East Austin's changing landscape

Urban-style condominiums are bringing lofty hopes, fears of gentrification to a historically Latino neighborhood.

By Jeremy Schwartz
Thursday, May 05, 2005
(Story originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on January 30, 2005)

On an early November morning, Jason Carnes, a professional BMX rider and the country's top-rated over-30 pro, pulled up to the Pedernales Lofts with a bright red trailer containing the tools of his trade.
Until a few months ago, Carnes had rarely, if ever, stepped foot on Austin's east side. But on this day, he became East Austin's newest resident.
His new home, in the first downtown-style condominiums to sprout so far in East Austin, was a godsend: Just a mile from downtown, the Pedernales Lofts were selling for a fraction of the chic urban spaces west of Interstate 35.
Never mind that the nearest neighbor to the loft building is a recycling plant, or that it shares a block crisscrossed by railroad tracks with a paper factory and lumberyard. Carnes thinks he has found a hidden treasure.
"From what I'm learning, things are happening on this side of town," Carnes says. "I'm kind of anxious to see how it goes."
A block south on East Fifth Street, Robert Herrera gazes out at the sleek, sharp-angled lofts from his front porch, decorated with a statue of a Pancho Villa look-alike.
Like many of his neighbors, he has lived on the street, a row of one-story homes snuggled close together, his entire life. For months he has taken in the workers scrambling to finish the six buildings rising above the barrio.
"Let's face it, this is virgin territory," says Herrera, 60. "This is a gold mine."
Ever since ground broke on the lofts, Herrera has worried about what they will mean: whether it will begin a long-dreaded process that will displace him and his neighbors and render his neighborhood unrecognizable in 10 years.
"We're like dinosaurs," he says with a sigh. "Our days are numbered."
Although new residents have been buying homes and lots in East Austin for at least a decade, the Pedernales Lofts are the first wave of a new kind of development coming to this part of East Austin: lofts, condos and apartments slated to go up in a line from Pleasant Valley Road to I-35. The area has already created a buzz: A Web site, Six New Things, which chronicles urban trends, has declared, "East Austin is fast becoming the place to see and be seen."
With units that sold for $96,000 to $200,000, the lofts are home to more than 100 young professionals, musicians, artists and government employees, what the project's developers call the creative class. For most, it is the first home they have owned, and it has allowed them to escape apartment living in West or South Austin, and is a hipper alternative to life in the suburbs.
They are by and large surrounded by long-established Latino families, most living in homes valued at $40,000 to $50,000 and among extended networks of parents, children, grandparents and cousins.
Many longtime residents, some of whom have been continuously bombarded by offers to buy their homes, worry that the lofts and the projects to come will raise their property taxes until they can't afford to pay and fray the very neighborhood fabric that gives the area its appeal. From 2003 to 2004, land values surrounding the lofts have increased by as much as 70 percent, continuing the upward march of the past four or five years.
Some loft residents, such as 37-year-old Brie Wilson, are burningly aware of the pressure they may be putting on the neighborhood. They hope the lofts can be integrated into the area's life, that new neighbors, who for so long were divided by Interstate 35 but now go to the same markets and restaurants, will overcome the class and ethnic gulfs that separate them.
But for now, no one really knows how it will shake out.
New connections
In early November, Wilson, an accountant at Whole Foods, got ready to attend Mass for the first time since she moved to Austin from her native New Orleans — via Santa Fe, N.M. — four years ago. After moving into her loft in August, she felt that it was time to return to church, and that going to services could connect her to her new community.
Wilson didn't really sleep her first night at the lofts, jittery from being in a new place, but more than anything excited about finally being a homeowner.
Scattered among the half-unpacked boxes and stacks of books and magazines was a list of East Austin restaurants she wants to hit, adding them to a growing catalog of eastside things she plans to check out: the meat market on East Seventh, where Spanish-speaking butchers sell slabs of marinated fajita meat; the roller-skating rink at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex; the nearby Cepeda Branch Library where she wants to volunteer for a literacy program.
One night recently she watched the stars from her balcony. "I feel like I'm on the road to what I want to do," she said. "I've been waiting to do this."
Wilson's biggest hurdle to finding a Catholic church was locating one with a Mass in English; she finally settled on Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
Taking a seat in a back pew, her dreadlocks poking above the backrest, Wilson stood out from the largely Latino congregation. But that doesn't bother Wilson, who was one of six African American students in a high school of 600 in New Orleans.
"I do have a corporate job, but I don't want to be in a generic, vanilla environment," she said. "I know we look different on the outside and speak different languages, but people want the same things: to be respected, to be treated fairly."
That desire for diversity also helped lure Jorge Reyes to the lofts.
Born in Guatemala and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Reyes navigates two worlds: As a Latino, he speaks Spanish and says the neighborhood around the lofts reminds him of growing up in the small town of Mercedes. But as an information specialist for the state Housing and Community Affairs Department, he has more in common economically with other middle-class residents of the lofts.
Since moving from an apartment complex on South Congress Avenue, Reyes says, he's barely been west of I-35; he gets breakfast tacos at Joe's Bakery every morning, eats dinner at Los Comales restaurant and takes in the dramatic view of downtown from his living room window.
"I just like the vibe of it," he said. "It's a lot more homey than when I lived on the west side."
A couple months after the first lofts opened, the place was indeed beginning to feel like home for some residents, when they received a jarring reminder that at least for some in the neighborhood, they weren't as welcome as they had thought.
In late September, a set of signs appeared, dangling from power lines outside the lofts: "Step Gentrifying the East Side," "Will U give jobs to longtime residents of this neighborhood?" and "This development will displace poor people.

