Written By: Ben Perez Edited By: Elisa Calderon
In the dynamic landscape of urban development, the term “gentrification” has gained significant attention, sparking discussions about its impacts on historically disinvested neighborhoods. The What Once Was initiative aims to shed light on this issue, educating those who are not only interested in understanding gentrification but also taking steps toward addressing its impact across Austin. It serves as a digital archive to collect, preserve, and share these important communities’ histories. Celebrated for its vibrant music and art scenes, cultural diversity, and thriving tech industry, Austin is a desirable spot for residents and visitors alike. However, behind the city’s fun, contemporary appeal, a complex issue exists: Gentrification. This is most evident in the east side of Austin, where the development of new businesses and homes has generated discussions about progress, preservation, and the character of the city.
Although definitions can vary depending on the perspective taken, Gentrification refers to the process where higher-income residents move into urban neighborhoods (most of which have been historically disinvested). This influx often changes the area’s economic, social, and cultural fabric. As these neighborhoods transform, they can sometimes lose their original character and the sense of community that used to be deeply ingrained.
With roots dating back to the 1950s, Gentrification is not a new phenomenon; nor is it limited to the city of Austin. The term “Gentrification” first gained traction as neighborhoods began experiencing dramatic shifts in London, England. But it’s occurring in major cities across the US. New York City, for instance, has witnessed gentrification in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Harlem. In the San Francisco Bay Area, BIPOC communities like the Mission District have undergone dramatic changes due to an influx of tech industry professionals with the rise of Silicon Valley. Austin, too, hasn’t been immune to this process, as neighborhoods throughout the East side have experienced major shifts due to rising property values and changing demographics. The East side of Austin carries a rich history, deeply rooted in the experiences of its Black and Latino communities. The area was initially established as a place of residence and commerce for these communities, who were forced to live there as part of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan. Despite the forced relocation, a distinct cultural identity was created and thrived for decades in the East part of the city. However, with Austin’s surge of growth and the massive arrival of newcomers, the East side has become a central point for gentrification.
Local Businesses One of the most prominent effects of gentrification on Austin’s east side is the development of the business landscape. Many of the area’s original “mom-and-pop” shops and local eateries are now forced into competition with trendy cafes, boutiques, and galleries. While this transformation brings an appearance of reinvigoration to the neighborhood, it raises concerns about authenticity and inclusivity. Who is welcomed in these neighborhoods, and who was forced to leave to make room? The rise in the number of upscale businesses presents a conundrum for the city of Austin. One side shows that the attention and spending power brought in from gentrifying neighborhoods boosts revenue, visibility, and attractiveness. But the other side argues that these new establishments almost always outprice and overshadow the businesses that gave the East side its original character.
Gentrification’s impact on residential areas is even more profound. Similar to the effect on local businesses, as property values soar, longtime residents are being priced out of their neighborhoods. The lack of affordable housing compounds the issues created, leading to steady displacement that threatens the social fabric of majority BIPOC communities.
The heart of the gentrification debate in the East side of Austin is found in cultural identity. The tangible foundations of these neighborhoods’ pasts are actively being erased with the arrival of new developments. Preserving the cultural heritage of these communities is essential to ensure original residents feel seen and heard.
Through programs such as What Once Was, Creative Leadership Academy, and Get Creative Clubs, E4 Youth provides space and opportunities for BIPOC youth of Austin, many of whom are grappling with the harsh realities that the gentrification of Austin brings.
The gentrification occurring in Austin’s East side is a multifaceted situation that affects the city’s businesses, homes, and cultural identity. As the city continues to expand and evolve, balancing progress with historical preservation is critical for our BIPOC communities. By understanding the negative experiences of those affected by this phenomenon, as a community, we can collectively work towards preserving the essence of neighborhoods while still leaving room for development. Moving forward, engaging in dialogue and collaboration to accommodate both longtime residents and newcomers is critical to allowing for an equitable development of the city that still cherishes the legacies of its BIPOC communities.
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ORA HOUSTON – RESIDENT OF AUSTIN’S BLACKLANDS NEIGHBORHOOD. “Austin’s ‘1928 Master Plan’ Unleashed Forces Which Still Shape Austin Today.” ORA HOUSTON, 2018.