“What difference does it make if they can pass the damn [State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness} test, that’s a subjective test that doesn’t test anything, if I can’t even get my kid [can’t] pass the SAT, a standardized test that is taken by every student that is going to college. What does that mean?”
“Some of our (Del Valle) campuses have 22–23% mobility. What that means is at any given time 22–23% of our students are moving around — same thing in Manor. [They] go from Section 8 home to Section 8 home, from open rental to open rental between Austin, Pflugerville, Manor, Austin, Del Valle, Elgin. Back and forth.
“What does that to do an education? Why would you want to go to school when you know making friends doesn’t make any sense, because [they] could be moving next month. What difference does it make if I do well in this class, because even if I like this teacher, I could be moving next month? This teacher doesn’t care about me because I wasn’t a part of this class. What does that do to a child?
At the frontlines are teachers at East Austin schools trying to prepare its underprivileged students to not only learn, but to do so with counterfeit fervor, says Travis Freeman, first year (must be stressed) reading comprehension teacher at Del Valle High. “The hard part is trying to create some sort of enthusiasm, when they really haven’t been given a reason to be enthusiastic.”
“Some of them will just flat out tell you, “yeah, I’m just not gonna finish.” They have no desire to. [One student] told me he works after school — two or three hours every night and usually late. Then, he helps his mom. So, his commitment to his family probably trumps doing well in school, being the immediate thing for him. I would argue to him that doing well in school does help your family, because you can go on from there, and get better work. But right now, it’s hard to see that.”
To the mobility point, Freeman — just starting in August — had already accumulated new students “toward the end of the second marking period.” “One that stands out is one that — through other students — I was able to find out [he was a] new immigrant, and his family had walked from Mexico to San Antonio, to get here.”
Critical pieces for these young students are mostly-fleeting ideas of self-agency and safety, both often lacking outside of the school walls. When asked what qualified as success, the teachers interviewed — Freeman and Austin multi-hyphenate and Decker Middle School teacher Bavu Blakes — mentioned safety as their initial target.
Blakes says, flatly: “[It’s the] hierarchy of needs. At the bottom is, ‘I’m not going to die this hour.’ Above that, is ‘I need to belong to a group.’ Above that is all the fancy stuff. But at the base of human needs, according to research, is ‘I’m pretty safe, and I belong to something.”
Franklin and Blakes touch on critical, connected points. Day to day safety — in more grounded contexts, like food and personal security — is largely taken for granted. Children often live and operate with the unconscious assumption that their needs will be consistently addressed. Underprivileged children often lack steady semblances of refuge, the stress usually tempering their scholastic achievement by robbing them of memories functioning at full capacity.
The disproportion of relative funding, mobility, and students stacking in these underserved areas generate a grotesque effect — away from Austin’s public eye — virtually feeding directly into other, better-funded institutions looking for analysis and profit. “Public school is where the state has the most access to our children,” says, Kellee Coleman, program coordinator at the Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman prenatal clinic.
“That’s where the medical industrial complex goes, to get families to study them. That’s where the prison industrial complex goes to access children. That’s where CPS goes. That’s where the police goes. Everybody hits [public school systems.]”
WHERE WE ARE
The harsh truth about gentrification isn’t the veracity of its occurrence — purposeful, in most contexts — it is that it hasn’t shown itself vulnerable to mitigation efforts anywhere in the world, at least none with any deep, longstanding effects. Gentrified regions could once again turn into city-neglected areas for underserved residents in the future, but none of its inevitabilities can be wheeled back. It’s difficult to stop a machine in its tracks, when it lays new ones at exponential speeds, in all directions.
There’s a current of inevitability, arriving part and parcel with the economic influx — a wave likely to completely overtake the underprivileged (and creative class), washing them out over areas even further away from Austin’s city center. As development continues — like housing plans around Del Valle and Manor — it becomes a virtual certainty.
Perhaps not unusually, those most vulnerable are the most at risk — Austin’s economic thunderstorm stopping just short of those who need its trickle down.
Austin’s uniquely exclusive liberalism — in the midst of these changes — continues to thrive, mostly unchallenged by an economically voiceless east and south. However, its progressiveness, never as powerful as the guitars, weirdness, and unconscious marketing led scores of insulated residents and visitors to believe, seems midway through its last wheeze. — K.S.