The Clarksville Effect

Austin Tragedy or Neighborhood Victory?

by Mike Clark-Madison

"Most African-Americans over 45 came from a community similar to central East Austin. Many of those neighborhoods are either in decay or wiped out by gentrification -
like Clarksville." Thus wrote Austin American-Statesman editorialist Susan Smith Richardson about a month ago, under the headline "East Austin should not become second Clarksville." Richardson goes on to write: "The fate of Clarksville, the former West Austin freedomtown turned yuppie haven, haunts the revitalization issue for many blacks and serves as a stinging reminder of what happens if you lose home. Clarksville has become a historical community without its historical residents."

Mary Baylor, director of the Clarksville Neighborhood Center, looks over her glasses at Richardson's words, kinda smiling and sighing at the same time. "That's not quite true," she says. "A lot of people have written on Clarksville, and some of them have their own versions of the story of this neighborhood."

Mary Baylor has lived in Clarksville all her life, is part of the fifth or sixth generation of her family to do so, and has been a neighborhood activist and leader for about 30 years. Mary Baylor is also black. She too has her own version of the Clarksville story, and it's a credible one. "Anyone can drive through the neighborhood and see that it's not true," she says, that the lower-income, predominantly African-American core of Clarksville has been wiped off the map. "It's been attempted, and it'll surely be attempted again. But it hasn't happened."

The point here is not to slag the Statesman, nor to hammer Richardson, whose contributions to the neighborhood/East Austin dialogue have been largely well-reasoned and always welcome. Nor is Richardson alone in failing to acknowledge that the freedomtown still lives; in my second "Corner to Corner," there is a reference to Clarksville as "a ghost-town of Austin black history." So there.

Rather, we need to separate what "Clarksville" symbolizes from what actually happened there. Richardson is right when she holds that Clarksville has become shorthand for gentrification, but it's also the home of a solid and stable black community, whose struggles to maintain neighborhood identity and integrity have been inspiring and heroic. From that perspective, Clarksville could be an affirmative case study, a model for Eastside neighborhoods trying to hold their own against the boomtown juggernaut.

Doing that, however, is a hell of a lot of work. "We always have to look over our shoulder," Baylor says. "We know that we'll always be under the microscope, never live in peace. If you don't always stay on top of things, it'll be too late. We have luckily managed to be alert."

A little history is in order. Clarksville is the oldest surviving freedomtown - the original post-Civil War settlements of former slaves - west of the Mississippi. There were at least six communities of emancipated blacks around Austin, of which Clarksville was the second. (The first was Wheatville - no "s" - founded by celebrated Austin black leader Rev. Jacob Fontaine.) Charles Clark, who purchased two acres at the 1700 block of West 10th Street on August 11, 1871, subdivided his land among other freedmen, including Reconstruction-era legislators and "buffalo soldiers," some of whose descendants still live in Clarksville. The community - originally outside the Austin city limits - grew with the addition of land formerly owned by Governor E.M. Pease, some of which was deeded to his freed slaves. Pease's daughter is said to have purchased, for $50, the 11th Street land that now holds Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, one of Austin's oldest black churches, originally pastored by Fontaine.

The gentrification of Clarksville, or at least the displacement of its black residents, dates back to about 1904, when speculators tried to have the settlement condemned as a health hazard. At that time, blacks owned substantial property between Lamar and West Lynn, as well as almost all of the area between West Lynn and today's MoPac, where the core of Mary Baylor's Clarksville remains. These holdings steadily shrank, sometimes under pressure from covetous white speculators, often because their owners found better land elsewhere, typically a combination of both. When the city enacted its fullest Jim Crow laws in 1928 - consigning "all facilities and conveniences [for] the Negroes" to East Austin "as an incentive to draw the Negro population to the area" - Clarksville seemed doomed.

