Life on the 38th Parallel
Behind the streets of abandoned buildings and red-light activity that's made Central East Austin infamous are contradictions of prosperity. They are the neighborhoods of the East Side, many of them thriving enclaves of charmingly historic homes and tidy yards, each with its own story. Depending on the economy of the times, their status has risen and fallen in unison -- a situation exacerbated by land speculators and developers who cynically invest in the area's ability to become an extension of downtown, and who plan to desert their new neighbors once the buck is in hand. Meanwhile, the residents abide, and instead trust in the area's ability to maintain its hospitality for the less well-to-do: struggling families, the elderly on fixed-incomes, and a new crop of East Austinites -- students.
In the middle of it all, both geographically and politically, is the Guadalupe neighborhood. Perhaps the most beautiful and thriving Eastside neighborhood, Guadalupe is located between East Seventh and 11th Streets, just east of I-35. Through their neighborhood association, GAIN (the Guadalupe Association for Improved Neighborhoods), the 130 or so Guadalupe residents have used city dollars to turn a once-dilapidated, drug-ridden "target area" into a tight-knit, vigilant community that has slammed the door on crime, making it the envy and de facto representative of Central East Austin. Recently, that leadership role has taken GAIN to center stage in Eric Mitchell's escalating redevelopment saga, where the neighborhood association has successfully spearheaded area opposition to the new councilmember's proposals.
But the group's resistance has also intensified the turf war between Mitchell and his growing body of African-American supporters, and the predominantly Hispanic GAIN. Dorothy Turner, head of the Black Citizens' Task Force, wants GAIN to stay out of issues that affect East 11th street and its northern adjacencies, traditionally considered the concern of black East Austinites. "GAIN pisses blacks off," says Turner. "The problem is they want to be in other people's business. I don't have a problem with them doing their own thing, but they don't have the absolute over everything in East Austin." Mitchell has consistently resisted efforts to include GAIN or any Guadalupe representatives in community discussions. Father Bill Elliot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in the heart of the Guadalupe neighborhood was deliberately excluded from a December meeting of area church leaders called by Mitchell to discuss the councilmember's plans for Central East Austin commercial corridors. In addition, when a staff document given to councilmembers suggested including a representative from GAIN on the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA) Board, a group handpicked by Mitchell which will be dispensing almost $9 million in federal funds to revitalize East 11th and 12th, Mitchell scrawled a large "No!" beside GAIN's name. GAIN's president, Letesia Cantu-McGarrahan, was included anyway through the force of the other councilmembers, but so far, the four neighborhood representatives have only attended one of three ARA meetings, since their fellow board members, all picked by Mitchell, have been meeting, and voting, in secret. So much for neighborhood representation.
But perhaps GAIN's greatest transgression against Mitchell is its opposition to a low-income housing development proposed for the adjacent, traditionally black Anderson neighborhood, located between East 11th and East 12th Streets. Armed with determined members and a thorough understanding of the redevelopment process, GAIN may have dealt a temporary KO to the project last November. Called SCIP II (Scattered Cooperative Infill Housing Project), it's been fervently shepherded by Mitchell and calls for the construction of 100 rental houses in the small, politically inactive neighborhood. Concerned about the project's 100% rentership plans, which GAIN fears could attract transitory tenants while driving out life-long residents, GAIN members canvassed their own neighborhood with a petition opposing the project, soliciting close to 80 signatures.
"Eric Mitchell is trying to run over East Austin," says one of GAIN's founding members, David Zapata. "If you go against the poor, the elderly, and the children, GAIN will be in your face."
GAIN forwarded the petition to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which was considering an application from the SCIP II developer, the Anderson Community Development Corporation (ACDC), for a $5 million tax credit. Shortly thereafter, the department denied the application. That triggered the loss of a $1.8 million grant from the city, thus cutting off all public funding for the project and stopping it until the next round of tax credit applications this spring. While the department's denial was based on the project's economic viability, SCIP II consultant Cloteal Haynes says of the neighborhood petition, "I'm sure it didn't help. When you have any negative comments about a project, I would have to assume they would take that into consideration." The petition, says Guadalupe resident and GAIN founder Mark Rogers, may have been the "final nail in the coffin."
GAIN's possible coup de grace, besides neighborhood imperialism, prompted the project's supporters to charge GAIN with devil's advocacy for the sake of greed and self-interest. Perhaps the only representative for Anderson Neighborhood other than GAIN is Ray Dell Galloway, who works at the Ideal Barber Shop on East 12th Street. Galloway, head of the five-person ACDC, says of GAIN's resistance, "I don't know what their problem is, other than they want to control that money." GAIN members maintain that they have never applied for the funds sought by ACDC. But some have commented that if they had, they could accomplish more with the funds than what ACDC representatives propose.
Another SCIP II consultant, Gene Watkins, who was head of the City's Housing Department as recently as two years ago, makes a similar argument. "GAIN started off by saying we were kicking out middle-income black families. That's concentrating the poor. Then we made it public that the existing income in that area was only around $8,000, so they changed their argument and said we're bringing in upper-income residents. So they called it gentrification. So how do you win? GAIN consistently finds any excuse or argument, whether it's consistent with previous objections, to oppose a project. Their model is to rule or ruin."
For the most part, GAIN members deny the charges of authoritarianism, but maintain that what goes on in all of East Austin affects them. In fact, some members consider it their moral responsibility to be involved in the affairs of other neighborhoods. "They're our neighbors," says GAIN President Cantu-McGarrahan. "Who would speak for them if we didn't? They're scared, and many of them are elderly. They need our help and they want to stay."
