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."

Steady Stream of Pinatas

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.

Moving On Up

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."

Mixed-Use Development Plans

When business is slow, there isn't much to do about it. Lee says El Jumpolin will sometimes have three- or four-month lows where they simply can't pay the landlord.

"When we adopted a neighborhood plan for East Cesar Chavez, participants said they wanted mixed-use development to occur in that area," says Mark Walters, a principal planner with the City of Austin. "Mixed use" is a term that describes buildings with retail space on the ground floor and upstairs living areas, a concept once foreign to East Austin.

When the rent inevitably begins to rise, businesses that don't own their property and local residents have no choice but to relocate.

According to the City of Austin's Department of Planning, property value in East Austin's 78702 ZIP code increase more than 100 percent from 2000 to 2005. Census Bureau data shows that African-American population in East Austin drastically reduced from 1990 to 2000, from 80 percent to less than 20 percent in some areas.

Forced Migration

"African-American families are migrating out of East Austin, and no new families are moving in," says Ryan Robinson, an Austin demographer, who noted that the increase in property taxes from 2005 to last year was even steeper than the 2000 to 2005 hike.

"The next Census panel won't be gathered until 2010, but if I had to guess, I'm sure it would also be a continuation of the previous trend," Robinson adds.

Harold McMillan, founder of the area's Little East Gallery, is concerned about the preservation of the culture of East Austin communities.

"It's the way of all downtown urban neighborhoods," McMillan says. "Once they get expensive and gentrified, people eventually choose to leave or get forced out."

It's McMillan's goal to protect and document as much of East Austin's history as possible, both through his museum and otherwise. Since 2002, the Little East Gallery has hosted four exhibits titled "Facing East" for which photographers are sent to take pictures in a 48-hour timeframe that are somehow representative of the area.

Holding On to Heritage and Tradition

"So many of the things that we cherish in our culture will be gone in just a few years," McMillan says. "The change in the neighborhood is really rapid. But history, culture, heritage, tradition—all of these things are so important."

McMillan is realistic about the benefits of an up-and-coming neighborhood. His hope for East Austin is that the businesses that begin to infiltrate the area do so in an altruistic way.

"The connection between culture and commerce is not a negative thing if people do it the right way," McMillan says. "I'd like to see cultural institutions throughout East Austin: public art spaces, living areas and workspaces for musicians, and mom-and-pop restaurants."

College Students Flock

University of Texas students tired of having a fraternity house adjacent to their apartments are flocking to East Austin before the rents soar too high, despite its reputation of being unsafe.

"My mom was pretty freaked out at first," says Dylan Harvey, a December UT alum and self-described hipster about his move to the East side. "But I love living over here. Walking down any given street, you run into a thirtysomething hip crowd—although we did have drug dealers living close by at one point."

Drug dealer, schmug-dealer. The neighborhood is still worlds apart from his previous central Austin existence.

"It's prime real estate," Harvey says. "I can hop on the highway in less than five minutes, and the culture makes the whole experience that much better."

Getting in on the ground floor, he has the best of both worlds: East Austin provides a young and inexpensive social scene while still giving newer inhabitants a chance to appreciate the area's time-honored digs. But that will be all but gone soon enough, unless the piñata culture picks up.

"I can't really be that worried," Lee of El Jumpolin says with a smile. "Summer is always busy for us. And everybody could use a Sponcho or two to give a good hard whack."