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Austin is well known for its progressive leanings in an otherwise conservative state and region. People familiar with Central Austin say that it is a place where a climate of laid back friendliness and a genuine sense of community is the norm. The influence of the University of Texas and the state Capitol has engendered a culture of discourse and activism, an industry of ideas, a worship of the eclectic, and a high tolerance of individuality and self expression.

On December 7, 2002 the City of Austin held the first community-wide meeting for the creation of the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan. Over 200 residents filled a room at the McCord Community Center at the Austin Presbyterian Seminary. People were there to learn what a neighborhood plan does and to bring the needs and character of the community to the attention of the planners. At one point in the session, the senior planner invited members of the audience to stand and express what each liked about their neighborhood. One after another, people spoke of our community’s diversity as one of its most significant characteristics. No one seemed to take notice, that out of the large number of people present, there appeared to be only one African American person. She introduced herself to the audience earlier, not as a resident, but as the director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

The Self-Depiction of Diversity

In the community survey that was part of that same planning process, residents of the North University Neighborhood area ranked community diversity as the #1 reason they liked the area, with 249 points1. This response was despite the fact that the 2000 Census placed African Americans at 1.8% of that area's population. Hancock NPA and West University similarly ranked community diversity high, at #2 and #3 with 268 and 328 points respectively. Out of 843 survey respondents, 4 people, or 0.5% listed themselves as African American, and 31, or 3.7% listed themselves as Hispanic. African Americans were 4 times less likely to participate2 in the neighborhood planning process than their white, non-Hispanic neighbors, and Hispanics were 2 times less likely to participate.

The 2010 Census3 shows that, while there there have been increases in Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnicities with corresponding decreases in Whites, there has been no significant growth of the African American population the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning Area, in the ten years since the last census. The North University neighborhood saw a 15.7% decrease in African Americans in the same period while its overall population increased 8.2%.

Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning Area (West University, North University, and Hancock NPA's)

Population by Race and Ethnicity


In the fall of 2012, The Daily Texan published an analysis of the trend 4 in a three-part series of stories examining the demographics of two neighborhoods where students live. They noted that the factors causing African Americans to shun the campus neighborhoods of Central Austin were diminished housing affordability brought on by new development enabled by the University Neighborhood Overlay, as well as discomfort with a reputation of racial tension in the West Campus area. Two recent incidents give credence to the belief that an atmosphere of racial tension is still present. 5 6

The Face in the Mirror

Central Austin’s self image is one of a socially progressive community that fully embraces the concepts of civil rights. No one would question that the people of our area value the enriching qualities of diversity. It is difficult to explain why a community with those outward values would have an inherent lack of diversity with regard to African Americans, and such a profound blind spot for the issue. Progress in the area of diversity may require that this disconnect be fully addressed by building awareness through dialogue and education.

Why do relatively few African Americans call Central Austin home? Regardless of current community values and openness to diversity, people of color continue to choose to live elsewhere. The components of that choice are often economic and geographic, such as gentrification, housing affordability, or proximity to workplace or school. Since the dismantling of Jim Crow in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and the court ordered lifting of deed restrictions in 1955, Central Austin has experienced nearly 6 decades of an open housing market. Despite valuation cycles with periods of relatively affordable and abundant housing, minorities do not move here compared to other areas of the city. From the civil rights era forward, and before a relatively recent trend in gentrification, the emergent Black professional class has bypassed Central Austin.7

Often, factors behind that choice are more personal and perceptual, especially for those who value the idea of permanence in a community. Are my neighbors like me? In which community will I, or my family, thrive and feel comfortable establishing a social life? Vestiges of history, personal experience, and existing conditions and makeup of the community may have a great influence in that personal decision.

Examining the core reasons behind why groups self-segregate should be within the scope of this discussion. Knowing the racial history of our area may also provide insight. Both are required to serve as a foundation for further research, dialogue, and a community-specific conversation about race.

The Permanence of Racial History

Central Austin was once a racially diverse community. At the beginning of the 20th Century, our subdivisions’ census pages depicted a checkerboard: Blacks, Whites, and Mexican Americans living side by side. After all, freedmen slaves founded large, complete communities such as Clarksville and Wheatsville. The Wheatsville community had 300 African Americans, churches, a store and a school. It spanned several blocks, in the present day Shoalcrest and West University neighborhoods, from 24th Street to 29th Street and Rio Grande St. west to the banks of Shoal Creek. There were also concentrations of African Americans in the Gypsy Grove subdivision of the Heritage neighborhood. And on Waller Creek near 32nd Street in the Hancock neighborhood and from 8th to 19th Streets in downtown there were established communities of African Americans. Elsewhere, heterogeneous racial makeup of blocks in working class neighborhoods were more common than not.

