Heading east on Stassney Lane from I-35, a sweeping hill leads past brown apartment complexes over a minimal bridge and over an equally minimal creek, onto a broad street bordered on both sides by mostly beige and brown houses and duplexes. The driveways are behind the houses, so not many cars are visible – instead, cracked walkways and yards littered with toys, grills, and, often, stray potato chip bags, beer cans, plastic bottles, and occasionally larger piles of debris, used mattresses and sofas, and pre-digital televisions waiting for pickup.
Side streets splinter into longer curved roads and cul-de-sacs named after various trees and birds, especially the dove: Dove Springs Drive, Dove Drive, Dovemeadow, Dovewood, Dovehill. Depending on the splinter one chooses to follow, the scenery might include children playing street baseball, or lining up at ice cream trucks playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" and Spanish polkas, families barbecuing on their lawns, cars on blocks taking up space beneath sprawling oaks, empty lots strewn with trash, graffiti – typically in red and black, the kind of aggressive scrawls that mean little or nothing to the uninitiated – and leaning wood fences painted multiple shades of white, beige, gray, and brown for each time the graffiti has been painted over. There is an elementary school, a middle school, a Sonic, a gas station, and a park. A visitor will see few, if any, white people. They might see African-Americans. They will definitely see Mexican-Americans.
This Southeast Austin neighborhood is called Dove Springs. Semi-officially, its southern and northern borders are William Cannon Drive and Ben White Boulevard; its western border is I-35. The eastern border is just beyond Nuckols Crossing Road, on the far edge of Dove Springs District Park. These boundaries, for the neighborhood sometimes known as "the 44" (i.e., 78744), are approximate.
My Dove Springs is much smaller. It mostly consists of the house I grew up in, where I lived until I was 19, and where my family has lived since 1980.
I moved to Chicago in 2006. There I've learned I am a true Texan, something I didn't realize before I had left the state. I asked my parents to send me a Texas belt buckle, which they did. They also sent me a Kreuz Market cap and T-shirt, a reminder of my family's five-generation connection to the famed Lockhart barbecue mecca (Ramos's have been eating at Kreuz almost as long as it has existed). I wore Astros baseball caps to Cubs games until the verbal abuse became too intense, when I began wearing the Kreuz cap, a subtle but persistent show of Texas pride.
Seems Texas doesn't have such a great national reputation, but I still become defensive when Texas is attacked by outsiders. When Midwesterners hiss that Texas is scary and conservative, a place where everyone is packing heat and bogarting civil liberties, I point out that I am from Austin, and if they are familiar with it, as most are, they change their tune. "Oh, well, Austin's different," they say. If they've been to Austin, they will tell me about how lovely they found it, how much they miss the Mexican food, how chill the city seemed ... such a cool place to live. If they've never been, they want to know what SXSW is like. They exclaim over how much they want to visit someday, maybe hear some music, maybe eat some barbecue. The invective against Texas fades away, replaced with a litany of compliments.
One might think this shift from demeaning Texas to lauding Austin would make me happy. It doesn't. As I listen to the pleasantries, I try to be gracious. Usually I fail.
I am proud of Austin. How can I not be proud when I not only had the honor of being born there, but also the great privilege of growing up there? It makes me feel good to hear people sing Austin's praises, because as a native Austinite, it feels like they're also praising me, glorifying an innate part of myself, the same way I feel when someone says something kind about my parents. Austin is a beautiful place. The tacos are delicious. The music is fun. So why do I shrug when someone tells me how much they loved living in Austin while they were a student? Or when they tell me their trip to visit a friend was amazing? Why do I feel put off when someone tells me I'm lucky, because "That's an awesome town"?
It comes down to two reasons: anger and shame.
One of the best driving moments in Austin is on Congress Avenue heading north from Oltorf, especially in the twilight hours leading into dinner and beyond, as the glow of what some call SoCo (I refuse) inundates and dazzles like a hallucination, the color and fancy of tourists, college students and revelers, families and troublemakers, making a dizzying warmth that is comforting and peaceful, especially in the early hours of a summer evening, when the worst of the heat has subsided and the more embracing balm of the night begins.
Further north, there are the bats, Downtown, Sixth Street and its environs, and the yawning Capitol grounds. It is these places, along with so many others, including South First Street and South Lamar, Lady Bird Lake, Zilker Park, and the near Eastside that Chicagoans are talking about. I agree with them, because I have had my share of good nights walking down Sixth Street with my parents on Halloween, seeing Citizen Kane at the Paramount, dancing in a sweaty, messy crowd to Arcade Fire at Stubb's. But it didn't take me long on leaving Austin to realize that, even though I come from Austin and Austin is home to me, the city these kind people are talking about is not the one I grew up in.
