A Tale of Two Cities

I remember exactly when I first noticed it: my first year in town, wandering around the heart of the city, unwittingly crossing through Red River and Sixth Street. It was an immediate shift. Property value sank, and the sidewalks were now populated entirely with black and brown faces. Casting my gaze back west and seeing all that pallid skin bumbling around in merry debauchery, participating in all those Austin promises, made me feel a little guilty. At that moment it was clear that Austin had some unfortunate secrets, because no matter how liberal or progressive your reputation might be, a history of segregation will always rear its ugly head. – Luke Winkie writing for Vice.com 

KXAN.com

A house fire destroyed a boarding house just before New Years here in Austin, leaving six people homeless in some of the harshest weather this area has seen in several years. If you look at the images of the house in this news article, it is clear that hoarding was more than a problem in the house before the fire. The structure itself violates several current building codes, or would have violated them if it had not been grandfathered in under the rules that were being enforced at the time of its construction and/or annexation into the city of Austin. A filled construction dumpster in the driveway is a clear sign of unresolved problems within the structure that a devastating fire probably only makes worse for the people involved.

Not satisfied with the fact that there will soon be new construction at this once poverty-stricken address in a nearby neighborhood, one of the recent purchasers of Austin real estate took exception to the state of the house as it currently sits smoldering. This is understandable to me. It is understandable because house prices in Austin are ridiculously inflated, and I’m sure this purchaser paid far too much for his property. There was no price correction in Austin after the real estate bubble burst in the rest of the U.S. There was the briefest of pauses in price inflation, and then the prices just continued to go up, rising to levels that frankly have me thinking seriously of renovating and flipping my home so that I can retire somewhere a little quieter. Somewhere with horses, so that the Wife will have something to do with her time since no one will pay her a wage to do work in Austin anymore.

The homeowner’s objections are also understandable because I have an issue with the rental house across the street from me. I’ve told a running joke about it over the decades that I’ve lived here, and the joke has only gotten darker over the years. Considering the downward spiral it has been in since starting as an owner-occupied dwelling in the early nineties, I suspect there will be cannibals living there soon. Cannibals, because there isn’t much lower for it to go on the occupant quality ladder. Cannibalism is bound to occur there at some point in the near future.

However, several of my neighbors on Nextdoor insist on calling the boarding house that burned to the ground a crack house. Repeatedly. I have to say, that’s just uncalled for. After all, it’s not the nineteen-eighties anymore. We’re well past Reagan and his cloaked racial references like crack houses. Perhaps these new property owners don’t know the history of East Austin, the history of Austin in general? As a long-time resident of the neighborhood, I’d like to offer a few pointers to these new Austin residents, in the spirit of the New Year.

Austin American-Statesman

Let’s start with a big picture, historically. Austin was officially racially segregated until 1963. There were specific redlined neighborhoods where people of color were allowed to buy property. Those neighborhoods are well South of the area of Austin that we live in, but if you add in the Great Wall that separates East Austin from West Austin, the distance South that the redlining occurs becomes almost inconsequential. East of Interstate 35 was long considered the dumping zone for housing projects and industrial uses, and any in-depth analysis of land use in Austin will reveal that East Austin carries the brunt of the load of poverty for the entire city to this day.

While you’re calculating, don’t forget to add in the depression on living standards that the Mueller airport noise levels inflicted on the surrounding areas until very recently. That is crucial to understanding the change that is occurring on the East side of Austin today. With the removal of the airport out to Bergstrom, and the removal all the airport’s associated industrial businesses, there was suddenly a wealth of under-utilized property right in central Austin. The re-purposing of this property continues even eighteen years later. The old boundaries of the airport are all but erased, but you can still see the blighting effects of landing and take-off zones near the airport if you look hard enough.

The historical racism that stifled central East Austin’s growth, now lifted, the industrial uses and noise pollution of a central airport, now lifted, the big picture of why the gentrification and the pushing out of old minority owners in East Austin should become obvious. The two cities that were Austin are being forced to become one city, and the new city of Austin doesn’t have room for people who don’t have more than a quarter million dollars to sink on a home. Especially not in central Austin neighborhoods that used to be beacons for the average American middle class lifestyle.

Just to the North of the old Mueller airport site sits some of what was the most overlooked, undervalued property in central Austin. It was overlooked and undervalued when I first started living in the area about thirty years ago but it has now been discovered and is probably overvalued. I look to see a market correction in the near future. Friends of mine in the construction industry bought into real estate at the peak of the last boom in the eighties. They lost half their investment in the subsequent S&L collapse. I expect there is another one of those nasty surprises just waiting around the corner for most of Texas somewhere in the future. We dodged that bullet in 2008, but the growth that Texas is experiencing can’t be maintained forever. Something has to give, eventually.

