BBQ and Gentrification
An Austin Passover Story
It’s under the shade trees at a picnic table enjoying a spicy fish taco that I start to realize that all this wonderful food we’ve been enjoying and these people losing their business and their homes — it’s all related. These new restaurants that I love, like Franklin BBQ in East Austin, or this taco truck in SoCo, they are part of the new wave pushing out the old.
I sit with my uncle and brother in the shady front garden of Opa!, a Greek cafe and wine bar down in SoCo, my hand protectively covering my cappuccino against the flurry of oak pollen the breeze is dropping on our heads. The worst time of year for allergy sufferers, this small window of time in April leaves cars and windows coated in sticky, yellow dust, and most people red-eyed and sneezy. (I love Austin, but if you go, my recommendation is not in April.) Despite the pollen, the venue is a pleasant and quiet spot on a Monday morning, dotted with headphone-ensconced members of the burgeoning class of the bourgeoisie (to which I probably belong) that makes any place with free WiFi our office, adding the privilege of daily freedom to many others.
We do the usual catch up about work and personal lives and my uncle, ever with his finger on the pulse of Austin culture, music, and nightlife, fills us in on some recent changes in the works, wrought by the rapid gentrification of the city, fueled by some of the fastest population growth in America. “Horseshoe Lounge, right over there,” he points down the street, “they just closed, can’t afford their rent anymore. The Broken Spoke — they’re in trouble.” My brother adds that even Rainey Street, itself an outgrowth of downtown gentrification, as bars and restaurants invaded a residential neighborhood, creating a low key vibe of frathouses run by hipsters, will be ruined by the addition of high rise condominiums. I remembered the recent high-profile story of Jumpolin, an East Austin pinata store that had been demolished with all its inventory inside when the new landlords wanted to free up the space for a parking lot for a SXSW party.
While I’d never heard of the Horseshoe Lounge, the idea that the Broken Spoke could close was shocking. The Austin icon has been home to “live music and boot-scootin’ since 1964.” But, one thing is certain, Texans of all stripes love to lament the good old days, even as the influx of money is causing the culinary scene to explode and much of this money comes from the burgeoning tech sector that has contributed to an unemployment rate of an impressively low 3.4% as of February 2015.
The reality is that this gentrification meant a much higher quality of life and higher property values — for some. It has long been apparent that change was coming. I remember back in 2012 when we roamed the streets looking for food and fun during SXSW, and the party scene had already leapt it’s eastern boundary of I-35 and begun to creep into the heart of Austin’s black and Hispanic neighborhood. While the anti-development, pro-small business “Keep Austin Weird” campaign had been around since 2000, the gentrification story of today isn’t just about squashing small business owners or destroying the relaxed off-beat vibe of a medium-sized city. Since little has been done to address the de facto segregation of the city (the long term result of city planning policies in the 1930's designed to confine the black population to a “negro district”), these recent incursions into poorer neighborhoods have taken on a decidedly racial tone, as particularly evidenced in the Jumpolin incident.
Two days earlier, on the first day of Passover, my father-in-law and brother-in-law unload their haul after standing in line at renowned Franklin BBQ on east 11th Street for four hours. It’s over 10 pounds of some of the most deliciously smoky and juicy meat you’ll ever taste. A modern day incarnation of an age-old Texas tradition brilliantly crafted and marketed by now-celebrity chef Aaron Franklin.
A Texas native, trained by John Mueller of Louie Mueller’s BBQ fame in Taylor, Aaron Franklin has an accepted barbecue pedigree and a hipster sensibility as evidenced by his thick rimmed glasses, ubiquitous plaid shirts, and espresso-infused barbecue sauce, the combination of which have helped him establish a new Austin icon. It’s fair to say that Franklin BBQ has been at the forefront, if not the instigator of, an Austin barbecue renaissance.
Every five years, Texas Monthly magazine issues its list of the Top 50 BBQ joints in the world (all of which just happen to be in Texas for a very good reason). It used to be a widely-accepted truth that all good barbecue required a long drive on small country road into some small town where they had been serving up brisket the same way since the 1950s. In 2008, there were only two BBQ establishments in Austin even on the list, and none of the top 5 were in Austin. One year later in 2009, Franklin BBQ opened, and by 2013 it had claimed the #1 spot, while four other Austin-based restaurants (Lambert’s Downtown BBQ, La Barbecue, Stiles Switch, and John Mueller Meat Co.) claimed a place in the top 10. Oh the times they were a-changin’. And it wasn’t just barbecue. The food truck scene was exploding while upscale Tex-Mex and pour-over coffee shops proliferated.
(Even the night before, we had enjoyed some delicious barbecue and cocktails at Freedmen’s Bar. While not really in the same conversation as Franklin and nowhere near making the list, Freedmen’s barbecue is still head and shoulders above most barbecue you would find anywhere else.)
There we were, about to enjoy the salty, smoky, spicy sausage, melt-in-your-mouth brisket, and massive beef ribs encrusted with charred rub as part of our Seder meal. It was the second year the family (my in-laws and my parents) had gathered at my parents house that had once been my grandparents. A beautiful mid-century home built into a hill in the leafy, winding neighborhood of Northwest Hills. Once a sleepy suburb filled with the families of UT professors like my grandfather living in fairly modest ranch homes, it too had enjoyed the rapid increase of property value, with many of the older homes replaced or expanded upon. It was there that we had begun a new family tradition, a blending of old and new, of two families into one. Reading from my parents Unitarian-Universalists haggadahs, we celebrated the Jewish festival of freedom, renewal, and springtime. And then we stuffed our faces with some of the best barbecue in the world (yes — pork and all).
After a visit to my uncle’s fine art photography studio to see his latest work, my brother and I go in quest of lunch and pull into a gravel parking lot housing a couple food trucks and some picnic tables. Perfect, tacos. We grab some Torchy’s Tacos, enjoying barbacoa and talking about the social and political implications of all this rapid change in Austin, about our parents and about the future. My baby brother is also about to leave Austin for Philly to start a PhD program in economics, so I grill him about his cold weather clothing situation. It’s under the shade trees at a picnic table enjoying a spicy fish taco that I start to realize that all this wonderful food we’ve been enjoying and these people losing their businesses and their homes — it’s all related. These new restaurants that I love, like Franklin BBQ in East Austin, or this taco truck in SoCo, they are part of the new wave pushing out the old.
But even as we hang on to tradition and to the old, change will happen. It’s inevitable, like a freight train, time rolls through. I’m not advocating trying to stop time in its tracks, but maybe the process doesn’t need to happen at such a high speed. Maybe there are ways to make sure that everyone in the community is able to enjoy the prosperity of the tech wealth that is flowing into the city. As a frequent guest of the Austin, I don’t know that I could make any specific suggestions about what they should be doing, but I hope they are able to find a way improve the lives of all its citizens and preserve its diverse and rich culture and traditions, while embracing the new opportunities that seem to be coming its way.