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Ambition, money, and mercy: faces of Austin

People are flocking to Austin for the jobs, education, and hip culture, but the city’s rapid growth is hurting some longtime and low-income residents

Ambition, money, and mercy: faces of Austin

Austin, Texas (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

Third in a series on changing cities

For the past two years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Austin the No. 1 place to live in the United States. It says Austin beats the country’s largest metropolitan areas in affordability, job prospects, and quality of life. Austin’s first-place rank catches some by surprise. The past few decades transformed the city from a sleepy college town and state capital into what some call “Silicon Hills”: a California-alternative tech hub with a beautiful natural environment and friendly business climate. Now it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, with a population of more than 900,000.

Austin’s small-town, hippie culture used to draw musicians and artists, but in recent years both established tech companies (like Google, Facebook, Apple) and numerous startups have settled in, sweeping swarms of young professionals to Texas. The city’s vibe is hip and eco-friendly, with a left-wing local government and a liberal population that defies the rest of the state. The Colorado River runs through the city, and bikers, hikers, and kayakers can choose from dozens of green trails and parks.

But massive growth can create massive challenges. Housing prices are rising, highways are clogged, and developers are reaching into historic parts of the city, indirectly pushing longtime residents out. Here are stories of six people who call this city of contradictions their home. 

Handout

John Mitchell (Handout)

JOHN MITCHELL, 22, works at Google. He wears cuffed jeans, black-and-white tennis shoes, and an elastic band on his wrist for his shoulder-length brown hair. He grew up in Massachusetts, but when he had to choose a college, he thought of the University of Texas at Austin: A family trip had taken the Mitchells through the city years before. During his senior year, a UT professor told Mitchell about the job opportunity at Google. After eight weeks of intense interviews, he got a position. Mitchell calls Google “a surreal place to work.” The 2-year-old Austin office gives Googlers all kinds of perks, including two meals a day and a rooftop dog park for their pets. Seven months in, Mitchell recently returned from a company trip to Las Vegas, where he stayed in the MGM Grand: “A year ago I was riding around on a bike with a brake that didn’t work. Every time I got Chipotle I would go deeper in debt. It’s a complete turnaround.” But he still doesn’t own a car and instead rides to work on an electric scooter.

On Mondays Mitchell goes to “free play night” at Elephant Room, a jazz club downtown. He loves the outdoor spots in Austin and a “long list of restaurants.” He hopes one day to get a wristband and attend South by Southwest, a film festival, tech conference, and music showcase. He says, “The most important things that happened in Boston happened 250 years ago … whereas Austin, all those things are happening now. … For me, the young tech worker-graduate who appreciates what Austin was and also what it is now, it’s ideal.”

CHRIS MORGAN lives in a white stone house nestled in the hill country west of Austin. She and her late husband built the house in 2002, and all three of their grown children lived there for a time. They paid $30,000 for the lot: Now it’s worth $180,000. At 64, Morgan is short and grandmotherly, with chin-length gray hair. She frequently works in her husband’s old office, with a stretch of Texas sky visible through the window, and a short bookcase displays her cookbooks and Bible commentaries.

Morgan remembers old Austin: She moved here as a newlywed in the 1970s. Her husband, Jim, worked in real estate, and she studied English at the University of Texas. She remembers dragging her husband to dances at live music clubs like Austin’s famous Armadillo World Headquarters. They lived near Zilker Park, south of downtown.

In the 1980s the real estate market in Austin collapsed. Morgan tapped into her love for computers to find a job and later gained an MBA. Jim died suddenly in 2010. Dealing with the loss and painful family circumstances made Morgan’s next year miserable. “Laura across the street got me a job with a consulting firm,” she said. “And after that, God always provided a job.” She found consulting contracts, six to 12 months long.

Now the large white house is mostly empty. Morgan spends her days cleaning it room by room, reading theology books, and taking calls from recruiters, looking for her next job. With her years of experience and her MBA, she is qualified for a high-tech position. But when people learn her age, their interest evaporates: That makes each new contract a challenge to secure. 

