On Thursday, Apr. 3, KLRU hosted a civic summit, EAST AUSTIN REVEALED. It was billed as a community discussion, and the event began with a showing of KLRU’s AUSTIN REVEALED: CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES. (soulciti shared the KLRU stories on its Facebook page each week of Black History Month. They featured some of Austin’s most respected leaders and icons in the African American community like Gary Bledsoe, Bertha Means, Wilhelmina Delco and many more.) The history detailed in the documentary is something that every Austinite should hear, whether having lived here for three months or 60 years.
To truly understand some African American perspectives about changes in East Austin requires acknowledging what causes the changes.
After the screening, conversation began with a panel composed of former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco; Rep. Dawnna Dukes; Mayor Lee Leffingwell; Natalie Cofield, President of the Austin Black Chamber of Commerce; and John-Michael Cortez, who is the Cap Metro’s Community Involvement Manager. The dynamics were interesting.
Present were some who have lived in Austin all their life, those who were new to the city, those who are a part of the majority and those who were a part of Old East Austin. The opening question, which set the tone for the night, was “How would you describe East Austin to a new comer?”
Answers from audience members, most of them older, ranged from “different,” “changed,” “transition,” “tale of two cities & times,” and “home.” Respect was another topic that arose multiple times. Many audience members spoke about the lack of respect displayed by “new neighbors,” and at least one panelist agreed. Examples of the lack of respect included things like dog walkers not cleaning their pets’ waste, people not speaking to each other, and the new neighbors feeling like they are doing a favor to the old residents of East Austin by living there.
The panel’s answers were interesting, showing that cultural gaps at issue in East Austin lie not just between new neighbors, but also between the generations involved. Readily apparent were the panel’s differences in perspective between the generation who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and the Millennials. The difference is understandable. The older panelists have seen and lived through the many changes that East Austin has gone through. Unfortunately, a lot of that history has been lost during gentrification.
Towards the end of the night, the conversation switched from what has happened to what comes next? What actions will be taken preserve what is left of historic East Austin? What can be done by the city and the community to make sure that the families that have ties and homes in East Austin will be able to keep them? On several occasions, Delco expressed her concern about the lack of historical markers and landmarks to recognize and preserve important aspects of the community.
The concern about the gentrification of East Austin has been a touchy subject in the Black community for years, and last night’s discussion highlighted some of the many issues.