Another shuttered family business shrinks in your rearview mirror as a new cloister of condominiums comes into view. In a few weeks, another mural will be painted an opaque, glossy white. As Austinites, we may be familiar with the symbols of gentrification, but the slow symptoms of unpaid bills and eviction notices take their toll quietly, undetected by the unaffected. New Austin-made web series Gentrified pulls back that comfortable curtain of property tax statistics and political rhetoric to reveal the true faces and stories of gentrification in East Austin.
"I don't think a lot of people understand how [gentrification] impacts little things in people's day-to-day lives," said series creator, writer, and director Tia Williams. "Behind a statistic, you have someone who's homeless. You have someone who has owned a business for their entire life [but] can no longer afford to be in that space. You have someone who has a generational home on the Eastside of Austin who can no longer stay in that home because of rising taxes. Instead of words, let's think about the faces of these people."
The upcoming five-episode series tells the story of three Black millennials who quickly find themselves in an Austin they no longer recognize. Coretta (Candace Michelle) is caught in the snare of skyrocketing property taxes and risks losing the generational home left to her by her recently deceased grandmother. She and her brother Aaron (Will Moleon) quarrel over their financial instability while her best friend Dania (Christa Allen) battles homelessness. As these characters' storylines intertwine with one another, Gentrified underscores that gentrification is something that happens to people, not just places.
The idea for Gentrified had been floating around Williams' mind ever since celebrating her birthday with friends two years ago. The struggle to find diversity-friendly spaces has been a troubling experience for Williams ever since returning to her hometown in 2012 and witnessing the slow erasure of old hangouts like 11th Street Station and Highland Mall. On her birthday, she recalled, "We ended up bouncing from place to place to place because we didn't feel like the crowd was for people of color."
Last year, Williams left her career to pursue her dreams as a filmmaker. She took a bold leap – and crashed hard. She had been recommended as an assistant director for a TV series, but the project was canceled three days before she was supposed to move out of her apartment. Unemployed with an expired lease, she sat down and ground out the first 63 pages of Gentrified in a single night. Rather than writing a pilot script in the hopes of being picked up by a major network, she took the advice of online content creators and chopped the story into five smaller, web-friendly segments.
In highlighting the intersections of personal struggle with a seemingly larger-than-life societal phenomenon, Williams said she seeks to transcend the subdued conversations about gentrification and reveal what the direct, tangible impacts look like for Black and brown residents of East Austin. "What I wanted to toy with is gentrification [as] an underlying issue that impacts someone's day-to-day life," Williams said. "What we see are the emotional and financial impacts that Coretta is going through – how she's not able to pay her bills, the rising cost of living."
In the series, Dania, who is gay, faces homelessness after suffering abuse and rejection from her stepfather due to her sexuality. Recently, Williams received a message from a queer, disabled Austin resident struggling with homelessness who thanked her for bringing their story, an experience shared by thousands, to light. "Where do we live? Where do we go? Those are the kinds of things I wanted to explore," said Williams. "Let's explore displacement and financial crisis and things that we all struggle with day to day but maybe [are] not necessarily something that we say, 'Hey, this is gentrification's fault.'"
It's not just Austin. Since wrapping months of production and releasing series trailers, Williams has received an outpouring of support from communities across the nation, from Atlanta to Brooklyn to Oakland, where residents identify with the issues captured in Gentrified. She said, "Gentrification is happening [in] so many places. People probably don't even think about that, but it feels like it's everywhere."
Gentrified premieres online on Saturday, Nov. 30. To watch and donate to post-production costs, visit www.gentrifiedseries.com. Premiere party: Sat., Nov. 30 @The North Door, 501 Brushy. Tickets available via Eventbrite.
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