Let's Make a Deal

Chronicle's Guy-in-the-Hood Vents (Just This Once)

Baby's second birth- day is never as exciting as its first. Last year, as this column's first anniversary came around, I was feeling, as I wrote then, in a valedictory mood, and christened this Austin Neighborhood Appreciation Week. This time, as "Corner to Corner" enters its terrible twos, I'm in a more legato frame of mind.

This column's second anniversary coincides with my election as the president of my own neighborhood association, which makes me think this annual occasion would be a good juncture to write about my own corner of the city.

We did talk beforehand, behind the scenes and in the back of my head, about whether being an NA president would compromise my abilities as the paper's Neighborhood Guy. The conclusion: It probably will change my point of view on some things, but this could be to your, the reader's, betterment, since I'll undoubtedly be more informed about the ongoing trench warfare throughout the city between the neighborhoods and the Other Side. And, well, if you haven't figured out yet that I have an agenda, not well concealed, let this be your notice. Indeed, my repertoire of grinding axes is now congruent with a nationwide fad, under rubrics like "new urbanism" and "compact city" and such. If you want a value-neutral rundown of happenings on the development beat, it's yours for the asking. It's called the City Council agenda. And it's free.

What will cause some conflict-of-interest tenderness, though, is the specific neighborhood over which I now extend my wise, just, and lordly rule: Swede Hill. As in the "Eric Mitchell shouted `Screw you!' at the Swede Hill residents" neighborhood. As in the neighborhood that got blackballed from the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) board. As in racists, gentrifiers, interlopers, and white devils. That would be me.

About a year and a half ago, we carved our name in the annals of Austin neighborhood conflict, you may remember, by stomping on Mitchell's rain dance on behalf of Republican debutante Jo Baylor and her plan to erect novelty housing on the parcel we call the Swede Hill Park. That sordid tale is over, for the most part, and its particulars don't bear repeating here, except to rehearse my long-held belief that had Eric, Jo, and their hired hands and lackeys not been so careless and heedless when crafting their plan, and not so quick to demonize us as camouflage for their bonehead errors, Jo Baylor's builders would be whacking together zero-lot-line homes on 14th & Waller Streets right about now. This is my reading and some of my neighbors are likely none too happy with it, but what the heck.

I say "for the most part" because the Swede Hill Park saga isn't over, since we still have to secure parkland dedication from the city, and that upcoming council contretemps may expose to the open air some of the underlying questions about urban planning and vision. If this happens, and we can deal with these questions using that old-fashioned government instrument called "dialogue," then it's no skin off my butt. That's extending to Mitchell et al. the dignity of presuming they have a vision, as opposed to a scheme, for reinventing Central and/or East Austin, which some folks around here, and probably among y'all, aren't keen to do.

So, I figure, as the reporter on this beat, I shouldn't be covering my own activities, yet as president of this NA those activities are guaranteed to be at least marginally newsworthy. My half-assed solution is to try to confine my opinionating about Mitchell, Swede Hill, the ARA and East Austin revitalization to this annual anniversary column, where such bloviating is expected, and talk about something else the rest of the year. We'll see what happens. In the meantime, the next sound you hear will be me climbing upon my soapbox.

Or, actually, it may be me climbing upon the speaker's rostrum at a PR fiesta-cum-groundbreaking ceremony held last Tuesday (which, as I write this, is next Tuesday) at the site of the new hotel being built in Swede Hill, on the triangle of land north of 16th Street and south of Disch-Falk, between the interstate and the cemetery. We've been calling this "The Inn at Oakwood" for a while, though it's now going to be a Doubletree Club hotel. At somewhere around 220 units, it won't be the largest hostelry in Austin by a long shot, but its construction is still a very big deal for the city, for the central city, for the Eastside, and for Swede Hill, not to mention for Doubletree, for whom this is a flagship investment in a new product, so the image-making wheels have been generously greased.

Allow me to belabor the obvious here: According to the conventional view, as articulated by (who else) the Statesman as well as Mitchell and his cult, I and my little neighborhood should be picketing this shindig, rather than participating in it as honored guests. The fact that the opposite is true must be giving them a great big headache, to go with the rash Mitchell says the Chronicle already affords him. At the very least, it should give the lie to the view, advanced by Mitchell apologists like Susan Smith Richardson, that neighborhoods like Swede Hill willingly accept the role of antagonists in the little morality play they call East Austin revitalization.

