Residents Of East Austin, Once A Bustling Black Enclave, Make A Suburban Exodus

Jul 12, 2017
Originally published on July 17, 2017 8:31 am

On a Sunday in late April, Pastor Clarence Jones asked his congregation to join him.

"Oh magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt his name together. Congregation?" he said, his voice booming from the front of the church. Roughly 40 congregants seated in the pews responded: "I saw the Lord and he heard me..."

For 30 years, Jones has led the Greater St. John's Baptist Church in east Austin, the city's historically black neighborhood. The church has been here for more than 75 years.

"Back in 1944-45, somewhere in there, the members moved here, pitched a tent," said Jones. "And they worshiped in the tent until they was able to build this 'little port' right here."

This 'little port' is a small church on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood. The exterior white paint is chipped, and a steeple rises above the gabled roof. Around the time this church was built, single-story homes were cropping up around it. People like choir director Lisa Spearman have spent many Sundays in the area.

"I have belonged to this church since I was a little girl," said Spearman, who took over the job of choir director from her mother. "Maybe four years old."

But as the neighborhood around the church has begun to change — with two- and three-story homes replacing the older, ranch-style houses — Spearman and others have moved to surrounding suburbs. Spearman had been living in her grandmother's house when the family decided to sell.

"The taxes were too high – sky high," said Spearman, who three years ago moved to Manor, Texas, a small town about 15 miles east of Austin. "Houses around us were getting remodeled and sold for double, triple of what they paid for back in the day."

Ten years ago, Pastor Jones also left Austin for Manor. After renting in east Austin, Jones and his wife went looking for a house to buy. But they couldn't afford anything in the neighborhood they had lived in for most of their lives. So, like Spearman, they bought a home in Manor.

"We thank God that we found a beautiful home out there," said Jones.

"Pushed Out"

Austin's E. 11th Street was once a business and entertainment corridor for the city's black residents. Back in the 1950s and 60s, nightclubs on the street hosted major music acts. Shops also served residents during the day.

"You had Hillside Pharmacy, which was the main pharmacy for African-American residents on the eastside," said University of Texas Professor Eric Tang, as he walked down the street.

And residents had few options of where to shop — or where to live. In 1928, the city of Austin approved a plan to cut off basic services to black residents unless they lived in east Austin. So, this area became a bustling black neighborhood, and remained that way for the next 60 years.

But recently, the businesses have changed. Tang pointed out what the pharmacy on E. 11th Street is now.

"Hillside Pharmacy, by name, still exists, and it's rather controversial," said Tang. "It is now a restaurant and Pharm, P-H-A-R-M has been replaced by Farm F-A-R-M to highlight the farm-to-table service that this restaurant provides to its customers."

Many longtime residents told Tang the the new businesses aren't catering to them — an anecdote indicating a larger shift. In 2014, Tang published a report detailing how among the fastest growing U.S. cities between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only city to see a decline in its black population.

In the years since that report, Tang has published follow-up research, including a paper called "Those Who Left." Using the information collected from 100 interviews, Tang found that the majority of people left Austin because of unaffordable housing, while nearly one-fourth said they left in search of better schools for their kids. Many felt they had been pushed out.

And where were they going? Tang found that black residents left Austin for suburbs to the north and east of the city. Places such as Manor, Elgin and Round Rock. But these aren't suburbs as we often think of them.

"These are areas which are largely isolated from the urban core where there are poor transportation options," said Tang. "They're known as food deserts. People feel like they have less access to health care and other amenities. So, these are suburbs to the extent that they're outside the urban core. But they are not a move up for people. They're simply a move out."

"That's pretty sad for me"

Leslie Perkins moved to Manor, Texas roughly 12 years ago. The town has a population of fewer than 10,000 residents.

Perkins stands on the town's main street, pointing to Manor Grocery, a convenience store that once served as one of the town's few grocery options.

"This is the grocery store that I used to go to when I first moved here," said Perkins, who's a former teacher and now works for an education non-profit. "It's very small, not very much fresh produce."

But while Austin has lost black residents, Manor's black population has increased by 10 percent since 2000, according to Census figures. Perkins left Austin for Manor when she began hunting for a home to buy.

"Even though I was a teacher, I could not afford to live in Austin," said Perkins. "So the closest and most direct to my job was Manor."

Soon, she transitioned jobs too, and began teaching in a Manor school. When she did, Perkins witnessed the migration of black families like her own.

"My students followed," said Perkins. "So, I would be teaching a new group of students, but I'd be like 'Oh, I know your cousin. Or you're the younger sibling of the student I already taught.'"

Perkins' family still drives into the city for things Manor can't offer: a museum or a dip in a pool. She misses living in Austin. But asked if she would move back, she said no.

"Moving back would not be an option because it doesn't feel as welcoming as it would," said Perkins. "I went to church in the area and I lived there. I was a part of the community. It doesn't really exist anymore as it did. And that's pretty sad for me."

The church's future

Back at Greater St. John's Baptist Church in east Austin, the service is winding down. Congregants form a line along the pews, singing to and shaking the hands of fellow churchgoers as they walk to the door.