Perhaps that sentiment stems from GAIN's success with its own neighborhood, which to many has become the standard for revitalization in East Austin. Long-time Guadalupe residents say the effort began with Zapata, who took community policing into his own hands in the late Eighties, appointing a crime-watch captain to each block and patrolling the neighborhood himself. But the turning point came in 1991, when Rogers caught wind of a new neighborhood fund at the city called the Neighborhood Support Program (NSP) that, ironically, Watkins had implemented. To receive the funds, which would amount to $10,000 that year, the residents created a non-profit corporation, and GAIN was born.
The new group quickly purchased lawn equipment and dumpsters, and hired local youth crews for neighborhood clean-ups. Zapata's crime-watch was aided with C.B.'s and the installation of motion-detection lights on Guadalupe houses. With the NSP funding, Rogers started a newsletter that dealt partly with neighborhood revitalization efforts and partly with political decisions affecting Central East Austin. "The Guadalupe neighborhood has come along very well as a place to live," says NHC Director Bill Cook. "If you count the condition of the housing, the cost of land, and the cost of houses, across the board that neighborhood is probably the strongest [in East Austin], in terms of being revitalized."
Crime in the neighborhood dropped 23% in the two years after GAIN's founding, and Zapata and his crime-watch program were spotlighted on the CBS evening news in 1993. Since then, the crime rate has remained consistently low, according to Lt. Jim Fealy, who's in charge of police activity in Central East Austin. "In the past five or six years, it's incredibly better than it was," says Fealy. "That's due in large part to the Guadalupe Neighborhood Association."
Ironically, the fruits of GAIN's efforts in the mid-Eighties were development ideas that are abhorrent to the majority of the residents -- especially the proposal by the California-based real estate company Bennett Consolidated, which wanted to build a luxury hotel/mall fronting I-35 and backing into the neighborhood. In 1985, Bennett acquired an eight-acre tract between East Eighth and 11th, bought out the single-family homes on two blocks, and razed the houses in preparation for the construction. Bennett won the support of the Anderson neighborhood leadership, many of whom don't live in East Austin, and began lobbying the city for $60 million in public subsidies and zoning changes. But they never got past GAIN. Ten years later, the tract sits empty, in part because of GAIN's intense opposition and political savvy. GAIN leadership maintained throughout the Bennett controversy that the company never agreed to compromises such as buffer zones and height limits. GAIN suggested the tract instead be used for affordable townhomes, parkland, and a social service facility for Central East Austin residents. GAIN's cause was bolstered by the taxpayers' unwillingness in 1991-92 -- having just begun recovery from the mid-Eighties bust -- to invest in private projects with public dollars. The neighborhood group essentially cut its political teeth on the Bennett mall issue, and their power inside City Hall hasn't lost ground yet.
In fact, the group has been so successful that while Mitchell's supporters want GAIN to go away, many Central East Austin neighborhoods have requested the group's support. Diana Valera, president of Olé Mexico, a group that represents Eastside businesses along East Fifth and Sixth Streets, wants GAIN to extend its southern boundary to East Fifth, to help clean up and safeguard the area. "They have the expertise on getting things done beautifully," says Valera.
But the group's success has won it powerful enemies, and may be its undoing, especially if Mitchell has his way. He and Watkins are allegedly trying to remove GAIN's annual allotment of city funding (now called NSYP), which originates from the U.S. Department of Housing. According to NHC Director Bill Cook, in mid-December Mitchell requested a departmental review of all city contracts with GAIN. Mitchell also asked Cook for all the back issues of GAIN's newsletters. The neighborhood association thinks Mitchell is looking for political statements against him. According to Watkins, whom many call the city's expert on public housing regulations, GAIN is "using federal dollars for political purposes in their newsletter. They are violating federal law. You can't take political positions with federal dollars."
Mitchell refused to comment on the matter, but Councilmember Gus Garcia confirms that "Eric thinks [GAIN] is using federal money to do politics."
While the newsletter doesn't take outright positions, it regularly devotes half or more of its ink to political commentary and events that pertain to Central East Austin. It doesn't stop short of the sarcasm that could rival former Austin Chronicle reporter Daryl Slusher, and the implications are often clear. As an example, Watkins points to the newsletter for October, 1995. Reporting on a meeting at a local church called by Mitchell to discuss redevelopment plans, Rogers opined that Mitchell thinks "community should be sacrificed when there's big money involved." He also wrote that Mitchell and other speakers used "bullying verbiage" to "squelch a free exchange of ideas" and called the meeting a "railroad job."
It is uncertain whether anything will come of Mitchell's request regarding GAIN. Housing director Bill Cook says he hasn't seen any political positions taken in GAIN's newsletter and if he had "we would probably just tell them not to do it again."
But Watkins says, "Any time you mention city councilmembers, you run close to violating some HUD regulations. That could require the city to pay back that money." The jury is still out, and housing staff won't complete the review of the contracts until late January, says Assistant City Manager Oscar Rodriguez.
Rogers says GAIN's political involvement, if it can be called that, is only an outgrowth of protecting their neighborhood. "We have social issues that we deal with that are decided by politicians, so they end up in a political arena. Where do you separate being a social organization and politics?"
McGarrahan-Cantu says GAIN will continue to protect itself by protecting other communities. "We don't see East Austin as made up of boundaries. We see it as made up of people."
That, of course, means that the battle will only get hotter as Mitchell's redevelopment gusto gets warmed up after the holidays. In the council's first meeting of the year, last Wednesday, he promised to pursue a moratorium on all the city's housing funds that haven't been approved by the council. That could mean a stop to city-funded projects in the Guadalupe neighborhood, at least until the moratorium ends, which Mitchell says will come only after the city council finds a plan for the money. Both sides promise that they won't back down, and as Turner puts it, "There's going to be war in 1996." n