On the contrary, not only did we not chase the Oakwood hotel crew out of the neighborhood with flaming torches and brandished farm implements like the villagers in Frankenstein, we actually welcomed them as members in good standing of the association. This did not require any great compromise of our ideals, which is the whole point. We are not so stupid or Luddite as to think that a big chunk of downtown I-35 frontage was going to remain pastoral open space, or be turned into a home for a needy Austin institution, let alone needy Austin citizens. These were all options discussed by the NA, but they ain't never gonna happen here. We should instead fight to see that they happen elsewhere.

In return, the developers of the Oakwood hotel knew that throwing up a project that degraded the neighborhood would do nothing for the Swede Hill antique National Register ambience that they hoped to exploit, and that giving the neighborhood the shaft, a la Bennett Properties, would get them about as far as it got Bennett Properties, which is to say nowhere. The fact that both they and we are nice people probably helped, but ultimately the concessions the neighborhood extracted from the hoteliers -- written into a restrictive covenant -- must have seemed fairly dorky to the developers. The pro forma restrictions imposed on the property by the zoning-meisters at the old Planning Department were much more onerous than anything we asked for.

So, good old-fashioned dialogue has resulted in both a stronger Swede Hill neighborhood and a development much needed in central Austin. This truth helps frame my feelings about Eric Mitchell, East Austin renewal, central city renewal, neighborhood-based planning, and all the other things we talk about so much and do so little to further. I don't mean to argue that we all ultimately must get along, which is exactly the sort of wussy liberal laziness to which Mitchell is a refreshing, if aggravating, antidote. Rather, I think that we already get along rather well, that the separation between the various visions of central Austin held by its various communities can be measured through hours of pragmatic negotiation rather than through years of ideological warfare.

This well describes my views of Mitchell himself. I can't say, ultimately, that I disagree with the ends he claims to want to shape, nor am I too terribly affronted by his unwillingness to do it nicely and with decorum, nor do I think that given the right context he and I couldn't tip a few and find vast amounts of common ground. I just resent having to waste my time dealing with his drama-queen bullshit, his preconceived mapping of Austin into a few good guys and a great many bad guys, his selfish willingness to profit from white guilt, and to monopolize the limited purchase on power which this town accords to people of color, without feeling obligated to actually represent the full range of views and values in the African-American community.

None of Mitchell's displays of temper and pique should obscure the fact that projects like the Central City Entertainment Center, or redevelopment along East 11th and 12th Streets, or even, yes, affordable housing projects in neighborhoods like Swede Hill, are at the very least good ideas that should be given their due, rather than discounted or discarded by Austin's progressive majority simply because they're so closely identified with the asshole from Place 6. But of course, Mitchell's own nastiness does slow down his projects and keep things from getting done, and even after he or Frank Garrett or Dorothy Turner let loose their cathartic bursts of cleansing outrage they're still neither listened to nor taken seriously by the citizens at large. And everyone who lives in East Austin, regardless of color, suffers the consequences.

Sure, some of the blame for this lies with the white majority, who through their complacency allow Mitchell to act the bully, then allow their misplaced sensitivities and stereotypes to shut him out. But every little fit and outrageous remark reinforces in me, at least, the sullen notion that, in reality, Eric Mitchell and his followers feel no great passion to remake this city and improve the lives of its bravest, most committed to a sensible city, yet most unrewarded residents (and again, that includes all the skin colors that make up the Eastside), and that really, this is all about themselves and their personal needs.

Which takes me back to the beginning, descended from my soapbox. Out of fairness to the citizens and my readers, even with the latitude for subjectivity afforded to me by the context of the Chronicle, I can't let my own experiences as a citizen and neighborhood activist interfere henceforth with my obligations as a reporter. Is not a city councilmember, whatever his mandate, similarly obliged to put his personal views and goals aside in order to govern? If you can do that, Eric, then maybe we can make a deal. n

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