Conventional wisdom holds that gentrification is something that a lot of people “feel” but rarely take the time to actually document. Studies about gentrification are often too wonky to influence policymakers, who want a nice, clean definition of the term “gentrification” served to them on a silver platter.
Accordingly, allow me to take you through a brief tour of gentrification in my neighborhood — Montopolis. If you are a regular reader of this blog or have read my book about the neighborhood, you are already aware of much of what is at stake. Montopolis is a historic community that is nearly bisected by the East Riverside Corridor — the plan for which was enacted by the city council in 2010 without formal consultation, much less negotiation, with the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team. Our previously sleepy community was largely left alone by the previous East Austin wave of gentrification between 2000 and 2015, but gentrification has been accelerating steadily since.
Large Lots and the Role of Code Enforcement
According to the 2015 American Community Survey Montopolis, a.k.a. “Poverty Island” has a median household income of $27,273 with a poverty rate of 39.1% However the community does have an owner-occupancy rate of 44%, most of whom live in single family homes, which is a higher percentage than other neighborhoods along the East Riverside Corridor, and a higher percentage than the East Austin portion of City Council District 3 overall.
In addition to owning their homes, quite a few Montopolis homesteaders also enjoy larger lot sizes than in more centrally located Austin neighborhoods. This is because Montopolis was not part of the City of Austin until 1952, with portions still not fully annexed and serviced by public institutions until the 1980’s. For many years the neighborhood functioned as Austin’s poor stepchild — residents would have to periodically bring their longstanding concerns before elected officials at formally convened sessions dedicated to addressing longstanding community needs. The community’s identity has been shaped by its rural and semi-rural character; many of the streets in Montopolis were little more than dirt roads well into the 1980’s.
Our community’s large and oddly shaped lots have now become very desirable. Still, Montopolis residents are not selling at the brisk pace that residents of East Austin did 10-17 years ago (largely because there were more renters). What’s a gentrifier to do?
Answer: start submitting complaints to Austin’s Code Compliance department.
Here is a representative sample of some properties that were reported to code enforcement. All of these properties were compelled to sell.
202 Montopolis Drive
2404 Thrasher Lane
208 Kemp Street
Go After the Churches
Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon has taken place at 6605 Riverside Drive, the location of the former New Jerusalem Baptist Church. A photo of the church is featured on page 87 of my book about the Montopolis community.
In late 2015 Austin code enforcement personnel began citing the church with safety and code violations. Here are a couple of examples:
This church had not been considered a safety hazard for decades. What changed? It now sat on very desirable real estate. I took note of this in a brief video I shot at the end of 2015 (apologies for the sideways perspective).
Does this sort of cynical stuff work? In these cases it has. The owners of 2404 Thrasher, 208 Kemp and 202 Montopolis Drive were all compelled to sell. As for the New Jerusalem Baptist Church? It hasn’t sold yet, but the church building was destroyed. Here is a photo:
Tellingly, the Travis Appraisal District has dramatically increased the valuation of the church property. Churches don’t pay property taxes –I think they should because some of them play the gentrification game every bit as well as some private developers–but that is a different discussion. To give you some idea of the insane upward rate of property valuations along corridors, take a look at what has happened to the valuation of this church in a scant four years:
The church was valued at $136,034 in 2013. By 2017 its value had risen to $1,109,909. That is a 716% increase in four years!
Taxpayer Funded City Planners are Cherry-Picking Imagine Austin
If you consult the backup for these currently active zoning cases, what you will find is studious pro-gentrification bias on the part of city employees in Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department. Staff’s backup for item C-17 on tonight’s Planning Commission agenda — for the former mobile home community located at 2110 Thrasher Lane for instance — scrupulously notes that for neighborhood plans adopted prior to January 2002 “all single family zoning categories are allowed without a Neighborhood Plan amendment” and cites the following neighborhood objectives from the Imagine Austin plan: HN P10 (“Create complete neighborhoods”) and HNP1 (“Distribute a wide variety of housing types”) and concludes as follows: “Imagine Austin policies, the Growth Concept Map, and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan appear to support this housing project.”
Wrong. For instance, what about objectives HN P11, HN P12, and HN P15 in the Imagine Austin plan which direct the city to preserve neighborhood character and to facilitate longtime residents being able to stay in their homes? Newsflash: poor neighborhoods, including and especially mobile home parks, very much have a neighborhood character worth preserving.
On several occasions I have been quoted as stating that the biggest gentrifier of all in the City of Austin is the City of Austin itself. The previous examples are but one manifestation of what I have been talking about.
Austin Needs To Wake Up
The examples furnished here are real world examples. Moreover, I have omitted the fact that the current owner of 2404 Thrasher Lane is seeking to rezone the property to build condominiums, and the present owner of 6507 Riverside Drive does not consider East Riverside Corridor zoning to be to his liking — he is seeking to upzone three contiguous parcels from Neighborhood Residential to Commercial Mixed Use in order to build a 300-plus unit apartment/condominium complex. In a residential area made up of free-standing single family homes that as recently as five years ago was considered undesirable. Will these people build housing that is affordable for people in the neighborhood?* I think you already know the answer.
*Another sign of cynical depravity: the current owner of 2404 Thrasher Lane is named “Octavian” Heresan, and his proposed project is titled “Affordable Dream Homes.” There must be some irony in a neighborhood called Montopolis — the name is Greek for “city on a hill” — being gentrified by a rich immigrant named after Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome.
Here is video of a talk I delivered at the University of Texas School of Architecture’s “City Forum” on October 20, 2017. The title of my presentation was “New Urbanism and the Destruction of American Public Housing.” In it I trace the establishment and growth of New Urbanism and firmly situate it as part of a 1990’s wave of deepening neoliberal governance. The fact that public housing tenants were used as germs in the New Urbanist petri dish isn’t as acknowledged as it should be.
My talk is based on over twenty years of participant observation and scholar activism in public housing projects all over the world, including Berlin, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as in American cities such as Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Corpus Christi, and of course Austin.
Many thanks to the University of Texas for recording the event and for placing it online. Please ignore the privacy warning below and watch it on Vimeo.
The word “gentrification” does not appear in Imagine Austin or in CodeNEXT. This seems odd, given that Austin has had multiple commissions over the past seventeen years meant to study and address the issue. The policy analyses and recommendations made by these task forces and commissions have been sitting on the shelf gathering dust.
The commission did not get to this place easily. A working group chaired by the commission’s vice chair met for over nine months to study and deliberate the issue. I was part of the working group. Here, again, is a copy of the slide presentation I delivered before the human rights commission in 2015 regarding gentrification and historic preservation in Austin.
Please feel free to share the link below. Because Austin’s status as a human rights violator is something not talked about enough.
An impressive propaganda campaign has been orchestrated by pro-CodeNEXT boosters to confuse the public mind about the potential consequences these proposed changes to how Austin regulates land development will produce.The time has come for some historically grounded critical thinking that can help cut through the misinformation, half-truths, distortions and lies that have been promulgated regarding this issue.What follows is an analysis and interpretation of three key claims of pro-CodeNEXT boosters from an African-American progressive perspective.
CodeNEXT and Imagine Austin are best interpreted as neoliberal political projects by Austin’s ruling real estate oligarchs to cement their hegemony over Austin’s political economy.The process began in the late nineties with the establishment of East Austin as a so-called “Desired Development Zone” and the stipulation that development of much of West Austin’s “fragile environment” would be off limits.These provisos remain a cornerstone of the Imagine Austin Plan, which CodeNEXT supposedly implements.
Smart growth stuck the knife in East Austin’s back about three inches in the late nineties, New Urbanism and Creative Class dogma thrust it in about another three inches in the mid aughts; the last at large council rammed through Imagine Austin in 2012.The purpose of CodeNEXT is to finish the job in 2018.