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, being Black or Mexican American and living in Central Austin became a crime.

With the handing down of the separate but equal provisions of Plessey vs. Ferguson, the stage was set for a raft of new segregationist laws. The Jim Crow era had begun for Austin. In 1906, the Austin City Council began a systematic, institutionalized racial cleansing of Central Austin. Depending on where people lived, the City of Austin withheld the provision basic city services like fresh water, electricity, and garbage collection to African Americans. In 1906 it became a crime to ride a streetcar compartment 8 designated for Whites-only passage if you were Black without the proper work permits and a bus in 1915.9 This forced people of color to move to East Austin, east of East Avenue, a boundary defined by present day IH-35. The city’s sweeping segregation culminated in the City of Austin’s 1928 comprehensive plan that codified the race-based residency restrictions for the next 30 years.10 Black residents of the more insular Clarksville stood their ground 11 to survive the Jim Crow era. By 1952, the once large and proud Wheatsville Community, its children now having to walk to East Austin to attend school, and its last church moving to East Austin, had been reduced to a garbage-strewn rural ghetto, ripe for commercial redevelopment opportunity.12

Throughout this time, there was a resurgence of nostalgia for the pre-Civil War era in much of the White south, including Austin. 20th Century segregation policy was reinforced by the revisionism of the Lost Cause Movement. The White-controlled establishment named public places such as schools, parks, and roads after prominent secessionists and segregationists of the Civil War Jim Crow eras, creating permanent reminders of racial division.

By 1950, urban Central Austin had become almost entirely white. It has remained to this day, and with regard to the African Americans, the latest census suggests it, and the city as a whole, is becoming less diverse.

Overall, the increased cost of housing can explain some, but not all of the sustained loss of diversity. The suburbs provide the allure of new construction and comforts, but with all the costs of the daily commute. Few would argue that a life 15-30 miles from the city center is any cheaper. But life in the suburbs is life without the landmarks and reminders of segregation past of a historic urban community.

A Place to Begin... Again

Today, the best immediate prospects for restoring diversity rest with our proximity to the University of Texas and by its faculty hiring and admissions policies. Infrequently, hate crime does occur in the student community, and when it does, the whole community responds positively. Private student organizations have an important role to play to improve the racial and ethnic climate of our area by developing fully inclusive policies for diversifying their membership, and by prohibiting racial stereotyping in social events. To build community across racial, ethnic and class lines, neighborhood associations can do more outreach to serve and welcome residents from multifamily dwellings and student housing in their service areas.

As a member of this community, we need your input. If you are interested in working toward progress in restoring the diversity of our area, or have a personal insight to share, we would like to hear from you. You may contact us at diversity@centralaustincdc.org

1 The Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin, Ordinance 040826-56, Appendix A, pg. 159

2 The Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin, Ordinance 040826-56, Appendix A, source: pg 171

3 "Population and Housing, Table I by Neighborhood Reporting Area 2010 Census Data", City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department; retrieved on Dec. 12, 2012

4 "A Tale of Two Neighborhoods", The Daily Texan, Sept. 14, 2012

5 "West Campus bleach bombings lead to march against racism", KVUE News, Oct. 2, 2012

6 "Swastikas concern residents at off-campus dormitory", The Daily Texan, Oct. 22, 2012

7 "Austin struggling to recruit, retain black professionals", The Austin American Statesman, Oct. 27, 2012

8 City of Austin 1906 Streetcar Segregation Ordinance recodified in Ord. 19090419-001

9 City of Austin Jitney Ordinance recodified in Ord. 19150617-001

10 Koch and Fowler Consulting Engineers "A City Plan for Austin, Texas 1928" pg. 57

11 Jennifer Rita Ross, "The Aesthetics of Gentrification in The Clarksville National Register of Historic Places Historic District, Austin, Texas, 1871-2003, A Thesis In Architecture" Texas Tech University, 2003 retrieved December 16, 2012

12 Nolan Thompson, "WHEATVILLE, TX (TRAVIS COUNTY)," Handbook of Texas Online, retrieved December 16, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.


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