Extreme Makeover: Gentrification Transforms East Austin
Soaring property taxes and sluggish sales are forcing immigrant shopkeepers out.
AUSTIN, Texas, April 27, 2009 -- At any one of the handful of ethnic party shops located in a one-mile stretch of Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, Texas, each pinata has a sticker on its head that reads "Hecho en Mexico." Any shop, that is, except for El Jumpolin, where Sergio Lee and his wife handcraft one-of-a-kind, custom pinatas that line the floor, walls and ceiling.
"This is not Spongebob," Lee says, pointing to a pinata with a yellow body and square-shaped head that bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Squarepants. "This is Sponcho. We can't technically sell any real commercial characters."
The influx of East Austin ethnic shops started up years ago, when a man named Lupe tried to sell his pinatas from Mexico to various small businesses along Cesar Chavez, Lee recalls.
No one was interested, but Lupe insisted that he leave five pinatas at each shop, promising to pick up any that were unsold after a week had gone by.
By the end of the first week all the pinatas had been sold. Lupe left another five the next week at each shop, then 10, until one day no one in the area could fathom a time when there weren't a dozen Dora the Explorer look-a-likes swinging in the wind on any given Cesar Chavez corner.
But business isn't what it used to be. The neighborhood is changing from a heritage of taquerias and party shops to upscale condos and bars galore.
Once, the Latino or African-American-based communities of downtown East Austin were inexpensive, isolated and totally saturated in their own cultures. And no one seemed to mind: the rest of Austin had little interest in making the trip across I-35 for much more than a breakfast burrito.
But in the spirit of the gentrifying American Way, like in so many other cities across the country, East Austin is moving on up. It's a hipster haven now, and Lee is worried.
"A lot of people doing this kind of shopping are going back to Mexico," says Lee, who is from Mexico City. "I'd say 60 percent is already back, maybe more."