My main point is direct and it can be simply stated:what remains of East Austin will cease to exist if CodeNEXT becomes law and the Imagine Austin Plan is not amended to reflect the needs and values of East Austin, which also possesses a fragile natural and cultural environment.
What is neoliberalism?Basically it’s the belief that markets always know best.It’s “conservative” economics plus social liberalism, especially identity politics.George Monbiot explained what it means about a year ago here, and Robert Reich in the short video below explains how free marketism in states like Texas compares with more regulated states such as California.For the purposes of this discussion, these are useful introductions to the concept.
Local new urbanists at Evolve Austin and elsewhere have put before the public three primary arguments for why the Austin City Council — crucially NOT the voters of Austin — should enact CodeNEXT.Once you cut through the flowery neoliberal language, these claims are, roughly, as follows:
1.CodeNEXT is more sustainable than our existing code, and is thus better for the environment.This is so because CodeNEXT minimizes sprawl and enacts the “compact and connected” provisions of the Imagine Austin plan.
2.CodeNEXT will help tackle Austin’s affordability challenges and gentrification problem.It does so by eliminating or reducing unnecessary real estate development regulations and by expanding, in some places dramatically, Austin’s density bonus program.
3.By encouraging compact and connected development all over the city, enactment of CodeNEXT will dismantle much of Austin’s stubborn racial segregation problem.
Underlying these assertions is a manufactured sense of urgency claiming that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.“Doing nothing is not an option” has been proclaimed publicly by at least four of Austin’s eleven city councillors, whose proclamations about the flaws of Austin’s current land development code are mendacious and politically flawed.
Let’s take a step back from the heated rhetoric and examine these contentions more cooly.Are these claims in fact true?
Before doing so, allow me to quickly dispense with the first two claims.
CodeNEXT is Not Necessarily More “Sustainable” or Good for the Environment
Austin has become so thoroughly soaked by Smart Growth/New Urbanist anti-sprawl dogma that few have actually bothered to ask whether or how much this evangelical mumbo jumbo has any intellectual substance behind it.
Short answer:it doesn’t.At least not to the degree claimed by its proselytizers.
Former Texas A&M University urbanist Michael Neuman, in his seminal paper The Compact City Fallacy pointed out more than ten years ago that most of the evidence put forth by compact city advocates is far from definitive and is at best equivocal.
Not all density is created equal.Totalizing “density at all cost” approaches are short-sighted in both empirical as well as cultural terms.What matters most is process; in short, quality, not just quantity.Most existing Austin neighborhood plans already contain provisions for neighborhood densification.In fact many of them encourage the practice. High quality design standards that are truly sustainable also matter; that’s why I have vigorously fought for implementation of the Passive House standard in Austin during my service on Austin’s Community Development Commission and the Joint Sustainability Committee.
What accounts, then, for the cult-like fervency of these people, especially in cities like Austin?Short answer:the implementation of neoliberal governance in the 1990’s.Having neighborhoods control how they grow isn’t acceptable; it has to be smart people, especially liberals closely affiliated with the foundation or non-profit world, that make such decisions.The job of politicians is to support this arrangement, or to become smart people themselves.
As a matter of practice, most planners and “urbanists” who adhere to Compact City doctrine do not cite empirical evidence to support their contentions. That’s because as Neuman and others have shown, the evidence isn’t there. They instead cite the support of professional organizations, think tanks, or of academics who share their philosophical or political predispositions about the self-inherent virtue of markets, real estate markets in particular. One noteworthy recent example: the pro-CodeNEXT declaration released in late October 2017 by Environment Texas and the Texas Public Interest Research Group. Such appeals to authority may work in the political arena, but they do not constitute scientific understanding, as anyone familiar with Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kit knows.
The lesson?New Urbanism is best understood as a neoliberal political project, not as an interdisciplinary enterprise in Urban Studies.Its claims about how people ought to live are not grounded in true scholarship but in neoliberal political advocacy.
CodeNEXT Will Not Solve Austin’s Affordability Problems
As a member of Austin’s Community Development Commission I had a hand in drafting the document now known as the Strategic Housing Blueprint. The remaining provisions in the document concerning public housing construction, rent control, affordable housing preservation, and more realistic MFI (i.e. Median Family Income) qualifications bear as much my influence as anyone’s.Nonetheless, I remain disappointed that the plan emphasizes expanding Austin’s density bonus programs to the extent that it does.
The blueprint’s neoliberal stench is palpable.Framing the overall question of housing affordability in terms of a housing “shortage” is deceptive as well as foolish.It is obvious whose interests such framing serves.Why are we arguing for dramatic increases in new housing construction when we have not even taken proper stock of theexisting affordable housing in our community that could be recycled, usually for much less money? But supply-side thinking has become an article of faith in Austin; precisely at a time when evidence for it is at an all time low. This correlation is telling, and bears further analysis.
Austin’s density bonus program has been a miserable failure at producing affordable housing. Please read this and this for further discussion.
As far as the ridiculous claim that further deregulation of real estate development would help produce the affordable housing we need–the fatuous claim that making it easier to construct ADU’s (i.e. Auxiliary Dwelling Units) would do something to help with affordability in particular–that trickle-down “filtering” nonsense has thankfully largely been abandoned as a line of reasoning by most pro-CodeNEXT bolsters. It doesn’t merit further discussion.
The Federal Government and Real Estate
It is not commonly known that it was cities facing bankruptcy during the Great Depression who called on the federal government for loans to pay off existing debts and to pay for public services and who organized themselves into the U.S. Conference of Mayors to lobby for jobs programs. That era marked the first serious intervention by the federal government in local real estate affairs and created modern conceptions of residential real estate in America.
The New Deal produced a series of policies and laws that persist to this day, including major changes to housing finance (e.g. FHA loans and the creation of the thirty-year mortgage and the FDIC) and a pilot public housing program under the Public Works Administration. The PWA (Public Works Administration), an early New Deal agency, was at the time the largest federal intervention into the economy ever undertaken.The PWA Housing Program would later be replaced by a permanent federal public housing program operated by the United States Housing Authority (USHA).Austin has the oldest such housing in America.
It was the federal government’s program of public housing construction under the PWA, USHA and the Homestead program–whose purpose was to build sustainable farming communities–that most directly stood to benefit rapidly urbanizing Afro-America.The program, which was run by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, also had a black advisor:Robert Clifton Weaver, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.Weaver would transfer over to the USHA when that program was established after passage of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act, and in 1966 became the first HUD Secretary.
W.E.B. DuBois on Segregation
In January 1934 W.E.B. DuBois, editor of Crisis magazine, initiated a yearlong discussion about segregation.DuBois, who at this point of his long life was transitioning from his late Talented Tenth period to a more Marxist position, advocated for what to today’s eye would seem inconceivable:voluntary segregation.Nearly 84 years later, it is worthwhile to re-examine the central points of DuBois’s analysis.
At the time that DuBois wrote, segregation was an established fact of life.The problem, according to DuBois, wasn’t so much segregation, but the discrimination that too often came with it.Few African-Americans objected to living or worshipping separately; the list of concerns for black America included basics such as jobs, quality public education, reasonably priced healthcare, and affordable housing, even if furnished on a segregated basis.Interestingly, these are still leading concerns in black America, not “segregation” per se.
It is important to not misunderstand the point DuBois was making.DuBois clearly recognized segregation was wrong, and supported political strategizing for its eventual elimination, but what he opposed was making “segregation” the reified focal point of basic civil rights advocacy.The truth is that there were and are many African-Americans who would be satisfied living in a state of voluntary segregation if the segregated institutions were equal to those enjoyed by whites.The establishment of numerous Freedmen’s communities–many of them quite self-sufficient and sustainable in their own right–in states such as Texas is a testament to this.This raises the question:has desegregation helped African-Americans at large?DuBois’s prescient insights made at the height of the New Deal continue to offer provocative thinking regarding this question.
