For more than fifty years, East Austin lay hidden in plain sight. The neighborhood’s center is clearly visible from almost any downtown office building, yet for years the occupants of those offices never went there except occasionally for Mexican food at lunchtime, abandoning it at night.
When I started crossing Interstate 35 into East Austin I went there to be an outsider in my own city. I enjoyed the cool sense of lingering danger. Until I began photographing there, my attraction to East Austin remained as vague as that. Soon I realized it was actually a sense of pride that drew me there. Pride that a place of such unique character, with a tangible soul formed in Austin’s early days long before the high-tech boom, still existed in this city.
The heart of old East Austin, from the Colorado River to Martin Luther King Boulevard and between Interstate 35 and Airport Boulevard, where virtually all of these photographs were taken, is much like any working class neighborhood in the country. Families struggling and prospering live side-by-side, separated only by a chain link fence. African American and Latino businesses thrive because that is where their customers live.
There is a palatable sense of community. Nowhere else in the city can one name carry you so far. If you know Charles, then you know Bubba. And if you know Bubba, then you know JT and Gene, and so on. This was how the doors of East Austin opened to me. And with each door that opened, my old stereotypes and prejudices about East Austin fell away.
In East Austin life plays itself out fully in three square miles, and it does so on the surface for all to witness. You watch young men struggle with life’s temptations and disappointments right before your eyes. Five minutes and two blocks later you can have the most inspirational conversation of beating the odds you’ve ever heard. But East Austin’s real story is the product of those struggles, not the struggles themselves.
The people who have called those twenty square blocks home for decades—some for half a century—know the long history of their friends, their neighborhood and their city. And while no one in East Austin is pleased that crime is excessive and economic prosperity scarce, residents are proud of the patina history has created.
They fight the odds and endure, and that common struggle has borne a sense of community we long for in other places.
But cities evolve and with evolution comes a struggle to survive. Struggling to survive are neighborhoods—and more importantly, communitites—that evolved over decades and bear the imprint of multiple generations living in the same house and frequenting the same restaurants and stores.
Bubba has run the Dollhouse Barber Shop of East 11th for forty years. As condos pop up around him, the value of the lot his barbershop occupies continues to escalate to the point where $7 haricuts can no longer pay the rent. As property values rise, so do taxes.
Bubba watches as his customers dwindle, friends leave and the surrounding homes fill with residents unwilling to have their hair cut by an aging African American man who thinks of a thirty minute wait as a chance to get to know your neighbors and listen to stories about Austin in the 1970s. Whether it’s in the Northeast neighborhoods of Portland, Harlem, or East Austin, an influx of people slowly displaces the very things that attracted them there in the first place.
There is no consensus view, even among East Austin residents, of the implications of this change. Some homewoners view the rising property values as a windfall. A home worth $60,000 eight years ago is now worth $260,000. That $200,000 represents the chance to send a child to college, buy a new home in a different neighborhood or simply feel that you have enough to retire.
But all acknowledge there is an intangible price associated with that financial windfall—the loss of neighbors you’ve known for years, the replacement of beauty shops that knew how to braid extensions with ones that offer massages and wax treatments, and coffee shops selling a single cup of coffee for the same price a meal would have cost at the taqueria that coffee shop replaced. Most profoundly, these changes represent a loss of community, and no amount of affordable housing imposed by well-intentioned city officials can replace that once it is lost.
That the gentrification disrupting so many working-class neighborhoods across the country will work its hand on East Austin is a certainty. On each visit back I see more notable changes: two more houses bought for redevelopment, the opening of a few shops or restaurants geared not for the residents of the last half-century but for those of the last six months, another four-foot-high chain link fence replaced by a seven-foot privacy fence.
The change in East Austin has moved so fast and so suddenly that I have hardly been able to work fast enough to photograph businesses that have been around for decades before I arrived.
Change is inevitable, and often for the better, but we must still take measure of what we lose. In East Austin, lost will be an important history, a strong and deep-rooted sense of community and an urban texture that exists nowhere else in a city vying for its spot on the lists of America’s ‘coolest’ places to live.
East Austin is not the blank canvas developers might see. It’s like a Picasso—complex, disturbing when viewed from certain angles, beautiful when viewed from others. The purpose of this series is to reveal— and more importantly, to celebrate—the beauty, the history, the charm, and the perseverance of the people of East Austin and all the neighborhoods like it that the vagaries of time will render unrecognizable to future generations. —John Langmore, March 2009
John Langmore is a documentary photographer based in Austin, TX.
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