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 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.
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.
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.
What signs of cultural resilience and resistance can be found in your neighborhood?
Thank you, always, for reading and sharing your thoughts.