"It's hard to crack the sunny demeanor of Carnes, the BMX racer. But when he learned of the signs, his face darkened.
"To see the city grow into their neighborhood, I don't know," he said. "But what do you do? No matter where you are, the city will catch you."
Brie Wilson was angrier: "I'm just offended by it," she said the day after they appeared. " I am so not rich, it's not funny. . . . You've made a huge generalization about everybody moving in here, and you know nothing about me."
Old-time neighbors seemed to agree that the signs weren't the work of long-term residents. A few days later, someone replaced them with new ones that read: "Real Austinites Value Diversity" and "This is a Neighborhood We are ALL proud to live in."
Prelude to change
On a recent afternoon, Joe Menchaca walked into Kellee's Place, a neighborhood bar cater-corner to the lofts, letting in a slice of yellow sunlight that momentarily cut through the dark.
Menchaca ordered a $1.75 beer and took a seat at the end of a small bar as Tejano music blasted from a jukebox in the corner. A small black-and-white picture of Tejano legend Ruben Vela hung on the wall, next to a sign advertising $10 bottles of cologne.
Kellee's Place has remained an insulated, unchanging escape in the two decades that Menchaca has been a regular.
But with the arrival of the lofts across the street, changes have begun to creep in: Joe Perez, the youthful manager and owner of the bar, has begun selling Shiner Bock and Corona for $2.50, mostly for his new customers, which include a group of loft residents and business owners who have become Friday afternoon regulars. And Perez is contemplating changes to the jukebox. "Maybe some Metallica," he says, laughing.
At the H-E-B a block away, new residents have urged the supermarket to make some changes as well: The store now stocks more soy products — tofu and soy milk — and, perhaps because of the influx of new singles, sells a lot more flowers on weekends.
Such small shifts may be a prelude to more seismic changes.
With land values on the streets surrounding the project surging as much as 70 percent for homes a block east on Sixth Street, and as high as 50 percent for the homes just south on Fifth Street, families are both helped and hurt: Their homes are worth more should they decide to sell, but increased taxes are too much of a burden for some residents.