In any case, Walther White, Joel Springarn, Francis Grimke and other NAACP leaders disagreed with DuBois.The NAACP, they argued, should strongly and consistently oppose segregation as an evil, even if it meant that black families in desperate need of food, clothing and shelter had to suffer further.
DuBois found such high-mindedness foolish.“The thinking colored people of the United States must stop being stampeded by the word segregation,” he wrote, and should be willing to accept much needed federal help for mutual benefit even if it was delivered on a segregated basis.
Evidence shows that rank and file blacks sided more with Dr. DuBois than with the leadership of the NAACP. For instance Austin’s initial public housing construction in 1938 was met with open arms by the city’s black community, despite being used by city officials to implement the segregationist tenets of the 1928 master plan.
The lesson?In 2017 and 2018 non-profit advocacy against “segregation” — in partnership with and funded by the real estate industry — serves readily identifiable class interests.Dr. DuBois was onto something.
The Truth About Segregation
The Austin Board of Realtors, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and the Austin Apartment Association are some of the most noteworthy supporters of Evolve Austin, the pro-CodeNEXT political organization and Political Action Committee (you can view their PAC filings here).Organizationally as well as individually, these groups, along with their national umbrella organizations such as the National Association of Real Estate Boards, have been the most abysmal and persistent supporters of twentieth century residential segregation in America.
As Robert Clifton Weaver in his 1947 classic The Negro Ghetto documented at length, it was local real estate boards and financial institutions who conspired with government as well as racist politicians to deny African-Americans desegregated housing.In fact, steering black homebuyers into white neighborhoods was a violation of the real estate board’s code of ethics and was grounds for dismissal.
The record isn’t pretty.The National Association of Real Estate Boards fought public housing when it was first introduced as a pilot program under the PWA (Public Works Administration), opposed the creation of the USHA (United States Housing Authority) and successfully fought to water down the 1937 Housing Act to the point where it was certain to fail, and fought against Shelley v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Hodge which finally terminated racist restrictive covenants and set the stage for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that terminated segregated education.
For the sake of brevity, I shall skip the role of these organization during urban renewal in the 1950’s.
In the 1960’s these organizations red-baited Robert Clifton Weaver when President Kennedy nominated him to lead a proposed new cabinet department of housing and urban development, fought his nomination to become HUD secretary once President Johnson succeeded in creating the department, and perhaps worst of all, they bitterly opposed enactment of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act, like the 1937 Housing Act, passed on its third try. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. heavily influenced its passage. President Johnson considered it one of his greatest accomplishments. As the act’s 50th anniversary nears, here is a good video to watch about its history and meaning.
At a local level, led by ABOR (Austin Board of Realtors), these organizations strenuously opposed the enactment of Austin’s local fair housing ordinance, which the Austin NAACP had been fighting for for years.Racist realtors and their associates organized a referendum which overturned the ordinance; that referendum is still the most consequential plebiscite in the history of Austin.It eventually led to the enactment of Austin’s racist “Gentleman’s Agreement” based at-large city council, the election of Roy Butler, and the institutionalization of anti-Great Society real estate practices that persist to the present.
You can read about some of this in the public housing work I have done documenting the historical importance of Austin’s Santa Rita Courts and Rosewood Courts public housing projects, as well as in some of my other work.
How did these anti-desegregationists organize such a successful referendum?According to former city councillor Emma Long, they would telephone white voters residing in deed restricted neighborhoods and ask “Do you want a Nigger living next to you?” or “Do you want forced public housing in your community?”
Fast forward to 2007 and 2008.What was the role of these organizations in perpetuating the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis of that time?What was its impact on African-American homeownership? Have any of these institutions been held accountable? If you need me to answer these questions for you, you haven’t been paying proper attention.
In case you need a primer on how mortgage finance has changed since the New Deal and how horrible the consequences of neoliberal worship of markets have become, here is a scene from the 2015 film The Big Short that helps to explain:
What is my point?These organizations are in no moral position to offer advice, much less policy recommendations, concerning segregation. On questions of residential segregation, they have no credibility whatsoever and anyone following their lead or taking their money is dancing with the devil. That’s why it was ignorant as well as offensive for Austin Mayor Steve Adler to suggest at a RECA luncheon earlier in 2017 that enactment of CodeNEXT would constitute a step forward for civil rights in Austin, in the tradition of the 1964 and 1965 (but not 1968) civil rights laws.The opposite is in fact the case.
But one would expect such neoliberal codswallop, given the fact that the real estate industry is the largest contributor to all public officials in Austin.
CodeNEXT is Not a Desegregationist Document
CodeNEXT advocates who superciliously declare that “racist” West Austin is engaging in the mother of all NIMBY campaigns are being disingenuous.Their claims could be taken more seriously if they supported the undoing of racist public policy targeting East Austin from the 1990’s onward; but they do not support this.
Moreover, will it be black people who move to neighborhoods such as Tarrytown, Pemberton Heights, Old Enfield, Allandale and Northwest Hills if CodeNEXT passes?Of course not.The people pushing the false “CodeNEXT equals desegregation” narrative are shilling for the one percent. Pro racial justice or environmental organizations that have endorsed CodeNEXT such as the Austin Justice Coalition and Ecology Action should be ashamed of themselves. Given the neoliberal sourcing of much of their funding, however, one should not be surprised.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously worried that in pursuing desegregation, African-Americans would end up integrating into a burning house.Was this fear justified? Let’s take a look.
Austin, like other cities, can learn a great deal about the persistence of segregation by closely examining its history of public school desegregation.Consider, for instance, the desegregation of public schools in cities such as Austin and Boston.What have been the black community consequences of the closure of Old Anderson High School?Has Austin’s school district in fact desegregated at all? Keep in mind, all of this has taken place in an era of identity politics.
It is ironic that as I write Austin voters are voting on an Austin ISD school bond that would move Johnston High School into the campus of Old Anderson High School, the educational heart of “formerly” segregated black East Austin.Had we known in 1971 that this would be the sad state of affairs in late 2017, we could have kept Old Anderson open and spared ourselves a lot of trouble and torment.
We Need to Fix Inequality, Not Just Segregation
The claim that CodeNEXT will help to fix Austin’s segregation problem readily serves certain class interests.That so many members of Austin’s non-profit industrial complex and supposed “advocacy” organizations support CodeNEXT is most revealing about how the politics of land and power actually operate in thoroughly neoliberalized cities such as Austin.
Austin’s main problem is inequality, not segregation.Fixing the latter will not necessarily fix the former, whereas fixing the former will most definitely positively impact the latter.
Fixing inequality will require us to get serious about institutional racism. It will require politicians to pursue policies that produce wages that can support a family. It will require city leaders who are willing to declare the affordability crisis the serious emergency that it is. In practice it will require politicians with the courage to confront and regulate Austin’s powerful real estate interests. Most importantly, it will require immediate action, not the appointment of more do-nothing task forces, fact-finding bodies, or other stalling tactics.
What we have instead is lickspittle leadership that has mentally twisted itself into thinking–just as planners did during the Vietnam War–that “in order to save this village, we had to destroy it.” So what we get instead is more gentrification on steroids. The eviction of the poor and pigmented from their historic communities, so that we can build mixed use development for highly profitable multinational corporations such as Oracle. Or the weak-kneed kowtowing to a promise-breaking but well connected real estate consortium at Plaza Saltillo.
(Incidentally, Plaza Saltillo was originally known as Masontown, a Reconstruction-era African-American Freedmen’s community. Take a look at the map at the beginning of my September 20, 2017 blog post for the location of some of Austin’s original post Civil War free slave settlements.)
Hypocrisy abounds; at the Domain shopping mall a “deal was a deal” and stopping the taxpayer subsidy that was a crucial part of its financing was unthinkable. By 2017, it has become acceptable for developers to lie in bid proposals, to fudge minority and woman owned business paperwork, to lowball bid estimates, and to misrepresent what they are prepared to offer in terms of community benefits. As for planning and design at the Plaza Saltillo development itself? It violates basic Transit Oriented Development principles by including hundreds of parking spaces for cars and trucks.
