Commentary: 12th and Chicon — a story of gentrification

Six bars full of hipsters slinging $20 pizzas and prosecco on tap now sit on a corner that less than five years ago was widely known as the best place to get drugs, get jumped or simply get into trouble in East Austin.

As the influx of out-of-state residents, hipsters and college students move into the central East Austin community, many are not aware of the drugs, prostitution and other illegal activities that were common near the intersection of 12th and Chicon streets.

Crime rates have changed over the years, and most dedicate that change to the Austin Police Department Drug Market Intervention Program, which began in 2012. The Drug Intervention Program targeted heavy drug dealers and violent offenders, while giving nonviolent offenders a second chance. So, has this East Austin intervention made the area safer, especially the 12th and Chicon intersection? According to Police Department’s Records Management System, in 2011 the 78702 ZIP code ranked sixth out of its 49 ZIP codes for reported crimes, totaling 8,592. In 2015, the 78702 ZIP code ranked ninth with 5,770 reported crimes.

The numbers indicate there has been some improvement; however, the 78702 crime statistical rankings from the year 2011 and 2015 in murder, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft have somewhat stayed the same. There is no question that the East Austin community has seen improvement, but is this improvement a result of progressive crime intervention or active gentrification?

In an effort to rejuvenate an area that had high concentrations of poverty and crime, some original neighborhoods have been virtually eliminated. Instead of providing intentional and tangible support for a population in crisis, the original residents — the majority of them African-American — have been driven far from the city center into the suburbs due to increased housing prices and property taxes.

According to the city of Austin’s demographic maps, during the time period between the 2000 and 2010 census, East Austin (the area east of Interstate 35, north of 11th Street and south of Manor Road) has gone from 80 percent African-American to only 20 percent African-American. Additionally, according to American Community Survey data analyzed in March 2016, the overall African-American population in Austin has decreased from 15 percent down to 5 percent. It appears that the rejuvenated African-American neighborhoods no longer house very many African-Americans.

We have to ask ourselves if the rehabilitation of East Austin is really working as intended. It appears that the only way the city of Austin is interested in rehabilitating East Austin is by bulldozing the institutions, evicting the residents and dismantling their sense of community. But is a community truly rehabilitated if it is no longer the same community?

As neighboring homes and business buildings have begun seeing the profit in selling their properties, families who have lived in East Austin for decades struggle against raised rent costs and deterioration of local business. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator points out the marked difference between a Texas minimum wage of $7.25 and a living wage of $20.05 for one adult and one child. Not only are these families unable to afford groceries from their neighborhood store, but their jobs are being eliminated as long-standing family businesses are turned into offices for startup companies and coffee shops for college students. As families move farther away from the epicenter of life in Austin, they also move farther away from public transportation and access to their jobs, emergency health care and their children’s schools and established communities.

The city of Austin needs to create an intervention program that includes safe and affordable housing, increased well-paying job opportunities and support and maintenance of community institutions. Rehabilitation, as opposed to gentrification, is necessary in these struggling neighborhoods. An approach that benefits long-term residents is much preferred over one that simply forces them elsewhere.

Hooks, Lopez and Randle are graduate students at the University of Texas School of Social Work, who live in East Austin or work with East Austin residents.

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