Art Cory, chief of the Travis Central Appraisal District, said single-family home appraisals are determined by the sales prices of similar homes nearby
Del Barron, a 64-year-old Mexican American retiree, has lived on Santa Rosa Street, two blocks south of the lofts, all her life in a home built by her father.
This year, her tax bill rose more than $200 as her property value jumped from $38,944 to $47,792. The leap was almost entirely because of the increase in the value of her land, from $15,000 to $22,500. In 2000, her land was valued at just $6,000.
In the past year, Barron says, she's been flooded with offers to buy her home, with investors leaving pamphlets in her mailbox or knocking on her door.
But she says she won't leave. "I don't intend to sell to nobody while I'm living," she said while raking the leaves on her lawn recently. "I'll stand my ground; I don't care how much money is offered. I will not sell."
At the same time, she sees her home as a growing nest egg for her children.
Barron's neighbor on Robert T. Martinez Jr. Street, Jimmy Cadena, has seen his taxes spike by several hundred dollars but can't imagine leaving the block where he has lived all his life.
Grilling up a batch of sausage and pollo asado for his wife's office party, Cadena says everyone here knows everyone else and folks are always willing to lend a hand. "I'm already used to this environment," he says.
A few doors down from Kellee's Place and the lofts, however, Ygnacio and Minnie Camarillo say the time may be approaching to leave the home they've shared for three decades.
Their home is something of a neighborhood landmark as Minnie goes all-out for the holidays, adorning the house in elaborate Christmas lights and decorations, including a plastic Santa and sleigh on the roof. But increased traffic in recent years, due more to artist spaces directly across the street than the lofts, has them reminiscing about their quiet, old neighborhood.
"Pretty soon, they're going to start moving all the Mexicans out of here, I'm pretty sure," Ygnacio says with a wry chuckle. "It worries me about what all is going on." The couple say they love their neighborhood but can see a future elsewhere.
An artistic bent
When 29-year-old artist Lisa Crowder learned there was an opportunity to rent retail space on the ground floor of the Pedernales Lofts, she jumped at the chance.
With a partner, Crowder opened Flux, a studio that sells her work and other East Austin artists. The shop is an eclectic mix of hip handbags, dramatic paintings and unusual jewelry that she thinks will fill a need in the changing neighborhood.
"It's just a cool part of town. and hopefully it will stay cool," said Crowder, who moved to the neighborhood about five years ago, part of an influx of artists who have bought homes and studio space in East Austin.
At Flux's grand opening in early November, a palpable cool factor hung in the air. About two dozen 20- and 30-somethings mingled over a keg of beer and bottles of wine while a DJ spun tunes on an Apple laptop, deftly arranging Daft Punk electronica with Michael Jackson remixes.
Meanwhile, a very different kind of party was going on about 300 feet away at Kellee's Place.
About two dozen regulars and family members celebrated bartender Joe Perez's 34th birthday. The crowd listened to La Tropa F and Los Tigres del Norte, played pool and broke into spontaneous Tejano dance steps.
Among the partygoers were Pedro Valdez, a Taylor native who grew up in East Austin, and Christopher Tello, who has lived in the neighborhood for all of his 28 years.
Standing outside the bar on a smoke break, the pair warily surveyed the lofts across the street. Asked if they would consider joining the mostly Anglo gallery-goers around the keg, they joked that they would probably get arrested.
Despite the joke, the older Perez thinks the two populations can integrate, share their different backgrounds and maybe learn from each other.
"The east side is the . . . good side — they can come along and experience it," he says. "Changes are good for the city."
Tello had a dimmer view of whether loft residents and traditional East Austinites can find common ground.
"It's poverty. The people are too poor," he says.
"I ain't gonna lie; it's a sucky situation," Tello says, summing up his view of the changes. He vows that he would never sell his home. "People here got too much history."
Herrera, a veteran of the Economy Furniture strike of the late 1960s, a seminal event that helped politicize the city's Hispanic community, tends to view what's happening in East Austin through such historic lenses.
"The east side has always been the dumping ground for power brokers," he says.
But whereas in earlier decades it was gasoline storage farms and industrial sites, today it's the density of new housing that city planners say Austin so desperately needs to make room for a population that is expected to double in 25 to 50 years.
For many, Our Lady of the Guadalupe Church is the spiritual heart of Hispanic East Austin.
Founded in 1907, it was originally in what is now the edge of the Warehouse District. It was moved to its present site at roughly the same time that the city's infamous 1928 master plan sought to move the city's African American and Hispanic communities east of downtown from pockets throughout the city.
The Rev. J.C. Cain has seen some remarkable changes since he first served as a deacon at Guadalupe in 1988: Once-shambling houses have been selling in the mid-$200,000s, and he shepherds a flock that is increasingly Anglo.
"People will sell their homes because they can get these phenomenal prices for them," Cain said. "But at the same time, people don't want to leave the neighborhood. This is home."
Most neighborhoods in East Austin are places where life is lived outdoors: Folks sit on porches, chat with neighbors, host barbecues. Neighbors are linked by a strong sense of history and shared experiences.
Cain says that network is what people fear losing.
"To me, the whole question is balance," he said. "It doesn't matter who comes in as long as they can maintain the values this community was founded on."
According to some of the experts, that balance — maintaining the neighborhood's spirit while integrating a host of newcomers — is often elusive.
John Betancur, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says gentrification tends to win out once it starts.
"People resist and try to stay as long as they can — they have created an identity of place — but eventually it moves on and on and on and retains only those able to stay financially."
Wilson and other lofts residents say the last thing they want to do is be part of a process that replaces Joe's Bakery with Starbucks, replaces Kellee's Place with Applebee's, replaces old-timers with newcomers.
"I worry about what happens to the people here," she said. "I don't want to put people out of their homes; I just don't."
At the same time, she thinks that neighborhoods are almost living organisms: "I don't know that you can guarantee that anything won't change."
People have been living in the Pedernales Lofts only a few months. Its effect — and that of other eastside developments — probably won't be fully understood for years.
Wilson, though, has hopes for the future. "I hope people quit seeing the kind of cars or skin color or whatever and there's more of a sense of community and people blend in more together.," she said. "I think it's everyone's responsibility."
jschwartz@statesman.com; 445-361
GRAPHIC: The new and the old come together at East Sixth and Pedernales streets, where a bartender walks into long-time haunt Kellee's Place across from the new Pedernales Lofts. Kellee's now sells Shiner Bock and Corona, mostly for the area's new loft residents and business owners.
Jason Carnes, a professional BMX rider, bought his first home at the Pedernales Lofts because of the price and proximity to downtown and several dirt-bike tracks.
For Brie Wilson, a Whole Foods Market accountant who lives in the Pedernales Lofts, the biggest hurdle to attending Mass was finding a Catholic church with services in English in her new neighborhood. She ended up at Our Lady of Guadalupe on East Ninth Street, which is for many the spiritual heart of Hispanic East Austin.

Pedernales Lofts resident Jorge Reyes says he's barely been west of Interstate 35 since moving from South Austin. A state employee who works downtown, Reyes says he enjoys the neighborhood spots, such as the Big Chief Bar on East Sixth Street.

Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at
^top | <back | news | next>