“Neighborhood character” and race in Austin

Mary Ingle, the longtime former head of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the influential lobby to defend Austin’s “neighborhood character” from new development, has been in some hot water recently over remarks that some interpreted as racially charged.

Here’s Michael King in the Chronicle back in October:

The Austin Neighborhoods Council’s Chief NIMBYist, Mary Ingle, reportedly told the Zoning and Platting Commissioners’ “listening session” last Saturday that “Austin is not Calcutta.”
Presumably Ingle was referring to what is now more politely called Kolkata, India, with a population density of 63,000 per square mile. She might instead have cited Manhattan (64,000/sqm), but that wouldn’t have carried the dire implication the word “Calcutta” has conjured for so many generations of Westerners, imagining so many brown people living so close together in one place.

KUT also explored the theme:

Attorney Stephanie Trinh, who served on the ZAP Commission until recently, was present at that October meeting and called Ingle’s words “highly, highly offensive.”
Trinh said it’s troubling that Ingle would choose to compare Austin to a city of people of color. She said she can’t presume to know the intent behind Ingle’s words, but noted that many other places, like Manhattan, also have a high-population density.
“You know, maybe she’s envisioning a city that is incredibly dense and lower-income and kind of looks like a slum,” Trinh said. “I think that there’s definitely racial overtones in that statement. I found it to be incredibly insensitive and kind of a fear-mongering statement to a very white room.”

Ingle’s defense wasn’t top-notch.

“Sure, I could have said, ‘This is not Manhattan.’ Whatever,” Ingle said. “I made that reference because what came to mind was over-densification. I have been to Calcutta. I used to teach squash at UT with all the Indian students. I love Indian people. Why would I make a racial statement?”

Why? From the perspective of many New Urbanists or others who have clashed with ANC over the years, Ingle’s comment revealed the true motivation behind the “neighborhood character” lobby: economic and racial segregation.

Indeed, urbanists dismiss the fact that ANC activists and ANC-aligned Council members are generally self-professed progressives. When push comes to shove, they say, NIMBYs support zoning policies that entrench segregation by making large parts of the city off-limits to multi-family housing.

But where there seems to be disagreement among urbanists is whether segregation is a goal or simply a bi-product of Austin NIMBYism. A new site that parodies ANC clearly posits the former:

We need to put up every road block we can to stop housing from being located near good neighborhoods. If they wanted to build these apartments in East Austin where those types of people want to live, then we wouldn’t have needed to challenge this, but we can’t have them in the neighborhoods where we live.

Suffice it to say, most urbanists I know aren’t willing to allege that Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison’s top goal is to keep “those types of people” out of West Austin.

Further complicating the narrative of NIMBY racism is that the anti-growth crowd is not just made up of stuffy, white west siders. There is also a large contingent of black and Latino neighborhood activists who view new development as driving gentrification and displacement. Many have aligned with the the affluent Central Austin neighborhood groups in opposing CodeNEXT, the revamp of the city land development code.

For what it’s worth, an affordable housing developer I talked to a few months ago told me that the rhetoric she encounters against housing developments in other Texas cities is very different than what she deals with in Austin. Here, she said, neighbors are much less likely to explicitly denounce the prospect of living near the poor.

The cynical urbanist in Austin would reply that Austin NIMBYs are simply savvier and operate under different rules. Talk about flooding. Traffic. Neighborhood character.