Austin, to me, seems to be two places: the one everybody else knows, and the one I know. The Austin others seem to think represents me, and the one that actually does represent me. Further south on Congress Avenue are the areas of Austin I'm more familiar with, but which most of those acquainted with the city – and even many of those who have lived there for years – barely know. There are strip malls and fast food restaurants, chain bookstores, chain restaurants, chain clothing shops, working-class families of every hue, especially Mexican-American, the garage sales my mom has been going to every Saturday for more than 30 years, stray dogs, gangs, good days and bad days, real life, meaning something more than the chic and cuteness that are so common on the Austin T-shirts and postcards most people know about the city.
When someone in Chicago tells me Austin is a great town, I have a choice. I can nod and say, "Yeah, it's great," or I can tell them what seems to be the truth: "You don't know anything about it." The shame I mentioned earlier comes from having to pretend that Home Slice Pizza and "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers are somehow deeply reflective of who I am, in the way a hometown is supposed to be. The anger comes from knowing that, as much as the Austin I know – Dove Springs, most specifically – looms large in my understanding of what Austin is, it has little or nothing to do with what other people, even longtime residents, believe it to be. This willingness on the part of the city's cultural mainstream to close its eyes to the working-class neighborhoods that circle it and staff its restaurants and hotels, clean its streets, sell its groceries, build its condos, and paint its facades, might be acceptable, if deplorable, in a city the size of Chicago, where the most blighted neighborhoods are an hour's drive away, and easy to forget – but Dove Springs is a 15-minute drive from Rick Perry's desk, a mere stone's throw from where Edward Snowden addressed SXSW this year. How can a city so small know itself so little? Why do I have to explain to so many people that Austin is more than a funny armadillo T-shirt?
When I was in my early 20s, my best friend, his girlfriend, and I got into the habit of playing night baseball. We drove around the city looking for lighted fields and parking lots where we might be able to toss the ball back and forth, maybe squeeze in a swing or two. One night I had the genius idea of visiting the park in Dove Springs, on the other side of the street from Widen Elementary, where I'd been a student during the park's groundbreaking. (We had been brought to the empty field to watch some men take pictures and poke a shovel in some dirt; no doubt the cameramen got some good shots of me and the other mostly minority children looking hopeful and inspired.) I knew that the park had open parking lots that might be lit, even at 10 o'clock.
Even before we'd parked, I began to doubt the wisdom of my plan. Dove Springs District Park is a lovely place during the day. Children play baseball and basketball. There's a swimming pool that is often crowded, especially during the summer months. But at night, at least then, it was empty, bordered by a ring of dark trees on one side, and two empty schools on the other (Widen and Mendez Middle School). There is no walking traffic or nearby homes. It is one of the more isolated spots in Dove Springs. And we were situated at the back of the park, at the end of a long road that led from the entrance, also the only exit. If someone wanted to, they could block our way out, a thought that dawned on me as we began to take turns pitching and swinging, and which overtook me as a dark car entered the park, just as I'd worried they might. I was terrified that the car held a group of gang members who would take pleasure in showing us how unwelcome we were. But there was nowhere to go, so for lack of anything better to do, we waited.
The officer who climbed out of what turned out to be a police car was female and white. She wanted to know what we were doing. I immediately explained that we were only playing baseball, and that, if it was past curfew, we would happily leave. The officer, however, seemed uninterested in what I had to say, instead directing her questions at my two white friends.
"Do you know where you are?" she said.
Again, I tried to answer. "I grew up here. I brought them."
She continued to ignore me. "You two shouldn't be here. You don't want to be in Dove Springs at night."
After some thank yous and we're sorrys, the officer returned to her squad car and drove away. We followed her out, thankful we hadn't received curfew tickets. I'm not sure how long I was driving before I began to feel offended, before I began to feel that the white police officer had dismissed my explanations because I was Mexican, which meant I was suspect, as if I'd tricked my naive white friends into coming to Dove Springs, where they would surely be sold into white slavery by the natives. Of course, I have no idea if this is what was happening. I know from experience that the officers in Dove Springs are overwhelmingly respectful and good at their jobs. I also know from experience that Dove Springs can be a dangerous place, and that we shouldn't have been alone in that park after nightfall. To my chagrin, the officer was right. But wasn't I in as much danger as my two white friends?
