It’s been a bumpy week for the white Austin hipster. First they have to go claim their kin after one of them insisted that Austin was the true home of the breakfast taco—which was news to folks in San Antonio, Corpus, the Valley, and other points south. Now they have to acknowledge that the combination of self-loathing and a total lack of self-awareness in their makeup means that a white Austin hipster vandalized a business—owned by two people of color—with the words “F*ck You White Hipsters.”
That is, er, not great. Late on Tuesday night, the proprietors of Mission Dog, a food truck-turned-storefront in East Austin that sells bacon-wrapped hot dogs, found themselves on the receiving end of the graffiti. The store’s security cameras caught footage of the incident, and news spread wide—especially when Collette Jordan, one of the partners behind the enterprise, noted that while the person caught on camera sure looks white, the leadership team of the restaurant is not.
Within 24 hours of Jordan making her point, the person responsible for the graffiti had reached out to the store and apologized. According to KVUE, Mission Dogs co-owner Mike Farley accepted the apology and the offer from the person who wrote it to clean up their handiwork, declaring the matter settled.
That’s gracious of Farley and the Mission Dogs team, and it was big of the white hipster captured on camera to come forward so quickly with an apology that the team rated as sincere. All’s well that ends well between them—but the incident highlights some of the weirdness surrounding gentrification in East Austin.
Specifically, it highlights the tendency of a certain type of Austinite—we’ll stick with “white hipster,” since it was emblazoned on the side of a building in permanent marker so recently—to identify gentrification as a problem in Austin, but not to identify themselves as part of that problem.
Last year, stickers started appearing on certain East Austin businesses declaring them to be “exclusively for white people.” (Austin lawyer Adam Reposa claimed responsibility for the campaign, though skepticism remains regarding whether the attention-hungry attorney was the actual culprit.) Those stickers were similarly intended as a comment on gentrification—though Austin residents like State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, one of the people with a memory long enough to recall that sentiment being expressed without irony, initially took them at face value. As with Mission Dogs, the campaign was both clueless and foolish, targeting businesses like a fair-trade bakery—which people of all races can and do enjoy—and stores with owners who were not white.
Still, the impulse to condemn gentrification while actively participating in it runs deep. The word “gentrification” carries some complex connotations. It’s not great news for less affluent people who’ve long lived in communities like East Austin, which were created specifically to keep people of color concentrated in one area when they start losing resources—a piñata shop or a laundromat—and see them replaced with things that offer them little utility—say, a SXSW party venue, or a restaurant where a burger and potato chips cost $15. But those obvious markers of gentrification aren’t the only thing that the word contains. Anytime people with more money move into a neighborhood, raising the rent and the property values, gentrification is occurring.
In other words, even a white hipster who works as a waiter or in another low-wage job who moves into East Austin in 2016 is participating in gentrification simply by paying the rent, because that’s how markets work. Rent in East Austin is as high as the market can bear, and it goes up when new people move in and pay it. Gentrification isn’t just something that’s done willfully or callously, and it’s not something a person can opt out of simply by disapproving of it.
It’s not a bad thing that white folks in East Austin are conscious of gentrification and the impact that it has on the neighborhood that they’re living in. To the contrary, the neighborhood is only going to remain vibrant and only has the possibility of serving the communities that have historically lived there if white hipsters and other newcomers are thoughtful about the way gentrification is shaping East Austin.
The next time white hipster feel the need to pick up their markers and spray cans, they should remember that there is way more productive action that can be taken. Gentrification in neighborhoods like East Austin occurs, in large part, because other neighborhoods are too expensive, and new development is difficult. In Austin, wealthy neighborhoods like Hyde Park have extensive zoning regulations regarding new construction that make even the rising property values on the East Side look downright affordable—and things like that are the engine that drives gentrification more than a hot dog shop could ever be. Advocating more density in those neighborhoods, while politically difficult (wealthy homeowners tend to wield a fair amount of political power), is infinitely more useful than hoping that your epithet will actually apply to the business you’ve decided to be mad at. Similarly, the harmful effects of gentrification—the displacement of longtime residents, the destruction of previously close-knit communities, etc—can be combatted not by picking fights with random hot dog shops, but by getting to know the neighborhood you’re moving into, learning its history, and meeting the neighbors.
It’s nice that the person came forward to apologize, and it’s nice that the owners of Mission Dog accepted the apology with grace. But this whole situation could have easily been avoided if the white hipster in question had simply introduced themself to the owners of the restaurant, learned who they are and what they’re bringing to the community, and kept their marker in their pants. Gentrification in neighborhoods like East Austin is largely a runaway train—but it doesn’t have to be as divisive and destructive as it threatens to be. A lot of the onus for that falls on the shoulders of property owners and, yes, businesses to keep prices affordable and to fit into the fabric of the existing community. But it also certainly falls on the people who are the frequent symptom of gentrification to take a good look in the mirror, recognize that they can’t assuage their guilt by deciding that it’s the other white hipsters who are the problem, and then help create the sort of community that they want to live in. At the very least, that ought to be one where they know who owns the hot dog shop before they decide that they hate it.