Today, after nearly a century of diminution, through both choice and coercion, there is still a place called "Clarksville" with black residents, distinct from its West Austin environs, so this story must not be an undiluted tragedy. On the other hand, Clarksville is different from Tarrytown or Enfield because it was run-down, neglected, and underdeveloped for about 50 years, while stardust fell down not only on the neighboring white districts but on the displaced former residents. Before integration, the Eastside was a "better" place for black Austinites to live - certainly a more urban and exciting one, with commercial, cultural, civic, and social amenities that simply didn't exist in the old freedomtown. Today, Rosewood is desperate and Clarksville is romantic, but in the mid-century the reverse was true, at least in the perceptions of many black Austinites. Some of those who stayed were committed to the Clarksville community, legacy, and lifeways; some were simply trapped there.

After five decades of trying, Clarksville neighborhood leaders, including Mary Baylor, had managed to procure from the city - as described back then by longtime (and current) Sweet Home pastor Rev. W.B. Southerland - "the neighborhood center, some playground equipment, and six stop signs." Then came MoPac, which wiped out 64 out of 168 black-owned Clarksville homes, and displaced nearly 200 people far more efficiently than any transplanted yuppies from San Jose. When the Crosstown Expressway project - which also begat, indirectly, the recent Swede Hill brouhaha - threatened to wipe out the other half of the neighborhood, Clarksville residents took the city to court, got the neighborhood deleted from the freeway plans, and won state and federal historic designations for the neighborhood. The latter were opposed by the city's Historic Landmark Commission, whose opinions about Clarksville presaged Eric Mitchell's recent remarks about similar areas of the Eastside - gasoline and matchbooks.

Suddenly, everyone knew what and where Clarksville was, and urban-renewal money flowed in. By the time the yuppie onslaught to which Richardson alludes began, the Clarksville Neighborhood Advisory Board, Clarksville Neighborhood Center, and David Powell Clinic were all up and running, houses were being rehabilitated, and the Clarksville Community Development Corporation had begun to acquire affordable-housing rental properties, which today offer former residents a chance to get back into the neighborhood. "Some of the folks who've moved back haven't lived in Clarksville since they were babies," says Baylor. "A lot of us ventured out into the city at large, and realized that we could find the same things at home - that we could build up our own neighborhood at a lower price and in greater peace."

This doesn't mean Clarksville will forever remain integrated, with a working-class black core. "I wouldn't put my bottom dollar now, as I would have when we were first fighting for this neighborhood, that Clarksville will remain a black community," Baylor says, pointing to the lack of job opportunities close at hand for lower-income people regardless of race. "People want to do better. You don't want to hold the kids responsible; when I was brought up we didn't have a wider world. We were taught that this is our place, this is where you stay. The generations under me can make changes."

Baylor agrees with an oft-heard Eastside view - that the best way to protect historically diverse neighborhoods is to keep them currently diverse, with a range of affordable housing options available to residents of many colors and income levels. "People are afraid that new buildings - like the houses they were talking about in Swede Hill - would be strictly for whites," Baylor says. "And it's hard to get people who've completely re-rooted in a different neighborhood, and who've gone head over heels in debt, to come back. But renters looking to become homeowners... that could happen in the future. People want an opportunity to invest and be stabilized. That would be my pitch - `Hey, come back to the 'Ville.' "If we make it possible," she continues. "People talk about affordable housing for lower-income people, but what's making it possible? Banks aren't loaning and don't want to. The government makes promises but takes years to deliver. And the jobs still aren't here to support it. This neighborhood has organized, we have talked, we have written letters to big corporations and appealed to the government, and haven't gotten much response. What we have now has been years and years in the making. We know where we want to go, but not how to get there."

Dozens of lower-income black families in Clarksville who may have trouble paying their taxes, have no incentive to leave. (Baylor notes that "even poor people know the value of a dollar," along with the value of the land they occupy.) The yuppies are all over the place, and the monolithic teardown houses loom on their tiny lots, but the freedomtown lives, mostly, in Baylor's view, due to its residents' attitude and sensibility. "We've never accepted the reality that lower-income people in the city aren't supposed to have space, to own their own homes, to live in a beautiful area," she says. "If we didn't have that attitude, we would have been gone. We've been `on our way out' for decades and we're still here. People who want to live here will find a way.

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