Art in ATX

“How do you enjoy a city like Austin knowing how segregation and gentrification are warping the city? I believe it’s possible to be a ‘conscious visitor’ here — perhaps even necessary. Get outside the bubble. Find the older, deeper Austin. Spend your money in that Austin. Keep it going.” — Doyin Oyeniyi

This year, I am learning to live in a major city of the United States for the first time.

Austin skyline mirrored by the city lake on a sunset walk

Austin is a growing city where white millennials like me are flocking to live in a “progressive” haven of Texas. From one perspective, Austin represents cultural vitality, with the motto “keep Austin weird,” with trendy food and liberal politics that are rare for a red state. From another perspective, Austin’s progressive talk does not live up to its policies, and residents from communities of color can no longer afford to live in the city. It has become too hip for many Black and Latinx (gender neutral expression of Latino/Latina) families and communities to stay in their neighborhoods.

The Texas state capitol building, often a site of regressive and conservative legislation, stands tall in Austin.

I live in the center of the city at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, just two blocks north of the heart of University of Texas at Austin. It is difficult to reconcile that I live in an expensive area of the city as a volunteer. I experience access to cafes, grocery stores, and libraries within walking distance. I participate in the commodification of Mexican culture with pricey tacos and Latino music in white-owned establishments.

Austin is a historically segregated city, divided by the Interstate 35 corridor, that is becoming more white and affluent on both sides with each passing year. Yet I can still notice the differences when I go to work in East Austin, a historically Black and Brown district of the city. The neighborhoods reflect the resilience of cultures and histories of people who have been largely pushed out in one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of the country.

Art in Austin takes many forms, including the expression of Latinx and African American cultures. Murals, food, and music made and owned by people of color express an identity that is resilient after decades of poverty, racial profiling, and mass incarceration. Art is a form of resistance to economic and racial exploitation that also demonstrates strength and connections to the past and future.

The Instagram atx_barrio_archive chronicles the history of Black and Latinx communities, including the struggle against gentrification dating back to the 1970s.

Austin was the only city in the country with double-digit growth from the last decade (2000 to 2010) to have a loss in its African American population. Currently, it is a city where immigrants fear deportation as an imminent reality. Some days, I feel like a tourist in East Austin, consuming the art and media of another culture for my benefit without owning my privilege as the white consumer. Other days, I feel like a witness, observing the changes that the city is undergoing while appreciating the strength of communities struggling to survive.

In the city, I have remembered that beauty is a human need. Like water, bread, sleep and companionship, beauty revitalizes the spirit. “Beauty is the illumination of the soul,” writes poet John O’Donohue.

Looking for beauty has been a discipline to connect me to people and the landscape of Austin. I am taken by a glimpse of God in the birds hovering over the lake, the murals on the restaurant wall next door, the face of the man walking beside me with his cane and oversized coat. These glimpses remind me that we all belong to the Beautiful.

Here are photos to share a brief portrait of life in Austin. This beauty does not belong to me, but to the people who refuse to be silenced and have kept beauty alive throughout the decades. To learn more, check out the episodes of Austin While Black and the exhibits of the Mexic-Arte Museum.

Down the street from my work, the Mexican restaurant Chapala serves the best tacos. The Chicana artist Selena is revered throughout Texas.
Austin is best known for its breakfast tacos, a city staple for people of all backgrounds.
At a Walmart in North Austin, the shelves are stocked with Mexican soda and sparkling water.
The title of one of my favorite songs, “Stay Alive” by José González who I saw in concert with my housemate Reba in February.
The natural beauty of Austin: flowers next to my work in East Austin, and the creek by my home at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Art by tenth grader Margarita Downing featured in the Mexican American Cultural Center of Austin, featuring Dolores Huerta, labor organizer and civil rights organizer.
Folks have gotten creative with the traditional migas taco to create a vegan version at the food truck across the street from my work. These are what I affectionately call “gentrifying tacos.”
“Angel’s Halo” by Zoe Lynch, a middle schooler in Austin.
#BlackLivesMatter graffiti at HOPE Outdoor Graffiti Gallery in Austin. Black residents make up 8% of Austin residents, and half of unarmed people shot by Austin cops in recent years.
A painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the side of an East Austin bar. She is the patron saint of Mexico.
A look at gentrification in the city: two sides of the same street off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A historically Black neighborhood is being overrun by developers to produce modern condos.
A Street Haiku under a bridge near the Austin greenbelt.
A mural featured on the wall of the Mexic-Arte museum of downtown Austin, a non-profit gallery dedicated to featuring Mexican-American art and culture.
Community expression from HOPE Outdoor Gallery, which will be demolished for development this year.

What signs of cultural resilience and resistance can be found in your neighborhood?

Thank you, always, for reading and sharing your thoughts.