Going to the Dogs

Eric Tang presents the next phase of his Austin diaspora research

On Wednesday evening, Sept. 23, UT-Austin scholar Eric Tang presented a “first run” of his latest research on African-Americans in East Austin, this segment devoted to a survey of longtime residents “who stayed” – that is, folks who have remained in their homes while many neighbors have moved out of Austin.

Eric Tang at Wesley United Methodist Church (Photo by Michael King)

Tang’s presentation took place before an engaged audience of about 80 people in the basement assembly room of the Wesley United Methodist Church, and was sponsored by an academic phalanx of UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, the African and African Diaspora Department, and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The current work is pursuing the research published earlier by Tang and Chunhui Ren – “Outlier: The Case of Austin's Declining African-American Population” – which documented Austin’s unusual status among the Top 10 fastest growing U.S. cities: the only one in which (during the last 15 years) the African-American population is not only not increasing, but is in fact declining both in percentage terms and absolute numbers. In his ongoing research, Tang and his colleagues are not only trying to confirm the initial statistics, but are exploring what it means in community and neighborhood terms.

Tang began this evening by sketching out his initial statistics: that while Austin’s overall growth rate from 2000 to 2010 was an explosive 20.4%, the African-American population declined not only in percentage terms (-5.4%) but in number (roughly 4,000 people). The city is an “outlier” because all the other fast-growing cities experienced simultaneous growth in black population. In his pursuit of the reasons for and consequences of that difference, Tang’s team has begun asking those who have stayed, and those who have gone, for reasons and consequences.

Top 10 U.S. Cities in Population Growth, 2000-2010 (Graph courtesy of Eric Tang)

Wednesday’s talk was about “those who stayed” – a survey team focused on a single Central East census tract "block group" [*see correction below], just east of Huston Tillotson University (bounded by Chicon, 7th, Rosewood, and Northwestern), and interviewed as many longtime residents as they could (that is, of all races, people who have lived in the neighborhood at least since 1999). Their 54 surveys reached between 77%-85% of the residents in that category, those numerical stats suggesting the abruptly changing character of the neighborhood: sharp declines in both black (-60%) and Latino (-33%) residents, a striking increase in Anglos (+442%). The surveyors asked numerically ranking questions about changes in “quality of life” over the last 15 years, and conversational questions concerning why the residents chose to stay, when so many others were moving out of the area.

Although wary of drawing broad conclusions in his first review, Tang pointed to a few patterns. Most of the respondents – asked questions about changes in “access to everyday needs,” “social relationships,” and “economic impact” – said that most things had not changed very much for good or ill, with the striking exception of property taxes, which like property values have spiked there as everywhere in Austin. But if quality of life had not improved much but costs had risen, the researchers wondered, why had this particular group of people persisted in staying?

A common response pattern seemed to be, said Tang, “a sense of rootedness” – suggested less in the ranked questions than in the supplementary conversations. “I live here because it’s my home,” said one person, “and I love Austin.” “This is my home since 1942,” said another (although the overall age range was quite wide, most respondents were middle-aged or elderly), “and I’m not going away until I die.” “I love it right here,” said another, “and my community is here” (although several people also remarked that many of their longtime neighbors are gone). Tang said that while classical economic theory would suggest that the rational response to rising values and costs would be to “cash out” and leave (as many have), he borrowed a term from Mindy Fullilove’s book, Root Shock – that like plants abruptly transplanted, people who are displaced against their will, for whatever reason, can feel a “social paralysis of dispossession,” and a reaction against the loss of community and political action.

Yet another unexpected theme the surveyors independently heard in their conversations, as Tang summarized it: “If you want to know what really pisses people off, it’s dogs.” That is, many respondents remarked about their generally younger, whiter new neighbors, that they seemed more involved in their relationships with their dogs than with other people. “They spend the whole day walking their dogs,” said one person, and others seemed perplexed that in the incoming generation, dogs seemed to be taking the place of children. “Don’t nobody love their dog more than I love mine,” said one elderly respondent, “but I still don’t want to have my dog with me in a restaurant.”

Tang isn’t quite sure what to make of the unexpected dog theme, but his audience was less cautious. They pointed to the city of Austin’s favorable policies toward animals like pets and salamanders, and the environment more generally, and suggested that while animals are given access by policy to public resources, they believe residents in difficult straits – especially minority residents – are often left to their own devices. “It’s a matter of respect,” said one audience member, apparently speaking both of his younger neighbors and the city at large. “There’s not a lot of respect for the people who stayed.”

This phase of Tang’s research is not yet in published form, and his research group is currently pursuing a broader survey of “those who left” – East Austin African-Americans who have scattered into the suburbs or elsewhere for whatever reason, and many of whom still return on Sunday morning for church. Tang wants to learn if there are discernible patterns in those movements as well, and what they might mean for the future of Austin. He said he expects at least some of those results to be available in early 2016.

*Correction: This sentence originally reported the survey covered a "census tract"; in fact it covered a smaller census unit, called a "census tract block group."

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Eric Tang, gentrification, East Austin

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