It doesn’t have to be this way.Sign the Petition, so that Austin voters can be a proper check and balance on the unrighteous CodeNEXT boondoggle.
Certain members of Austin’s black bourgeoisie are perturbed. They are perturbed because the recent political fight over the future of the Montopolis Negro School has exposed some of their ruling class privileges and has also unveiled some of their neoliberal elitism. More to the point, the 2015-2017 fight to preserve the Montopolis Negro School–much of which you can read about on this website–has publicly demonstrated some of the inner workings of how contemporary black elected officials deploy notions of “compromise” with real estate developers alongside identity politics in order to stifle neighborhood self-determination and further gentrification.The Montopolis Negro School case may end up being remembered as the first true test of whether the move to single member districts will mark the start of the unraveling or significant modification of the HNIC (for the uninitiated:Head Negro in Charge) politics that have characterized Austin and (especially) the South more generally for generations.
Consider the September 28, 2017 (the date the city council considered the Montopolis Negro School matter) remarks of Austin city council member Ora Houston, who vigorously and self-righteously fought for an all-districts based city council in 2012 and was elected to the council’s only African-American opportunity seat two years later.Instead of fighting alongside the community against a haughty and bigoted Austin version of a young Donald Trump named Austin Stowell, the councilmember instead opted to publicly castigate members of the Montopolis community–myself in particular–at what should have been a moment of triumph and celebration.It did not have to be this way; Houston’s remarks from the dais were petty and churlish, and she could have chosen to utter them in private.That she chose the opposite course speaks to basic character flaws in her judgment that undermine the mostly positive public service she has rendered Austin over the years.
Ora Houston represents Austin City Council District 1, a designated African-American Opportunity District (although its Hispanic population is greater).The Montopolis School for Negro Children is located in city council district 3, a designated Hispanic opportunity district.
Certain traditions of Austin’s decades-long at large city council practices die hard; because this was a historic “Negro” school, and because of a political vacuum left by the District 3 city councilman, Ms. Houston stepped up to “negotiate” a political settlement on the Montopolis community’s behalf.One rationale, among several, she used to legitimate her insertion into our community’s politics was this:Austin Stowell, a resident of the 12 Waller project he developed since 2014, was one of her constituents.
Houston similarly “negotiated” a compromise at Rosewood Courts with the Austin Housing Authority that would have permitted demolition of over 70% of the complex–all while claiming that such an act constituted historic preservation.For years Historic Tax Credits have subsidized public housing demolition, not preservation, a monumental and racist double standard.So Ms. Houston’s track record of sticking it to the man is not good.What she in fact usually does when the man flexes his muscles is to back down and fall in line; when communities attempt to stand up for themselves and resist, she, in true neoliberal fashion, works hard to slap such efforts down as “unreasonable” or “overreaching.”Such accommodationist posturing has a long tradition in black politics.
At the Montopolis Negro School there was a problem:Ms. Houston did these things without ever speaking to anyone in the Montopolis community.Neither Houston nor any of her representatives contacted myself or Susana Almanza, our duly elected Contact Team chair.After weeks of rumor, the first time we observed physical evidence of Houston’s meddling in our community affairs was in the fall of 2016, when she and her staff organized a tour of the historic school building for Kate Singleton of Preservation Austin and Donald King, then of Six Square.The Montopolis community, which is tight-knit and had the site under neighborhood surveillance, noticed that a group of vehicles led by Mr. Stowell had congregated at the school and notified me immediately.I showed up and expressed both my personal and the community’s displeasure at such a nakedly hypocritical display of discourtesy and pomposity.
The substance of my conversation with Ms. Singleton shall remain private, but I was pleased that my fellow New Englander Don King understood a basic fact about neighborhood politics, even in cities such as Austin: if you are going to set foot on someone else’s turf you announce your presence and come correct.You don’t parachute in.
Montopolis has a rather different history than the history embodied by Six Square, Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage District.It was odd for Houston to involve the organization in discussions about the future of the Negro School, but understandable if you believe that Austin’s black history is mostly monolithic, or that it is the job of black neighborhood leaders to fall in line behind “their” black elected officials.
But history, black history included, doesn’t work like that. For example although connected via many historical linkages, the black history of current Austin neighborhoods such as Montopolis and St. John is different. It is also the case that the history of the Burditt’s Prairie Freedmen’s Community in Montopolis is older than that of other more well-known Austin Freedmen’s communities such as Clarksville or Wheatsville, as any reader of my book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood could have learned.
Ms. Houston is quick to remind people of her long tenure in Austin and the fact that she attended segregated Austin schools.But she is not the only person who can make this claim.Montopolis’s own Georgia Steen actually attended the Montopolis School for Negro Children in the early to mid 1950’s and still lives less than 500 feet away.Ms. Steen was one of the most steadfast supporters of preserving the school–all of it, not just the building–and was a centerpiece of our community based, not community placed, preservation efforts.Ms. Steen participated in numerous meetings of various Austin boards and commissions, as well as nearly a dozen community meetings.Councilmember Houston did not reach out to Ms. Steen either.
Consider also the July 11, 2017 remarks of newly elected Travis County Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion, who, in proper deference to the desires of Ms. Houston, puffingly had inserted himself into the debate about a Commissioners Court resolution regarding the school that the Montopolis community had been seeking at his very first meeting as a commissioner earlier in the year.I don’t doubt that Mr. Travillion’s desire to broker a negotiated solution here was sincere, but like Ms. Houston he underestimated the depth of feeling concerning gentrification and loss of heritage in Austin and in Montopolis in particular.It too is an indicator of the degree to which his political default mode is driven by routine meetings with developers and their lobbyists, not actual community members.Like Ms. Houston, we know which direction his political compass points when push truly comes to shove.The easy way pays better.
In 2017 and 2018 it is important for Austinites to have moral clarity about what these elected officials actually mean when they oppose neighborhoods or shill for developers: it isn’t uppity Negroes such as Fred McGhee who run this town, it is Negroes like us.Disobliging rebels such as Dr. McGhee have to be taught a lesson.
It apparently did not concern them that young Mr. Stowell and his taxpayer funded buddy in the Austin Planning and Zoning department Jabba Jerry Rusthoven (as well as their “urbanist” chums) also wanted to teach me and my supporters a lesson; one whose racial overtones always were obvious.
After the Second World War the great Trinidad born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox summarized the role of African-American race leaders as follows.His insights neatly encapsulate Austin’s racial politics, even in 2017.
The black race leaders, he wrote,
must be specialists in the art of antagonistic cooperation. Their success rests finally in their ability to maintain peace and friendship with whites; yet they must seem aggressive and uncompromising in their struggle for the rights of Negroes. They dare not identify all whites as the enemy, for then they will themselves be driven together into a hostile camp.This tentative nature of Negro solidarity presents a particularly baffling problem for the Negro leader.He must be a friend of the enemy.He must be a champion of the cause of Negroes, yet not so aggressive as to incur the consummate ill will of whites.He knows that he cannot be a leader of his people if he is completely rejected by whites; hence no small part of his function is engaged in understanding the subtleties of reaction to the manipulation of the whites of his community.No contemporary Negro leader of major significance, then, can be void of at least a modicum of the spirit of “Uncle Tom” ingratiation, compromise, and appeasement must be his specialties.
If Austin is to assume its place as a truly world level metropolis, our city’s Negro leaders must come to understand and fully appreciate the basic meaning of 10-1:that the racist “Gentleman’s Agreement” that governed how Austin elected its city council members for over five decades is truly over.
Bookerite theorizing of black leadership as consisting of black spokespeople brokering deals with developers on behalf of “the people” must be supplanted by a more plural and organic advocacy that respects the right of people to plan their own neighborhoods and to defend their communities and community heritage where necessary.
