A Tale of Two Austins

A Tale of Two Austins

A writer and his fiancé relocate to Texas, only to find that the neighborhood they wanted might not want them...

by Adam Harris, October 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Austins

Austin, Texas


Secure in the fact that a move from Lubbock would be ideal after graduating from Texas Tech University, my fiancé and I were ready for something new. We were sure that we wanted a bigger city and, for the time being, to stay in Texas. She began searching for a job and, as I was in the early stages of my writing career, I agreed that wherever she found employment we could move. After seemingly countless hours on the road traveling to interviews, a second interview landed her a job with a financial agency in Austin, we knew this was the place, this would be our new home.

After hearing word of the job offer and the impending move our family and friends were excited for us – elated that we would be starting a new chapter in our lives. However, their excitement did not come without reservation though. They read the news and heard the stories. Austin is home to the infamous bleach-bombings at UT-Austin and it isn't exactly over-populated with faces that look like us. They gently reminded us that the Black people of Texas live in Houston or Dallas.

The estimations of our friends weren't too far off. In fact, according to Census data and projections, where Houston and Dallas hold roughly 25% Black populations, Austin struggles to maintain it's already dimunitive Black pfesence. We took all of these things into consideration, but deemed ourselves ready for the challenge. Moving is something of an art form to her and I. We both grew up in military families and we well understood the choreographed routine that is the relocation process. Further, we knew the difficulty of finding friends and necessities in the area but we knew it could be done.

We first sought the counsel of her coworkers who sent a few recommendations to us, along with a friendly note to steer clear of any complexes or rentals east of IH-35. We were unsure why we should stay away but we took the suggestion in stride. We thanked them for the advice and continued looking.

Our hunt next found us on the phone with an apartment locator. This company had a solid track record of placing people in great communities. After listing what we were looking for in an apartment,9* they compiled the data and sent us a list of places they thought we would find ideal. They mentioned that, though there are a few good fits on the east side, the west side would best fit our “lifestyle.” This trend of warnings began to trouble us.

We knew well that East Austin is where most of the Black residents of Austin call home. It is, historically, the Black side of Austin. East Austin lore weaves tales of the infamous “cuts” and “the end,” Eleventh and Twelfth street respectively, and the blues spots, movie theatres, and businesses that called them home. Stories of the two Black colleges that once resided on the east side and the graduates of E.H. Anderson High School. That we were being cautioned away from this history was frustrating.

It took less than two weeks for us to find an apartment and move to Austin after receiving the job offer. Our first few weeks were filled with exploring our immediate area. We went to bars and bodegas, coffee and consignment shops, food trucks and fitness centers. I must admit that I have never done yoga so frequently in my life. But, as it always happens, it became time to find those necessities. The qualities that really make you feel at peace in a place.

The next order of business was finding a good barbershop. South Austin is home to a number of barbershops that come highly recommended – from Avenue to Birds but, just like you can't trust everyone's potato salad, you can't trust just anyone to cut your hair. The search for a barber led me to the east side.

It took me longer than expected to get there. Though I was east of I-35, I didn't begin seeing remnants of the old East Austin for a a while. The earlier blocks seemed to be filled with new businesses in spaces previously occupied by Black ones and newly-built complexes. Realizing that I needed to get writing done, I happened into one of the coffee shops. I was the only Black person in a coffee shop on the east side of Austin. Most of the customers seemed well off, on breaks from their jobs, or in Austin tradtion, weird.

They told me that they moved to East Austin because of all the transplants that are moving to the West side of Austin. Some bought houses on the east side, just a little renovation can make it theirs after all. This is one reason why housing prices have nearly tripled in East Austin since 2007 according to Austin's demographer Ryan Robinson. Obviously they didn't take the advice that my fiancé and I were given to steer clear of the area.

After departing the coffee shop, I weaved my way around East Austin until I felt it. I stopped into the next barbershop I saw and that was it. The buzz of the clippers and the roar of debate felt like heaven. Shop-goers boasted of past endeavors and conquests. There was high school football talk of how these young boys couldn't hold a candle to those old E.H. Anderson state championship teams from more than 50 years ago. The ambiance was real and authentic. For the first time, away from the hustle and bustle of South Austin, I was at home.

Before parting, they mentioned a few churches that my fiancé and I might want to check out. This was next on my list of necessities and I thanked them for the advice.

We planned on attending services that Sunday, as it was high time that we found a church home. Our thirty minute drive east led us to St. James Missionary Baptist Church. We found a seat in the middle of the sanctuary and began chatting with the members around us. Many of the members attended services there for years. Most of these people were Ex-Austinites who now lived in Pflugerville, Leander, and Hutto. They told me that Austin was not the place that it used to be.

Housing prices and property taxes skyrocketed for them, with the latter leaping by 500% in the last decade. People such as the folks from the coffee shop who boasted of their miracle transformations of homes were driving these prices up. The more they moved in, the more Blacks moved out. They told me that once there were more Black barbers on the east side but many of them left in favor of less expensive areas and that soon most if not all of them would be gone.

People in Austin and those who write about it like to believe that Austin is without flaws. A place where anyone can come and feel at home with the right attitude, if you don't agree you can happily leave. After seeing behind the veil, it might not be right for me.

Adam Harris is a Freelance Writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @BlackSisyphus.

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