Handout

Debbie and Earl Walker (Handout)

EARL WALKER has lived half his life in a converted duplex in northwest Austin. “I love this house!” he said, striking the cushion of the gray couch. Walker, 60, is a tall African-American, with glasses and a mustache. His wife Debbie is a Caucasian New Yorker with short hair and a motherly smile. They moved to the neighborhood in 1988 and purchased the house in 2000. Eleven years later, they removed the inner wall so they could use both sides of the duplex.

Neither of the Walkers has a college degree, limiting their job options in the increasingly expensive city. Earl Walker grew up in East Austin, the historically African-American side of town. Interstate 35 split the city: Wealthier whites lived west, and low-income black and Hispanic people lived east. Walker’s parents worked at the New Orleans Club, a nightclub just west of I-35. At night, his mother would call him on the club’s phone and leave the receiver on the counter. He remembers falling asleep listening to the live music, a mix of soul, rhythm, and blues. “That was my take on Austin,” he said. “Growing up in the east side, your vision kind of stopped at 35, so it made my world bigger.”

In the early 1970s, the city changed its policy, sending freshman Walker and some of his friends to a predominantly white high school 20 minutes north of home: “The people at the new school didn’t want us there. We didn’t want to go,” he said. “So, a lot of tension, even some violence and policing. It was really tough initially.” After graduating, he attended trade school and got a job as a computer technician at Texas Instruments. At 19, he met Debbie, asking her to dance at a club. Together, they moved to the Northwest Hills area of Austin with their dog, Thor. Eventually Texas Instruments downsized, and Walker lost his job. He started a lawn care business in 1981 and later switched to housekeeping and laundry at Hawthorn Suites. Debbie worked at Dell, then at a dental clinic.

The couple arranged their shifts so they could homeschool the kids together. “It was perceived as a huge risk, and God just made it happen. Our children are the proof,” Walker said. He saw all three of their children graduate from college and marry. The Walkers attend High Pointe Baptist Church, about 5 miles from home, with two of their sons. After church, the whole family, including the grandkids, eats lunch at the Walkers’ home. Sometimes the grandkids spend the night, and a Pack ’n Play stands ready in the boys’ old room (with their sports and Awana trophies on a shelf).

Earl Walker’s grandparents, ex-slaves, came to Austin from Bastrop, just southeast of the city, and settled in the east side. His parents stayed in Austin, and now he is watching his grandchildren grow up in Austin, a fourth generation of native Austinites. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Walker said. 

JON DANSBY’s Austin is split between two worlds. He wakes up in his suburban home, half a mile from his kids’ school, then drives 20 minutes south to his office and the campus of the Austin Stone Community Church where he pastors. Both are located in the St. Johns neighborhood of East Austin. Crime and neglect marked the area until recently. Now, as one of the cheapest parts of the saturated city, the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying.

Dansby is a white Floridian with degrees from Texas Christian University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He was excited to move to Austin in 2010 because he knew it was a “cultural center” with “a lot happening spiritually.” The neighborhood surrounding his church is mostly Hispanic and African-American, but more than three-quarters of the congregation is white. Instead of a church building, the church purchased a run-down, vacant retirement home. Needles littered the parking lot, and locals called it “the field of dreams” because prostitutes put down mattresses to work there. The church renovated it and rents the building at a discount to nonprofits during the week. The church also runs a baseball program for local kids, mentors students, and responds to tragedies like apartment fires. Dansby said the goal is that if the church left, “Austin would weep for us leaving.”

In helping the poor, Dansby did not want to communicate, “The white people are here, finally.” But some congregants moved into the St. Johns neighborhood expecting God to change things immediately. He said they were “chastened by reality that real transformation takes decades. It takes presence. It takes sacrifice. It takes all kinds of things. So we’re still there.” He said church members sometimes do neighborhood outreach. “That’s met with some very varied degrees of success. Mostly white folks walking through a neighborhood that’s not predominantly white is sometimes not super welcome.”

