"Exclusively for WHITE PEOPLE
maximum of 5 colored customers
colored BOH staff accepted
sponsored by the City of Austin
Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program"
Someone has decided that this second week of SXSW would be the right moment to raise a stink about the fast-paced gentrification of East Austin, and whoever that someone is has succeeded in getting people's attention.
The story first came to light Wednesday morning on Facebook, of course, where user Brianna Smith posted a photo she took on her way to work. That's her photo you see at the top of the page here.
It didn't take long before that image made its way to Twitter and across social media platforms, eventually gaining wide attention. I first read about it at the Statesman, our local paper, early yesterday and watched all day as notice rapidly spread from State Rep. Dawnna Dukes (in whose district it happened), the NAACP, other news outlets and eventually from the Mayor Steve Adler's office. The entire affair was generally confused, in part because of the use of the City of Austin logo and a sponsorship statement that the sticker was promoted by the non-existent "City of Austin Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program". "No one" knew what was going on and there were lots of pissed off people all across the city.
I put "no one" in quotes because I know that's not really the case, even if most statements and news stories give the impression of shock and surprise. As an artist who has engaged in very aggressive agitprop I immediately recognized this sticker for what it is: a searing commentary on the out-of-control gentrification that is taking place all across the East side and in particular around the neighborhood targeted by these stickers. Anyone paying attention knows what's up on the East side. Whether they are interested in talking openly about it is another issue altogether.
Use of the CoA logo and the fictitious "Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program" were a pretty slick touch by whoever perpetrated this hoax commentary. Placing these stickers overnight or in the early morning hours on business that are high visibility and reflective of gentrification was a deliberate act, despite the reality several businesses are minority owned. Whoever did this knew exactly what conversation they wanted to provoke and it seems to me they were successful as hell, a sentiment I doubt is shared by the City and the businesses targeted. It's a nasty reminder with inconvenient timing and it paints an ugly picture of a city that keeps close watch of its image.
So, what is happening that has people upset enough to take up guerrilla agitprop and punk the CoA in such a blatant way? The East side, designated as a minority district by the 1928 Austin master plan, has undergone a rapid transformation as real estate prices soar. Developers have bought up large swaths of an area close to downtown that has been traditionally poor, black and hispanic and occupied largely by renters or owners who can not afford the rising taxes. Many of those owners are cashing out at the top of a hot market and the result is young, white and largely affluent people moving in and taking over the community. Same story, different city.
And while this has been going on for several years, the past year has seen a major boost in construction and a major boost in tensions. The City is of course seen by opponents of this development as complicit in the destruction of these communities, and that's understandable. Austin is 68% white by the last census and is tremendously segregated. The historical animosity in regard to school and services is in major play here, and while the City has made efforts to appease these communities it's pretty hard to argue they aren't complicit. They are, after all, issuing the permits that allow this redevelopment even as community activists have struggled for years to gain support for initiatives to mitigate gentrification and protect the historical nature of the existing community.
One recent incident came to mind as soon as I saw that sticker: the early-morning destruction of Jumpolin, a Latino business on East Cesar Chavez Blvd.
Jumpolin was a piñata shop and rented inflatable bouncy houses. It was the
East side party rental place for the last 8 years and a business that was considered an institution by people in the community. Back in February the owners bulldozed the structure and all of their inventory in the wee hours of the morning. The leaseholders argued they were never given notice and the owners argued that they were. Texas Monthly had a good article
about it at the time, breaking down the he-said she-said and generally agreeing that whatever the circumstances, it wasn't a pretty picture of the gentrification issue and was in fact predictable. Here's the meat of it from TM, which is a recommended read:
No matter which way you spin it, though, it’s a bad look in a city whose racial issues are real and ever-present when new owners tear down a business that sold piñatas for children in a traditionally Latino neighborhood. And it’s an even worse look when one of those new owners gives an interview in which he implies that the Lejarazus may have actually been drug dealers and, likening the Lejarazus’ business to “a house that was infested by roaches,” promises that the site “will get cleaned up, landscaped, and beautified” like the high-end landscaping firm Big Red Sun nearby.
That paragraph and the article it comes from about sums it up in regard to what's happening here. In an affluent city with a long history of institutional racism and stark segregation, the new rules of the game are the same as the old rules; money talks and poor people lose. Whoever put those stickers out is clear about the game and has decided to play outside the established rules. That's an uncomfortable act in a town obsessed with image, especially when it happens in the midsts of the massive international attention of SXSW.
And now for the reason y'all came here this evening, The Tops!