Written by Brooke Quach.
We roll into Austin at 40 miles per hour, caught in the traffic of ACL, but still eager to explore our second home. My friend and fellow UT classmate points to the east of I-35 and states matter-of-factly that this area is the ghetto of Austin. It’s where you don’t want to be, where you’re most likely to be jumped or attacked.
They didn’t realize that my apartment was just three minutes away or that some of the attractive places that we enthusiastically planned to visit were located in East Austin and Riverside.
Statistics show that Riverside is Austin’s most crime-ridden area, and these numbers are reflected in the rhetoric that is often used to describe Riverside and East Austin. These areas are often equated to “ghetto” or “bad,” and these labels are meant to include the non-luxury housing that pervades the area, its lower income and minority residents, and its high crime rates.
A superficial observation of this rhetoric already indicates classist and almost racist sentiments.
Upon closer examination, this language also glazes over the contemporary gentrification process that is displacing and essentially forcing low–income residents out of what used to be low-cost homes.
Black communities are the most-affected demographics within the areas because of Austin’s history of segregation and discriminatory housing. In 1928, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to use zoning laws to segregate by race, the City of Austin designated the area east of I-35 for black residents. A black individual could technically live anywhere in Austin, but black citizens who did not live in East Austin would not receive City services such as running water or electricity.
This historical racism is a factor in present-day gentrification. Intergenerational homeownership is how wealth accumulates between generations, and rising property taxes are forcing low-income residents, who are often African American and Hispanic, to find more affordable housing elsewhere. This displacement rips away the foundation of intergenerational homeownership for future generations, putting these minorities at a disadvantage.
The rhetoric describing the communities and areas these people live in does not take into account and is not sensitive to the racist and historically discriminative past that these residents feel the repercussions of.
Using words such as “ghetto,” “crime-ridden,” and other derogatory generalizations to describe the state of East Austin ignores and perpetuates the widespread ignorance of the the area’s history. This rhetoric selectively excludes the gentrified parts of East Austin and is also indicative of our values as a community.
The importance we place upon superficial landmarks, such as modern restaurants, luxury apartments, and high-end and corporate supermarkets, appears to be greater than that which we place on diversity and the livelihoods of the poorer, disadvantaged residents of East Austin.
This language does not pay tribute to the past residents of Austin who have suffered through environmental and geographical discrimination. Although housing is a human right, Austin’s growing housing crisis seems to illustrates otherwise. Gentrification is not inevitable. It is not a natural phenomena. It is man-made, and our micro-decisions as citizens of Austin, including our rhetoric, can either encourage or combat spatial and housing inequalities.
Featured image: © Nathaniel F. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license.