Chris Rogers is a painter and muralist in Austin, TX, and after one of his iconic graffiti murals at E. 12th and Chicon was recently painted over, he is back at it this month. The retail store who commissioned the new mural realized their mistake after community backlash to the unannounced literal whitewashing of the wall. After the community uproar, members of the East 12th Street Merchants Association spoke to the merchant, and she agreed to commission Chris to repaint a new mural.
Rogers' work highlights musicians, artists and people of color who are often left out of murals and depictions of our history as a city, and in the larger picture, as a country. Did you know that Austin’s 1929 city plan passed in 1928 included efforts to institutionalize racial segregation through forced migration of black people to the east side of the city? Now, that same population, who built a thriving hyper-local economy over the past 100 years, is being forced out systematically. I see Chris's mural as helping to bring light to the tough topic of gentrification.
As property taxes began to soar in all central districts around the turn of the century, the eastside became the only affordable place for artists and people working in the service industry and non-profits to afford to buy a home in the central part of the city. Later that decade, folks like me who preferred the culture of "the eastside" to the rest of Central Austin started trickling in as rents and home prices soared elsewhere. What we did not fully understand (investigate? care about?) was that higher property taxes from soaring area home valuations were pushing out people whose families had been there for nearly 100 years. The net effect was forcing them to sell at much lower prices than the properties would be worth in the very near future. I now know predatory real estate deals were happening all over East Austin, adding to the dilemma for these families.
Typical to gentrification everywhere, people of color were systematically pushed out, their once-thriving businesses began to shutter as loyal customers moved away. Meanwhile, lower middle-class folks who couldn't have ever secured leases anywhere west of 35 in central Austin suddenly found themselves with entrepreneurship opportunities on the eastside. Collectives and bars, retail shops and dance clubs sprung up in dilapidated and interesting abandoned commercial spots. Many of those people were LGBTQ and they founded a niche of super neat, relatively safe places to be themselves away from the homophobia found in scenes west of 35. Many were poverty-level white people and could never have owned a home prior to buying on the eastside. But all the while, black people living in fairly dire poverty were being offered sums of money they'd never seen before. They were taking these opportunities, either under duress or temporary exaltation—many realizing too late that the money didn't last long, and now they were out of a house, a neighborhood and a community.
Late in the first decade of the 21st century, developers started raiding the eastside, buying up everything they could get their hands on, because lower-class to lower-middle class white people had spoken—we wanted to be close to work, close to venues, close to hip shops we could own or work at, and we needed it at an affordable price. Those developers knew that once it became posh and "safe," better-off people with more resources would come to live. And that they did—it was a very good gamble.
Now, artists and people of limited means of all colors and orientations are no longer welcome at the eastside table. As always, we have shot ourselves in the foot and only the early adopters are winning. Eventually, they too will get pushed out due to rising property taxes without paycheck increases to offset the cost of living increases. It's the Texas way, unfortunately.
This whole scenario is playing out in cities across the country at a rapid pace, and any civil protections cities might want to offer are countered internally by urban renewal heydayists. Effectively, we are collectively saying "heyyyyy we want that place we forced you to live in the early 20th century back now, kthanksbai" to people of color everywhere. Luckily, we are now starting to listen to communities who have been on the eastside for a century. And we have people helping these communities tell their story. People like Chris are doing the damn thing, with East 12th Street Merchants Association and other orgs helping lead the way. I'm certainly listening now, but I'm afraid it's too late. We have to focus our energy on who is still here now, and that starts with hearing a point of view in direct conflict with our own ambitions.