Can I Be Absolved of Gentrification?

In case you haven’t looked at my little circle logo, I’m a white woman. In today’s divisive times, I think a lot about what it means to be “white.” And that’s led me to ponder gentrification.

How am I guilty, and how can I help?

Old Austin is a Segregationist’s Dream

Neighbor’s stepping stone. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

Just today, someone laughingly called me a “unicorn.” You see, I’m the rare, elusive Austin, Texas-born citizen. So many people have moved here recently — the Austin Business Journal says 159 new folks a day in 2016 — that natives are scarce (though once you discover an old timer, you’ve uncovered the small town cocooned inside Austin’s big city).

A lot of folks who’ve lived here for, oh, five years, bitch and moan about “all the people moving here,” crab about #ATXtraffic, and then offer insights on “authentic Austin” (cue gag reflex). If you haven’t seen the inside of at least four different Matt’s El Rancho locations, I don’t want to hear you whine or opine. Fifty-odd years of central Texas keeping-it-weird living grant me a certain gravitas when it comes to discussing our ever-expanding metro.

For all its liberal politics, Austin has been a very segregated city. I remember the first Black person I ever met. A new neighbor had moved into the corner house, a nice lady who loved to garden and brought over cookies by way of introduction. She and her husband had grown-up children, so we little kids never knew them well; the older couple was simply absorbed into the block’s general adult fabric.

Mosaic on Austin’s E. 11th Street. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

These neighbors stood out in northwest Austin because that was where white people lived. I went to school with very few people of color. For a year and a half, my family relocated to Reston, Virginia, and my high school’s diverse population felt very cosmopolitan and worldly. But when my dad’s government job ended, we returned to Austin — back to the same house, even. My parents still live in that northwest Austin home where I grew up.

Segregation was ingrained in how Austinites viewed their city. South Austin? “Bubbas” and “kickers” lived across the river. West Austin? Rich kids mixed with “cedar choppers” (an economic and educational step down from “good ol’ boys”). East Austin? That’s where poor Blacks and Mexicans lived. And downtown? Well, it just wasn’t safe (note proximity to east side), plus who’d want to go? There was nothing of interest there, just some seedy bars and empty businesses.

Now, though downtown is bumping and South Austin is hiply touristy, Austin is still a very segregated city.

But times change. Kind of.

Moving Into East Austin

Art at the E. 38 1/2 St. bus stop. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

As the kids had grown, I chafed at our affluent, suburban neighborhood. Yes, the schools were good but there was such an emphasis on wealth. People drove into their garages and didn’t appear until they drove out the next day. We were one of the few families who mowed our own lawn.

Between work, hobbies, and friends, I spent much of my time in central, downtown, and South Austin. As our big home emptied and the youngest kid neared graduation, I wanted to move. Key on the list of new house “must haves”: a smaller space and yard, walkable streets, easy access to downtown, single story, no deer, proximity to running trails, and close-by amenities.

My husband jokes that, the minute he heard my message, he knew he’d better like the house. A realtor friend had steered me east (“you probably don’t even know this neighborhood’s there”) and I gaped at the tree-lined streets and tidy bungalows. Just blocks from a major highway and The University of Texas, the area had all the charm of trendy South Austin and pricey, historic Hyde Park. I could walk to grocery stores (several!), the bank, doctor’s offices, restaurants, cultural spaces (four playhouses within a mile radius! live music venues! museums!), and sports. I pulled into the driveway and fell in love — THIS was the perfect house. Ecstatic, I phoned to tell my husband we were home.

Agave in Cherrywood Neighborhood. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

We closed in December but waited to move in, renting the house out for three years. In the meantime, I came weekly to do the yard work, managed tenants, volunteered for the neighborhood newsletter, and got to know the families on our street. The baby graduated and we remodeled; we’ve lived here for six years now. We love our “forever” house and friendly neighborhood with a passion.

Can I Be White and Not a Problem?

What does “gentrification” mean? According to Merriam-Webster, the term first appeared in 1964: “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

New Bartholomew Pool, E. 51st St. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

“Gentrification” is clearly negative, and I cringed at this week’s offensive Denver coffee shop ad. Ouch. But it begs the question: does my heightened consciousness make me any less of a problem? Do I get any kind of bye for being aware that I’m contributing to east Austin’s getrification?

There’s no denying — I am that white, affluent person moving into what had been a deteriorating, predominantly minority-owned and populated area of town. We were drawn here because the kind of house we wanted was less expensive than in trendier, renovated central areas.

I love the diversity of our neighborhood, yet I’m another white face homogenizing up the place. True — we did not specifically displace Black home owners (our 1960 home’s original and only other owners were white and Hispanic), but our improvements have helped drive up real estate prices and property taxes, which definitely displaces others. One of our priorities is supporting neighbor-owned businesses, and I rejoice in dropping my car off at the corner garage, in operation since 1937, and having coffee and breakfast tacos at the Torres’ family’s restaurant. But I’m also that demographic patronizing new “farm to table” and “craft cocktail” places that smack of middle-class, white, hipster culture so wonderfully skewered in Portlandia. Sometimes all that separates Austin and Portland are 66 episodes and 114 days of sunshine.

How Do I Address Gentrification?

Austin MLK Day 2017 March. Photo Credit: Leah Nyfeler

I see the problem and I worry at Austin’s gentrification version of Catch-22. Our city has this codified segregation history that creates racially divided segments of town. The only way to smash that is to break barriers and mix racial demographics. But whites like me are moving into Black and Hispanic neighborhoods at a greater rate than Black and Hispanics are moving into historically white neighborhoods. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, Austin’s Black population decreased.

On one hand, I’m helping. On the other, I’m the problem.

I asked someone, another white person in east Austin, about this very delimma and her comment was intent mattered. I’m not sure that’s true. I think what truly matters is breaking the barriers so that people of color have the same option I did — to choose exactly where I wanted to live. Economic equality (smash job-based discrimination), political change (get rid of those ancient segretationist city codes and voting restrictions), and actual physical construction (building more affordable housing all over the place) are areas where I can lend my voice and contribute effort.

Let’s not forget that Austin is a white man’s world. If you doubt me, take a quick peek-a-loo at what the Texas legislature has been up to lately. A white woman has privilege — yes, skin color grants advantages — but a womb renders me less than. So I work to add my voice to Austinites of color who are making our beautiful city a better place.

And by doing so, I hope to be more solution than problem.