In closing, now that Austin has officially renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day, let me paraphrase the great Oglala leader Russell Means:“We have had enough sympathy.We don’t need any more of it.What we want is respect.”
In this instance both Ms. Houston and Mr. Travillion failed this basic test.And they should be held accountable at the ballot box for it.
Map of Austin’s Urban Freedmen’s Communities, Circa 1900
Austin last took a hard look at its historic preservation program in the early 2000’s, where a joint task force made up of Planning, Zoning and Platting, and Historic Landmark Commissioners made some recommendations to upgrade but not fundamentally alter the city’s program as originally established by always serving ZAP commissioner Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s.Betty Baker herself chaired the 2003-2004 task force that was tasked with examining the question.
The time has come for Austin to do heritage preservation and management correctly.Piecemeal reforms applied over the years have not worked; we need a complete redo.As one of Austin’s leading African-American preservationists I offer my time and services toward the achievement of this objective.
At a time during the early to mid 1970’s when the full meaning of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act was still being figured out, Baker advocated for and helped to successfully enact a historic preservation program in Austin that was fundamentally Southern and bourgeois in character and administration.It reflected an early post-Lyndon Johnson, Roy Butler-esque repudiation of the Great Society and embraced a more homespun Texan understanding of history and historical significance grounded in respect for private property rights. I should not have to say so but I am going to do it anyway: this was a program designed by white people to primarily benefit white people, just as the Austin “Gentleman’s Agreement” concluded just a few years prior had been. Austin’s African-American and Latino preservationists could get properties landmarked, but only at white ruling class discretion.
In doing so Baker was not being altogether unusual; what she put into place was an Austin version of what already existed in other cities of the former Confederacy such as Charleston or Savannah, already bourgeoning centers of a peculiarly Southern brand of heritage tourism that emphasized the quality of the fine china at plantation big houses and avoided discussion of the slave quarters.In examining this history it may be useful to bear in mind that First Ladies from Lady Bird Johnson to Laura Bush – and women like them at lower levels of government like Betty Baker – have played an important part in the politics of historic preservation over the years. Baker did not take as many cues from the preservation programs in place in Galveston and San Antonio, the two Texas cities generally judged at the time to have the “most history” because some of the history in those cities was more complicated.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of what Baker established in Austin was the program’s misguided over-focus on historic buildings. This imprudent attention has led to the compromise or destruction of dozens of non-architectural historic properties in Austin, some of them of considerable research value. In 2017 it is fair to say that when Austinites think of “historic sites” they nearly always think of historic buildings, not archaeological sites or Traditional Cultural Properties, although the latter two are also historic properties eligible for National Register consideration and historic landmarking. The excessive attention paid to historic buildings is, of course, a sign of white middle and upper class bias; members of minority groups and the working class have rarely occupied grand estate homes whose “historic” character is obvious to the untrained eye. City staffers at this stage don’t even bother to meaningfully pretend that they care about anything other than historic buildings; the recently completed East Austin historic resources survey was not only strategically gerrymandered to exclude much of East Austin as well as Montopolis, Dove Springs and Del Valle, it only focused on buildings, not archaeological sites or TCP’s.
Proper Qualifications Matter
You may be wondering: are the city’s historic preservation officer Steve Sadowsky and his recently hired assistant qualified to render professional judgments about historic architecture? Answer: no, they are not. Neither meets the Secretary of the Interior’s professional qualifications standards that for decades have been regarded as the education and experience minimums for historic preservation professionals in the United States.
Should this render the “professional” staff advice rendered by these people null and void? In my opinion it should. It is rather doubtful that the Austin City Council would accept counsel about a legal, medical or engineering matter from unqualified advisors, yet this has been the case in Austin ever since Steve Sadowsky was elevated to his current position as historic preservation officer. Furthermore, if this historical report authored by Mr. Sadowsky at the (since demolished) segregated Texas School for the Deaf serves as an example of Mr. Sadowsky’s skills as a historian, he should also be disqualified from rendering judgments in this arena and should defer to the skills and judgment of properly credentialed and skilled crafters of historical narratives. As an African-American ASL speaker who studied at Northeastern University under Harlan Lane and Hartmut Teuber, I would have authored a rather different narrative based upon a much broader array of sources. One that would have strived to do justice to the history at stake.
But scholarship was never Mr. Sadowsky’s intent; he is, in fact, not a scholar, but a historic preservation administrator. And he understood his job well: to facilitate the demolition of two historic structures at a publicly owned school at the behest of David Lurie, head of what was then called Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services.
In case you were wondering, the questioning of Mr. Sadowsky’s credentials also has a history. The matter was also raised in 2003 and 2004. At the time, then council-member Jackie Goodman said Sadowsky was a historic preservation “expert,” noting that he holds an M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, a JD from Washburn University and a BA from Vanderbilt University. She then noted that he served for ten years as the architectural historian for TxDOT (which says a lot about TxDOT, but that’s another story) and taught history for two years at Middle Tennessee State University.
What Goodman conveniently neglected to mention was this: 1. Sadowsky’s master’s degree is in historic preservation, not history, archaeology, or architecture. 2. Sadowsky does not meet the Secretary of the Interior’s professional qualifications standards. Nonetheless, a self-satisfied Goodman declared that “we don’t just hire anybody for these jobs” and supported Sadowsky’s elevation to historic preservation officer.
Mr. Sadowsky’s record since speaks for itself and has been marked by incompetence and the loss of irreplaceable community heritage, particularly in East Austin. Any redo of Austin’s historic preservation program must staff it with properly credentialed and experienced professionals in each category of eligibility who can render scientifically sound judgments divorced from political considerations or pro-development biases. The ultimate rendering of political or policy judgments about whether to historically landmark properties is the job of elected officials, as would be the case with any zoning matter.
Why Are There So Few Austin Historic Districts?
Another aspect of Baker’s legacy is the stringent requirement for landmarking historic districts. It is notoriously difficult to establish historic districts in Austin due to a requirement that at least 51% of property owners in the proposed district agree to the zoning change. The former Austin Historic Preservation Officer weighed in publicly about that in 2004; it was a major factor in why she left her position and was replaced by her assistant Steve Sadowsky. Here’s the truth: in most American cities historic zoning is conducted like any other type of zoning. Special districting requirements such as Austin’s are unusual and are usually enacted at the behest of real estate interests and private property rights fundamentalists.
What is now clear over forty years later is that Austin’s historic preservation program has become inequitable, one-sided, and unfair. It not only subsidizes the preservation of an elitist conception of the city’s history, the program also buttresses city-driven practices of gentrification. In short, a program that should be protecting the heritage of every culture in our city is instead administered in keeping with the cult of minimally regulated real estate development that has characterized the recent history of our city. In doing so, our city’s leaders are not only violating the spirit and letter of historic preservation laws and violating basic standards of professional practice, they are engaging in deliberate acts of institutional racism. What is also problematic is this: Austin’s minority taxpayers are subsidizing tax breaks for rich West Austinites and are not seeing their own history adequately reflected in Austin’s landscape.
In this presentation I made two years ago before the Austin Human Rights Commission concerning the Rosewood Courts historic zoning case, I pointed out some of the hypocrisies and racial inequities in the city’s historic preservation policies and practices. I could elaborate on them with further quantitative and qualitative data–further discussion of the role of real estate development (and Betty Baker) in the destruction of Clarksville in particular–but in the interest of saving time and space I will now focus on what I see as the most important fixes our city should undertake in order to satisfactorily reboot our city’s historic preservation program. I also encourage you to read or re-read my February 7, 2017 blog post in which I offered preliminary reform remarks in the wake of the most recent audit of the historic preservation program.
