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Rising in the East

The changing face of East Austin and the people who call it home.

By August 2009Comments

Lalo Ancira

From sketch to chic, from drugs to lattes, from racism to understanding, East Austin has emerged as a unique blend of old and new, vibrant in its diversity. On paper, East Austin’s story has been told before—a low-income neighborhood finds itself discovered by a new crowd, faces higher property values, and suddenly becomes hip. But for the residents who have grown up on its streets, the young families looking for a home close to town, and the college students renting for a year, the area of the city to the east of Interstate 35, with its unique personality, is more than its price.

Lalo Ancira, a 92-year-old Hispanic, rode in to East Austin on a covered wagon in 1922 when he was five years old. He remembers when I-35 was a two-lane gravel road, when there was a stable down the street, and when his father took him to pick spinach from the farm that is now an HEB.

Vonnye Margaret Rice-Gardner, a 62-year-old African American, has lived in East Austin since she was two years old. The associate professor for the communications and human development department at Austin Community College grew up in the house she lives in today on East Seventh Street. She recalls playing ball with the neighborhood children across the now busy street and eating chicken fried steak at the Southern Dinette, one of the few restaurants in the area, after church on Sundays. She also remembers instances of racism and divisions between social classes when she went outside of the neighborhood. But within the community, the residents were not considered by their races, she says. She just knew them as neighbors.

Mark Rogers, a Caucasian in his early 50s, moved into a house on East Tenth in 1986 to complete his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. Rogers recalls sitting on his front porch—with a pistol—watching the neighborhood before him play out like a scene from the Wild West. He could see people playing dice down the alleyway, hear the “hey-hey’s” and “yo-yo’s” of the prostitutes and drug dealers, and talk to the bearded transvestite in a yellow mini skirt standing on the corner. A police officer once stopped Rogers on his way home to question why he was in the neighborhood. “I was profiled, basically,” he says. “And I realized that it made perfect sense because I profiled people too. I would look out and say, ‘It’s a white guy, and he’s going around my block. He’s here for drugs or prostitutes.’ So the cop was right. But he was wrong.”

Rogers got involved with neighborhood cleanup through the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood. As the infrastructure improved and Austin’s housing market boomed, prices in the area have skyrocketed.

In the early 1980’s it was hard to get loans and find sale records for properties on the East Side, says Bob Ward, an Austin appraiser. “When you did research over there, most of the homes sold by word of mouth,” he says. “And even though it was illegal, you could tell there was redlining going on with lenders.” Today the area has become the “Cinderella story” of the city, Ward says. While prices have risen citywide, the appreciation has been greatest in East Austin. A lot that could have sold for $1,500 in the early 1980’s could sell for more than $100,000 today.

Realtor Briana Miriani has watched property values rise around her home on East Ninth. Miriani moved to East Austin ten years ago looking for an affordable home in a central location that was easy to bike around. She found a vibrant community she never wants to leave. But houses in the area now are often too expensive for families wanting to buy their first homes, she says.

They also are too expensive for those who want to stay. “It’s the old double-edged sword of neighborhood improvement,” Rogers says. “You go cleaning things up, you move crime someplace else, and then next thing you know we’ve got what I call the parade of Cherokees and Troopers—and eventually Mercedes and Lexuses through the neighborhood.” Rogers, as the executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, is working to provide affordable housing to families with intergenerational ties to the neighborhood. The GNDC and other neighborhood development groups have made it possible for Ancira, who now lives on San Marcos Street, and others to continue to call the area home.    

Despite the changes, there are still traces of apprehension about the area. Even a few years ago, Cecio Ancira, Lalo Ancira’s son, couldn’t get a ride home from work. “They heard how bad it was on this side of town,” he says. “They’d drop me off at I-35 and I would walk home from there.”

But as the neighborhood transforms, the perception adjusts to fit. Fifteen years ago residents of the area couldn’t get a pizza delivered to their homes. Now East Side Pies on East Eleventh boasts one of the most popular pizza spots in the city. And while the area is still missing some of the basics, such as a drycleaners and available grocery stores, a new yoga studio on East Eleventh represents a transformed neighborhood with more coffee shops within walking distance than bars.

The people too have changed as a new mix of races and demographics have moved into the area. “It used to be if I saw someone on a bicycle it was probably a Hispanic or African American below the age of 13,” Rogers says. “Now if I see someone on a bicycle, chances are nine times out of ten, it’s an Anglo person between the ages of 20 and 40, usually with at least one piercing or tattoo, and often with a dog.”

But the feeling of community remains, Rice-Gardner says. “We try and develop a sense of community here, even as the neighbors change,” she says. “This is my home, regardless of who lives next door.

Lalo Ancira agrees. “We’re all mixed up,” he says. “But we’re friendly.”

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