When I was a child, our house was broken into. I was the first one home. My older sister's window screen had been knocked out. Our things were tossed all over the living room. My toy box had been emptied onto my bed, presumably so the thieves could use the box to hold my family's belongings. When I saw my sister's purse overturned on the kitchen table, I ran all the way to a friend's house, repeating her name between strides, sure she'd been kidnapped, a conviction that stayed with me until my mom reassured me over the phone that Lisa was safe. She'd happened to come home from school late that day.
When I was 8 or 9 I had my first cigarette, and my first taste of hard alcohol (which I immediately spat out). I played in the street with the boys on my block. They were mostly Mexican, but there was a black kid too, and two white boys. We liked to catch crawdaddies in the creek, perpetually green with algae, scum, and runoff, and colored with graffiti. We played tag football, frequented ice cream trucks, and climbed trees. One day a boy stole my cap and I climbed over his dad's car to get it back. His dad saw me and reported me to my mom, who said I could never play with those boys again, one of her reasons being that they "cursed like sailors." She may have even used the word "hoodlum." Not long after that, one of the boys was playing with his mom's gun when it went off and killed another boy, whose name I can't remember now.
My first dog's name was Lucky, a golden puppy mutt my dad and I got for free outside the H-E-B on I-35 and William Cannon. Lucky liked to bite and chew on things. She liked to poop on the carpet. She had an infection that required us to press the small nozzle of her medication tube into an open wound near her eye while she squirmed and yelped. Lucky was the worst, but she was mine, and I loved her. One morning I put her in the front yard – recently adorned with a chain link fence to prevent more robberies – so she could do her business. When I went to let her in, I couldn't find her. Our neighbors, who had been sitting outside, said they saw a shirtless man petting her through the fence. Later, a friend's mother said she saw the same man carrying a puppy in front of her house. The fence didn't have a lock and Lucky was gone.
As a sixth grader at Mendez Middle School, I watched a mob of several dozen kids chase a girl down the street until they cornered her up against a fence and beat her down, a porcupine of flying arms and fists. I have no idea why.
By most accounts, including those of my parents, Dove Springs seems to be getting better. There's less graffiti, less crime, less gang violence. My dad works in Mendez Middle School now, and says he sees less conflict there, though he is troubled by the lack of ambition among the children and their parents. My parents own their house and have no plans to go anywhere. They like the neighborhood, and I assume they will be there for the rest of their lives. For these reasons, I would like to believe that the neighborhood is getting better (or, as KUT-FM says patronizingly, "turning the corner"), but when my parents have to hide their valuables every time they leave the house for fear they will get robbed again, I can't help but doubt it.
Austin seems uniquely capable of nurturing tourism, even among longtime residents. A tourist has, by nature, a limited and fleeting understanding of a place. When someone, no matter how long they've lived in the city, tells me how charming they find Austin, how pretty it is, these memories of my old neighborhood come to mind. I consider these people tourists, blithely picking and choosing what pleases them and pushing aside the things that don't – things like Dove Springs. I am angry again. I want to tell these well-meaning enthusiasts that their enthusiasm, rather than flattering, is an insult.
Dove Springs may be getting better, or it may not, but this is beside the point. Dove Springs exists, along with so many other places you may have never seen or heard of, but which are essential parts of the place you happen to call home. These places ring the city along streets like William Cannon, Stassney, Montopolis, Slaughter, Manchaca, Anderson, Rundberg, Burnet, and Highway 183. You pass them when you drive to and from the airport. They represent entire communities, communities that are not typically highlighted on T-shirts and postcards. They are sometimes charming, often not, but they are there, and they can't be overlooked.
My family's address has said Austin, Texas, for more than 40 years. The area code on my phone is still 512. I shouldn't feel anger and shame when I talk about my hometown. I should feel pride. And mostly I do. I admire and feel a kinship with the local craft fairs, the outdoor music, the food, the water, the pecans, the unique blend of Tex-Mex, self-expression, and urbanity that make Austin so particular, so peculiar. So special.
But do me a favor the next time you talk to someone about Austin, especially someone who doesn't know better, someone who is depending on your expertise. Consider, at least for a moment, that Austin is more complicated than you may know. Take into account that, in order to do it justice, you owe the city the broadest possible knowledge of its character.
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