Race and Class Equity and Fairness
Democracy, Public Transparency and Accountability
No Special Interest Favoritism
Ease of Use
I elaborate on each principle in turn:
Austin’s historic preservation mismanagement has been willful as well as harmful. Thanks to people such as Betty Baker and her progeny such as Jerry Rusthoven, the race and class snobbery has been baked into the cake. A basic sense of integrity, fairness and commitment to the truth demands that a sense of restorative justice be institutionalized into how Austin conducts heritage management going forward. In practice this means conducting proper eligibility studies of ALL of Austin–and for all eligibility categories, not just buildings–with a special focus on East Austin, in collaboration with bona fide neighborhood organizations. Imagine Austin must also be amended to better reflect East Austin values. Our cultural resources matter just as much as our natural resources.
The Austin City Council needs to make it clear to the city’s real estate interests that their hegemony over our city’s historic preservation practices must end. This means fundamental reforms to how appointments are made to the city’s historic landmark commission–lawyers or real estate agents with no credentials in historic preservation have no business on that commission–and rigid adherence to the National Register procedures the city claims to follow. In most cities members of the Landmark Commission are experts in the field of historic preservation, not political hacks with axes to grind such as former Austin commissioner Arif Panju. The federal manual for National Register State Review Boards specifically states as follows:
“Beyond the intricacies of historic judgment, other important issues faced by the Review Board are the political and economic ramifications of National Register listings. A present owner may oppose a property’s listing regardless of its significance, because of a fear of being unable to develop or use the property as desired. On the other hand, an owner may push for nominating a property that does not have sufficient historical significance to justify listing in order to take advantage of certain tax incentives. These factors shall not be taken into consideration by the State Review Board. Their responsibility is to apply professional, technical standards in an unbiased fashion to determine if properties meet the National Register Criteria.”
This is what Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission also ought to be doing. Staff ought to be helping them do so, not playing political games and shilling for real estate developers at taxpayer expense, as Jabba Jerry Rusthoven slimily did for Austin Stowell at the Montopolis Negro School or for the Austin Housing Authority in the Rosewood Courts case. Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission should also reflect the diversity of Austin; it is unconscionable for this commission to continue to be without qualified African-American representation for as long as it has, especially while it deliberates over and decides highly controversial cases involving sensitive African-American cultural heritage.
It also means finally adopting and enacting the historical wiki that city officials have let sit on the shelf for years in beta status. Every citizen of Austin ought to be able to easily find out where the historic properties in our city are located using a tool such as Google Maps, developers included.
It’s not just real estate interests. Preservation Austin and similarly bourgeois advocacy groups are part of the problem and must undertake democracy-enhancing accountability reforms inside their own organizations. They can become part of the solution if they concede the role they have played in perpetuating institutional racism in our city and commit to relinquishing some of the oppressive prerogatives they have garnered over the years, most of which are rooted in their incestuous relationships with developers and Austin’s real estate interests. One concrete step Preservation Austin could take is to cease its advocacy for CodeNEXT. CodeNEXT would be a disaster for East Austin in particular and would destroy much of its cultural heritage.
In many ways the organization now known as Preservation Austin is as much a creature of Betty Baker as the city’s historic preservation program itself. The organization can send the message that it cares about true and equitable historic preservation by advocating for the proper protection and care of working class and minority cultural heritage alongside or in support of bona fide minority led and controlled historic preservation organizations such as Preserve Rosewood and the Burditt Prairie Preservation Association.
Historic Preservation is not hard. Its basic public policy framework is straightforward. Yet the Great Society that established much of how “cultural resource management” is presently conducted was targeted by Governor George W. Bush’s deregulatory hitmen starting in the 1990’s for relatively simple reasons: if not administered correctly, the requirements of Section 106, NEPA or the National Register can be stereotyped as needlessly bureaucratic, even oppressive, especially by real estate developers and other special interests. The framing of this issue as one of excessive regulation was always a political canard.
Democracy matters. Historic preservation need not and should not become the personal playground of insiders and specialists making unaccountable decisions in the dark. Ease of use means that public employees should conduct themselves with a devotion to duty that reflects the customer service and public education ethos lying at the heart of heritage preservation. Public heritage managers must also have the political courage to enforce the independent analysis of cultural properties; it is a fundamental conflict of interest to permit developers to hire their own for-profit historic preservation consultants. Cultural Resource Management guru Tom King has written and spoken cogently about some of this over the years.
In closing, I need to re-stress the following: minor technocratic fixes are not going to get the job done. Recent advocacy efforts concerning the Montopolis Negro School and the Hotel Occupancy Tax (a.k.a. HOT Tax), are indicators that fundamental historic preservation reform enjoys broad citizen support and cannot be pushed further down the road. Too much heritage has already been lost, and further controversies surely await if we fail to promptly act. The inequitable Betty Baker approach to Austin historic preservation has gotten us this far, but the time has come to turn the page; we need a historic preservation program for the 21st century: one that is inclusive, ambitious, comprehensive, collaborative and democratic.
I am limiting my list of more or less exemplary cities to the United States. As a German I am tempted to point to what I consider to be worthy European examples, but my list is invariably constrained by a basic American fact: the United States is the only major country on earth to consider cultural heritage to be private property instead of part of the public domain, something routinely discussed at UNESCO over the years. In fact in states such as Texas even human remains are considered to be private property if located on private land or water.
Should the Austin City Council convene a new task force to advise it on fundamental historic preservation reform, here are some cities worth looking at:
Seattle’s historic preservation program is housed inside the city’s Department of Neighborhoods and since 2000 has endeavored to undertake a comprehensive analysis of historic properties inside the city’s limits. Austin can learn many lessons from this effort, good and bad.
The Boston Landmarks Commission is one of the most qualified and highly regarded bodies of its type in the United States. It doesn’t always come down on the side of preservation, but its deliberations are usually well grounded and based on empirical–and properly documented–evidence, including archaeological and cultural landscape analysis.
The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation does it far better than Austin does. The office is properly staffed with qualified professionals, and they get to do their job without some developer’s stooge constantly breathing down their neck. The main reason they can do this is because the department’s chief administrator reports directly to the city manager, not to the city’s planning and zoning director.
In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising of 2015, the City of Baltimore has committed itself to Equity in Planning, including historic preservation planning. Austin can learn from this effort.
The City of Philadelphia enjoys a mostly positive reputation concerning historic preservation questions, but reputation and reality aren’t necessarily the same thing. Nonetheless, the city’s historic preservation staff is about to go from 6 professionals to 8, which is still less than San Antonio or Boston, but nearly three times as many as Austin.
I have great regard for Volma Overton, Jr. But this opinion piece is not exactly a street fighting civil rights screed that sticks it to the man.
I don’t live in the bubble occupied by Austin’s black bourgeoisie, so please allow me, with all due respect, to point out a few things:
1. The obstacles my nomination of Rosewood Courts has faced at multiple government agencies are an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE more egregious than anything Mr. Overton writes about in his op-ed. If Mr. Overton’s outrage at the political games being played at Muny is sincere, he should be even more outraged at the actions of the Austin Housing Authority, the City of Austin, the Texas Historical Commission, and the National Park Service in the Rosewood Courts situation. He should be just as vocal about the injustices visited upon the effort to preserve Rosewood Courts as he is about what he sees as the injustices taking place at Muny. I look forward to him authoring an op-ed in on the matter in the not too distant future.
2. The historic preservation effort and National Register nomination for Muny has been lavishly funded and supported by prominent members of Austin’s upper class: Ben Crenshaw, Tito’s Vodka, GSD&M as well as many others. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose district does not include the golf course, is also a prominent supporter, although when asked to support the preservation of Rosewood Courts, he demurred. In contrast, the Rosewood Courts effort has been entirely pro bono, done against long odds, and without the public support of Mr. Overton and other similar Muny supporters.
3. Which is more historic and emblematic of segregation and civil rights in Austin? A segregated municipal golf course or the first African-American public housing in America? Let me be frank: The Lions Municipal Golf Course is not the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The notion that this golf course was somehow iconic in the civil rights history of the United States was always questionable at best, laughable at worst. Supporters of preserving the golf course engaged in an oral tradition fishing expedition and made it stick. Good for them. But please don’t stretch it too far.