Instead of traditional efforts like soup kitchens, the church encourages members to serve through local nonprofits. Dansby said, “We always want to make sure we don’t divorce poverty-fighting from proclaiming the gospel. You can help people for the short term, but if they go to hell, what has really been done?” 

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

A development project is under construction in the South First Street neighborhood. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

THREE MILES FROM ST. JOHNS, Marisol Sanchez, 36, sees the gentrification of East Austin up close and daily.

For 24 years, she’s lived in a pink, one-story house with potted plants along the front sidewalk and a string of lights decorating the eaves. She lives with her parents and youngest brother in East Austin, near the Mueller area, with its upscale offices and green park with a man-made lake. Luxury apartments, an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and the Thinkery children’s museum are also in Mueller, a development named after the old airport that used to occupy the land.

When 10-year-old Sanchez and her family moved to Austin from Mexico City, they settled on the east side where property taxes were lower. Her dad worked as a welder and construction worker, and her mom mostly stayed home with the four kids. Most of their neighbors were Mexican or African-American. The new airport opened south of downtown in 1999, and city officials contracted with developers to build Mueller. It opened in 2007, and property values of homes nearby soared. Many longtime residents could no longer afford a place in East Austin and moved further north and east.

“This used to be a Mexican meat market,” she said, pointing to an upscale restaurant called Hanks. Hanks shares a shopping center with a Family Dollar, a small nail salon, and a discoteca (a Mexican music store). Nearby is a Mexican fruit cup shop tucked in a corner between two stores. Sanchez knows the owners and remembers going there with her friends after school. Signs for shops and restaurants along the road alternate between Spanish and English. Every so often, a luxury condo complex appears, looking out of place.

Austin officials are succeeding in making the city attractive to people with money. But Sanchez said, “It’s coming at a cost for people who have roots here.” 

Handout

Gene Burd (Handout)

GENE BURD has seen and done a lot. “When you live to be 87, you collect a little more than lint,” he said, sitting in his tiny retiree’s office in the University of Texas journalism department. Burd is small and mostly bald with blue eyes and an intense stare. He wears a light-blue long-sleeved button-up shirt and dress pants. Six stacks of paper, each 3 feet high, stand in a neat row along the wall. Stacks of papers and boxes of files fill the shelves and cover the desk, blocking the computer and the view out the window. He’s going through his writings—published and unpublished—and putting them online.

Burd moved to Austin in 1972: “At that time the UT Tower and the Capitol were the tallest buildings in the city.” Burd lives in the Threadgill’s apartments, named for the famous nightclub where Janis Joplin and other rock singers got their start, but he says high rents are forcing many of the nightclubs that gave Austin its culture to close.

Before retiring, Burd taught feature writing at UT for 40 years. He never married (though he said he “should’ve married Dola May”) and never owned a car. He walks to his UT office and takes a bus to dentists, doctors, and the H-E-B grocery store. Burd called Austin “puberty-ville” and said you can be arrested as an illegal alien for being over 60 here.

PEOPLE LOVE AUSTIN, with good reason. But many of its positive features come with negative sides. As the city grows, so does its homeless population. As developers beautify the city, property taxes rise. The demand drives developers to build high-end, luxury apartments or one-bedroom condos, and middle-class families struggle to find a place near the city center. Public transportation runs limited routes near downtown, so those who live in the suburbs must own cars and brave traffic to get to work.

Austin is a city caught between its past and its future: No longer a hippie small town, but not yet a San Francisco. Longtime residents and new residents are feeling the stretch, exciting and terrifying at the same time. Chris Morgan remembers old Austin, where you could buy breakfast tacos downtown for $1.25, with tech workers in Birkenstocks eating on picnic benches next to politicians in three-piece suits. But new Austin, with its spotlight and money and massive growth, is already here. While career opportunity and spiritual opportunity abound, the hard question remains: What happens to the residents who can’t keep up?

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a reporter for WORLD.

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 03/29/2019 10:06 am

    "Highways are clogged" doesn't begin to describe Austin traffic. It's difficult to imagine a city short of either seaboard with such a distressing ratio of vehicles to available lanes. :-)