The house fire that started this article is in one of those quiet little neighborhoods that used to be havens from the bustling inner-city of Austin, protected by the vast bulk of Mueller from central East Austin’s old redlined districts. The closest of these neighborhoods to the Eastern edge of Mueller is Pecan Springs-Springdale. This is the neighborhood where the boarding house stood.

Pecan Springs-Springdale was two neighborhoods originally, ergo the name. There are pockets of very nice houses in this neighborhood, surrounded by marginal commercial ventures and apartment houses, especially along the main arterial boulevard of Manor Road that carries the bulk of the traffic North/South through the area, between the two neighborhoods of Windsor Park and Pecan Springs-Springdale. The intersection at Rogge and Manor, near where the fire occurred, has always been problematic. That intersection marks the boundaries between three distinct areas and uses, one corner of which is a vacant lot. That property is an investment opportunity, for anyone taking notes that still wants to live here.

We rented a house in Windsor Park for about seven years before buying our current home. We rented it for less than $500 a month if you can believe that. The houses in that neighborhood are generally smaller and sit on smaller lots than surrounding neighborhoods. They were built for and bought by people with even less money than the college professors that my current neighborhood catered to. Backed up to the original Austin shopping center, Capitol Plaza, and bordered originally on the South by the main runway of Mueller and Fifty-first Street, Windsor Park was a working-man’s neighborhood. It’s hard to see that now since most of the property there was snatched up and renovated first, before Mueller moved.

The wife and I realized that the time to buy a home was now or never as we watched the neighborhood change around us, so we gave up renting and purchased a home in University Hills, a smaller neighborhood further East, but not so close that you could see or smell the landfill still operated by the city further out highway 290. University Hills was built to appeal to the growing number of educational professionals that needed to live near the University of Texas and the price of its real estate has ballooned significantly since we moved here.

People looking for a real estate investment should be well acquainted with this fact, that housing prices are at an all-time high in Austin, since it would be part of proper due diligence to have looked at historical prices for the area before investing. Some of the original residents still live in our neighborhood, and I bought my house from one them twenty years ago. There aren’t too many left these days, but their investment of $40-60k when they bought their places back in the nineteen-sixties would not compare favorably with the investments people are laying down now to get in this neighborhood. Some of us still don’t have that kind of money and we are being forced out of our neighborhoods by a growing number of people who do.

not very neighborly

Which brings us full circle back to the transplant complaining about a boarding house he has to drive by on his way to work that burned down having once been purportedly used for drug sales. The question I want to ask people like him is, how do you live with yourself? How do you ignore the underpasses in Austin littered with homeless people, even in freezing weather? Let me put it this way; I apologize to you for your neighbors, neighbors who were clearly having a hard time paying to remain in a neighborhood that has left them behind. Now that they are homeless, I’m sure the weather will get on with killing them faster so that their property can be better utilized by the next owner and not be a drag on your property in the future. That way you can flip that property you sank every penny you had into and make a profit. How does that sound?

Don’t mind us long-term residents, the people who just lived and worked here over the course of a lifetime. We certainly won’t notice when you are gone, any more than we noticed the last five people who owned that property before you. If you think I’m being too harsh, then I suggest you get out and help the homeless in your area, right now. Now is the time when homelessness hurts the most, when we lose the most people to exposure. If you have the quarter-million dollars to blow on an investment, then you certainly have enough scratch to make the difference in a homeless person’s life. Maybe you should re-prioritize your to-do list and see if you can make the world a better place for someone else. They’ll probably thank you for it and it might even be more rewarding than that profit you are lamenting you won’t make.


This recent (04/11/2018) episode of Code Switch deals with the subject that I was talking about in this article, namely redlining, what redlining was, and what redlining did. The after effects of redlining are still felt here in Austin.

NPR, Let’s Talk, Why are cities still so segregated?

It’s hard for people who have never been poor to understand what poverty does to you. It’s even harder to understand what not being able to pass for white does to you. The barriers that are placed in your way. The things that keep you from being able to succeed, the things they blame you for? Those things are external, barriers to entry that allow those who have what you want to point at you and say “see you don’t deserve what I have.”


NPR, Code Switch, Housing Segregation In Everything

I wanted to post a link to this episode because this was the first episode of Code Switch that I could link directly. The first episode that had a specific page that I could find and link to with the content that I heard on the air present on the page. It was a nice change that I hope they keep up with. It’s hard to share insights like you get from podcasts like this if there isn’t a location on the internet to send people to so that they can hear that specific thing you are talking about. In this case, redlining. Forcing people into poverty for the sake of having poor people to look down on, to take advantage of. This structural racism and economic stratification? This bullshit has to stop, and it should have stopped a hundred years ago.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I live around the corner and it’s so wrong in so many ways. What bugs me most is that I’ve interacted with people in the yard there, and they were always nice and said hello. I don’t see why they are suddenly being called dealers and addicts. The drugs are pushed a block up at Manor and Rogge.

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