The reason why the property was listed in the National Register at its present level of significance and enjoys the support of Austin’s political establishment is simple: some of the richest and most politically influential people In America, not just Austin, support it. The history itself really does not.
The fact that we live in an era of hegemonic neoliberal governance, where the behavior of individual as opposed to institutional actors is king, is also surely a factor. It permits people who are usually critical of “historical revisionism” to engage in their own projects of historical revision when it comes to subjects such as the role played by the PWA, FHA, VA, public housing and local government in the creation of residential segregation and its relationship to race and class injustice in our own time. It also permits rich people whose quality of life is often maintained at black and Latino expense to wax self-righteously about golf course civil rights in ways that are psychologically dubious and shamelessly self-serving. Austin’s African-American hoi polloi do not care about this golf course.
I do not have a dog in the fight to save Muny. Although I enjoy playing the game of golf from time to time, I have never played there. What I do have a problem with is hypocrisy and selective memory, with overstated and dishonestly convenient usage of black history to serve the desires of Austin’s high society at a time when the city’s assorted race and class injustices are in many ways even worse than they were during the Great Depression.
One last thing: as a historian and the author of a forthcoming book about Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease, I must also take issue with Mr. Overton’s selective reading of George Washington Brackenridge’s credentials as a Civil War unionist. As with most historical matters, the history is more complicated than Overton lets on. While it is true that Brackenridge, like Pease, would not swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy at the outset of the war (although Brackenridge’s three brothers all fought for the Confederacy) and had to eventually leave the Lone Star State in 1863, it is also true that Brackenridge earned his fortune as a war profiteer who smuggled Confederate cotton through the union blockade. While harboring generally sincere anti-slavery sentiments, Brackenridge also held conventionally paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans; like Pease, he did not consider emancipated African-American bondsmen to be equals, and certainly not deserving of basic rights such as the right to vote, to serve on juries or to serve in governmental positions.
African-American leaders and politicians such as George T. Ruby found such attitudes insulting and deeply grounded in racial prejudice; they worked alongside actual champions of black equality such as governor Edmund J. Davis to implement Reconstruction in Texas on a more egalitarian basis.
Brackenridge was a prototypical Texas businessman who made his money placing his services on offer to both sides of the Civil War; hardly a principled anti-slavery position. Overton’s lauding of Brackenridge’s extensive philanthropy is overstated and telling; at the time Brackenridge made his bequest to the University of Texas it was a thoroughly segregated institution.
In short, Brackenridge was the prototype of the typical Texas businessman/philanthropist. It was he, Pease, and other close business partners such as Charles Stillman, that placed the philanthropy mentality into Austin’s political DNA. Historical efforts to trace Austin’s contemporary race and class inequality will indubitably find much of the cultural source for what has become a non-profit industrial complex of impressive proportions to northerners such as Brackenridge, Pease and others.
Austin in 2017 is one of the most unequal cities in America. It is the only high-growth city in America to have lost black citizens. Mr. Overton’s actions regarding the recognition and conservation of the cultural heritage of black Austin shows quite clearly that there is unacceptable inequality within black Austin as well.
Thanks to my long-suffering and loving wife and children I was able to attend yesterday’s Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee hearing. The centerpiece of the meeting was the presentation of the city auditor’s most recent audit of the historic preservation department.
Jo Clifton of the Austin Monitor also attended the meeting and filed this report. The official website of the Austin City Auditor can be found here.
Ms. Clifton could and perhaps should have interviewed me, particularly since I not only have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on many occasions over the years, particularly concerning Rosewood Courts and the Montopolis Negro School—two rather controversial cases—but also because I am one of the city’s leading historic preservation professionals, with decades of experience. But I digress; my main desire in this blog post is to talk about how to improve the city’s management of historic properties, not necessarily to critique the Austin Monitor’s biased reporting. That said, I do feel compelled to say one thing about the story. In a paragraph nearly half-way through her story Clifton observes:
In addition, the audit said that some members of the Historic Landmark Commission lack the training they need to make well-informed decisions. As a result of the November election, the commission has two new members who replaced members considered opposed to historic preservation in general, and the city’s programs in particular. So, it is not clear whether the problem was really about lack of education in those two instances.
Clifton is incorrect; it is clear. Neither Arif Panju nor David Whitworth met (or meet) the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications guidelines in the field of historic preservation. Mr. Panju is a “constitutional lawyer,” a term probably made most popular by former President Barack Obama, but hardly a profession, and certainly not one meeting the practical field experience requirements expected of most historic preservation professionals. As for Mr. Whitworth, as Sheri Gallo’s appointee it was always clear what interest he truly represented: minimally regulated real estate development. He does not meet the guidelines either, neither in terms of education nor experience.
As the audit notes, Austin’s professional guidelines for service on the Historic Landmark Commission are not mandatory, but advisory only. This is an exception to standard practice in other cities, one that should be remedied.
Clifton’s report also addresses the audit finding that the department is understaffed, both in real and absolute terms in comparison to peer cities. That too needs fixing, but even a fully staffed department won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong, in my opinion. In the end the problems are political, not administrative.
We can haggle about the details, but any true fix of Austin’s historic preservation department must do the following:
Properly staff the department with historians, architects, archaeologists and support personnel. The audit strongly suggests that 4 people isn’t enough; a minimum of 8-10 is better and in keeping with best practice.
Increase the department’s non-personnel budget substantially. My initial recommendation is $2-5 million dollars. Having enough people isn’t enough. They need to have the tools in order to do their job. Once that’s done, they need to be respected as the highly qualified professionals they are.
The city must make it clear that it follows the National Register criteria. It should also make clear to non-specialists what those criteria are and how they are professionally applied. If the city chooses to follow another standard, it should develop it, properly vet it, and make it public.
Most importantly, the city’s historic preservation officer must report directly to the city manager, by-passing the chain of command at the department of planning and zoning. Anyone with common sense knows why this was done in the first place, and whose interests it serves.
The landmarking criteria themselves should not need much revision, if any. Historic preservation judgments are ultimately subjective, but this is not to say that these are endlessly contingent; it takes skills and the ability to evaluate empirical evidence to document and reach conclusions about historic properties. In Austin’s case, judgments about community value are ultimately political judgments. City councillors are elected to make such decisions.
In order for members of the city council to reach proper conclusions they should be furnished with sound information reflecting the best professional competencies of city officials. Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in the leadership of the Planning and Zoning department should not be in a bureaucratic position to thwart or frustrate what should be fact and standards based historic preservation discussions and debates.
Most local observers understand that the way Austin does historic preservation—actually how it does not do historic preservation—is in need of a significant upgrade. The city has simply grown too large for the small town approach pioneered by the late Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s. At it’s Thursday, January 26, 2017 meeting Austin’s city council voted to enact a small but important change to how the city’s Historic Landmark Commission can vote to enact the historic zoning of a property. Earlier that week I sent an email to the city council and various staffers in support of making the change. I reproduce that email below:
Dear Mayor and Austin City Council,
I am writing to respectfully request that you support the resolution appearing as Item #46 at tomorrow’s city council meeting. Councilmember Tovo’s resolution is a step in the right direction and deserves your support. I am delighted that the resolution has garnered so many co-sponsors.
As one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, and as the president of the only African-American and Disabled Veteran owned and operated archaeological consulting company in the United States, I am well acquainted with our city’s historic preservation regulations and practices, as well as the state and federal laws from which they tier. I have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on numerous occasions over the years, especially over the past 5 years, mainly in a pro-bono capacity. As you are probably aware, I am one of our city’s leading African-American historic preservation advocates.
Our city’s historic preservation program badly needs top-to-bottom reform, and a plurality of the current Historic Landmark Commission membership, including the current chairwoman, agree. As background, if you have not yet read it, this December 18, 2016 article in the Austin American-Statesman documents that the year 2016 was not a good year for this commission.
Setting aside the larger issue of proper reform for another day, I ask that you keep your focus on what Councilmember Tovo’s resolution actually does and avoid the tendency to engage in casuistry. This resolution is not about the Historic Landmark Commission’s inability to hold meetings due to a lack of quorum; it is specifically focused on the existence of a unique and unfair disparate standard requiring a supermajority of votes in order to achieve an affirmative vote. Such a prejudicial requirement is unique to this commission and is undemocratic and should be terminated.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Austin City Council, I hope you agree that it is unnecessary as well as unwise to wantonly destroy our city’s cultural heritage in order to satisfy our city’s economic development objectives. Please think deeply about this matter and familiarize yourself with examples from other U.S. and international cities regarding this issue. As always, I stand ready to assist if asked.
Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.
Now that Councilmember Tovo’s resolution has passed (9-2 in favor with Councilmembers Troxclair and Garza voting against), I offer the following intial thoughts as food for discussion going forward.
The Historic Landmark Commission’s zoning vote regarding the Montopolis Negro School was 7-1 in favor of historic zoning. But had that vote passed, I would have opposed it afterward. Here’s why: the zoning resolution sponsored by Commissioner Terri Myers was a “compromise” that not only ignored the property’s historical significance as a cultural landscape—something that the National Register rules the city claims to follow require analyzing and making recommendations about—it would have allowed the property’s current owner, real estate developer Austin Stovell, to move the building from its original location, thereby deliberately destroying the historic integrity of the historical site. The commission should not be in the business of making half-cocked and ad hoc decisions based upon deliberately incomplete information.
This Historic Landmark Commission has many other problems. One noteworthy problem is this: unqualified people serving on the commission. The city’s rules recommend, but do not require, that the people serving on this commission at a minimum meet the minimum professional guidelines specified by the Secretary of the Interior. Arif Panju, the most divisive commissioner, at least met the requirement of being a lawyer, but what were commissioner David Whitworth’s credentials in the field of historic preservation? The effort to stack this commission with real estate agents and developers was and remains a problem.
As I have been saying now for years, the city’s historic preservation officer should be a stand-alone position that reports directly to the city manager. That’s how San Antonio does it, as well as other cities. The placement of this position inside the Planning and Zoning department is a deliberate effort on the part of Austin’s always-ruling real estate clique to unfairly stack the deck in their favor.
There are many other things that need to change, including the proper staffing of the department as well as other challenges, such as an almost complete lack of focus on archaeological sites located on public as well as private land. The City of Austin cares more about heritage trees, and taxpayers fund several arborists on the city payroll, but to date the city has never funded a staff archaeologist.
To get a sense of how other cities do it better, take a look at the historic preservation departments for the cities of San Antonio (notice that a member of the city’s code enforcement department focuses exclusively on historic buildings), Seattle (Seattle has a “Department of Neighborhoods” that manages community involvement far more effectively than Austin’s silly “Contact Team” idea), and Boston (the City of Boston leverages its many local universities and sponsors archaeological digs at sites such as the historic Malcolm X House).
As a strong supporter of yours I watched the recent establishment of a task force on institutional racism with considerable interest. I would respectfully like to bring an example of institutional racism to your attention.
At issue is the property located at 500 Montopolis Drive. It is one of the most important African-American historic sites in the city and is the location of the Montopolis Negro School, an important artifact of segregated education in Austin and Travis County. The school building and its surrounding landscape, along with the historic Burditt Prairie Cemetery, are the two most important African-American historic sites in the Montopolis neighborhood. You can learn more about the history of the school by downloading a copy of the presentation I delivered before the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday, November 28th, 2016 here: mcghee-montopolis-presentation.
The intact survival of the school is now in peril. The current property owner purchased the property in 2015 and intends to construct non-affordable and historically unsympathetic spec housing at the site. He has applied for a demolition permit. He has also strangely attempted to portray himself as a victim of the neighborhood and its residents, when in fact he has acted haughtily and in bad faith and is perceived as a perpetrator.
Some historic context helps to shed light on the history of institutional racism I am alleging. At the time of the 1900 census Montopolis was a rural agricultural area mainly populated by African-American cotton plantation workers. The population at the time was enumerated at 142 persons. According to a 1907 survey the area had two county operated schools, one for whites which had 9 pupils and the Montopolis Negro School, originally established around 1891, which consisted of a classic one-room country schoolhouse for 108 segregated black students.
In 1935 the original Negro school building was destroyed in a storm. In what was a sign of a clear racial double standard, Travis County refused to rebuild or replace the school, leaving black students in Montopolis without education. Realizing the untenability of the situation, the congregation of Montopolis’ St. Edward’s Baptist Church agreed to donate land for a replacement school and also secured a former army barracks building to serve as a replacement one-room schoolhouse. A copy of the April, 1935 transfer deed can be downloaded here: 1935-montopolis-negro-school-deed.
When the City of Austin started annexing Montopolis in 1952, responsibility for the school’s operation was transferred from the Colorado School District to the Austin Free Public Schools, the precursor to Austin ISD. Austin ISD shuttered the Negro school in 1962 and directed parents to send their students to schools in East Austin as the newly constructed Allison Elementary School was still mostly segregated. A copy of the 1952 deed transfering the property to Austin ISD can be downloaded here: montopolis-negro-school-1952-deed.
Did Austin ISD re-gift or sell the donated land back to St. Edward’s Baptist Church? It did not. It placed the property up for auction. It was eventually purchased by Ross and David Willhoite in 1967. The Willhoites converted the school building into the Montopolis Church of Christ and established a trust to run it, which explains the wording currently located near the building’s front entrance, but the church was never successful and attendance was never high.
St. Edward’s Baptist Church, which is the oldest African-American Baptist church in Travis County still in continuous operation, was located at 400 Montopolis Drive between 1897 and 1990. Before that it was located near the Burditt Prairie Cemetery. In a final act of institutional racism, the City of Austin condemned the church property in 1990, forcing the historic church, which had been constructed with materials from the original church building from the 1860’s to eventually relocate to its current location at 708 Montopolis Drive. The property at 400 Montopolis Drive, now vacant, is currently owned by—you guessed it—David Willhoite.
The use of the city’s eminent domain power in this case was accompanied by efforts on the part of city planners to extend Grove Boulevard to Montopolis Drive. This is why the city currently owns a significantly sized road easement through the property. This was and remains another example of disrespectful and unmindful land use decisions on the part of the city that is soaked with the foul stench of institutional racism.
What is the solution at this point? Given the unscrupulous history of institutional racism described here, we believe that the city, county and school district bear direct moral responsibility for making this situation right.
The community believes that this property should be historically preserved in situ and the area turned into a park similar to other parks with buildings in our existing parks system. To be clear, we believe that the property is a cultural landscape–it was used for Juneteenth celebrations by the Burditt’s Prairie Freedmen’s community as well as for other community purposes. Simply focusing, therefore, on the preservation of the school building in order to accommodate the real estate development desires of the current owner would be short-sighted and a mistake. It would also violate the National Register eligibility standards the city claims to follow in historic landmark cases.
Mr. Mayor, the Montopolis neighborhood appreciated your visit to our community during your 2014 run for office. As a fellow city council candidate I took great pleasure in co-hosting your visit and in placing a copy of my then newly released book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood into your hand. I took similar pleasure in supporting your run for mayor afterward. We believe your commitment to doing something about institutional racism in Austin to be sincere and ask for your help in putting right the historical injustices described in my book and in this letter.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this epistle. Best wishes for continued success in the weeks and months ahead.
Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.
President, Carson Ridge Neighborhood Association
Founding President, Montopolis Neighborhood Association
Board, Burditt Prairie Cemetery Association
Member Austin Community Development Commission
Author, Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood and other works