As people head to their cars, they pass a "for sale" on the front lawn. The church, soon, may follow its congregants.

"I see a whole lot of hope and growth out there in Manor," said Jones. "I think the church would do well to move in that direction."

Copyright 2017 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to look at what can happen when a city gets really hot economically. Any story of growth means migration will follow. Some people move into a city in big numbers for the jobs while others decide to leave. When there's more demand for housing, things get more expensive. Neighborhoods change. And that's the subject of this summer's stories from the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a part of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need to move out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Supporting gentrifying establishments.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank God we found a beautiful home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I may not afford the rent.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Today we're going to Austin, Texas. It's been one of the fastest growing cities in the country for years with a fast and furious technology sector. One of the parts of the city that is changing drastically is a historically black neighborhood, east Austin. A lot of longtime residents are moving. Audrey McGlinchy of member station KUT has been talking to people who've left but are still coming back to go to church.

CLARENCE JONES: Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. Congregation?

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: I saw the Lord and he heard me.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: Pastor Clarence Jones leads the Greater St. John's Baptist Church in east Austin. It's been around for more than 75 years.

JONES: Back in 1944, '45, somewhere in there, the members moved here, pitched a tent. You know, and they worshipped in the tent until they was able to build this little port right here.

MCGLINCHY: This little port is a small church on a corner lot. The white paint's chipped and a steeple rises above the gabled roof. Around the time this church was built, single-story homes were cropping up nearby. People like choir director Lisa Spearman have spent many Sundays in the area.

LISA SPEARMAN: I have belonged to this church since I was a little girl, maybe 4 years old.

MCGLINCHY: And how long have you been directing the choir here?

SPEARMAN: I've been doing this for I want to say five years. And my mother was doing it before me.

MCGLINCHY: But Spearman recently moved to the suburbs as the neighborhood around the church began to change. She'd been living in her grandmother's house when the family decided to sell.

SPEARMAN: The taxes were too high. They're sky high. Houses around us were getting remodeled and sold for double, triple of what they paid for back in the day.

MCGLINCHY: Others have moved to smaller towns outside of Austin, including Pastor Jones.

JONES: I like that it's more quieter (laughter).

MCGLINCHY: I wanted to know more about how east Austin is changing, so I took a walk with University of Texas professor Eric Tang. Back in the 1950s and '60s, nightclubs here on East 11th Street hosted major music acts. The street was also busy during the day.

ERIC TANG: You had Hillside Pharmacy, which was the main pharmacy for African-American residents on the east side.

MCGLINCHY: They had few other options of places to shop - or to live, for that matter. Starting in 1928, the city refused basic services to black families living anywhere but in east Austin. And so this area became a bustling black neighborhood. These days, most of the businesses have changed.

TANG: Hillside Pharmacy by name still exists. And it's rather controversial. It is now a restaurant. And pharmacy, P-H-A-R-M, has been replaced by F-A-R-M to highlight the farm-to-table service that this restaurant provides to its customers.

MCGLINCHY: Tang says many longtime residents feel that new restaurants aren't catering to them. It's a sign of a larger shift.

TANG: Among the fastest growing cities in the United States between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only one to see absolute numerical decline in its African-American population.

MCGLINCHY: Tang talked to former east Austin residents. He found that many had moved to suburbs just outside the city to towns like this one.

LESLIE PERKINS: This is the grocery store that I used to go to when I first moved here. It was very small, not very much produce, fresh produce.

MCGLINCHY: Twelve years ago, Leslie Perkins moved to the town of Manor. It's 15 miles east of Austin, fewer than 10,000 people. And while Austin has lost black residents, Manor's black population has increased by 10 percent since 2000. Perkins and I go inside a Mexican restaurant. There she tells me why she left Austin.

PERKINS: Even though I was a teacher, I could not afford to live in Austin. So the closest and most direct to my job was Manor.

MCGLINCHY: After a little bit, she changed jobs as well and began teaching in a Manor school. When she did, Perkins saw the migration of black families like her own.

PERKINS: My students followed. So I would be teaching a new group of students, but I'd, like, oh, I know your cousin or, oh, you're the younger sibling of the student I already taught.

MCGLINCHY: Perkins and her family will still drive into the city for things Manor can't offer - a museum or a dip in a pool. But she misses living in Austin.

PERKINS: I was a part of the community. It doesn't really exist anymore as it did. And that's pretty sad for me.

MCGLINCHY: As for Manor, it's small, but it's growing rapidly. The town just got a Walmart and a Starbucks and soon perhaps a new congregation.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing) It will...

MCGLINCHY: Back at Greater St. John's Baptist Church in east Austin, there's a for sale sign on the front lawn. Pastor Clarence Jones is looking to move.

JONES: And I see a whole lot of hope and growth there in Manor. And I think that the church would do well to move in that direction.

MCGLINCHY: In a church driveway in east Austin, I'm Audrey McGlinchy for the NPR Cities Project.

MCEVERS: That story was produced in partnership with KUT's On My Block project about the changing east Austin area.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, professor Eric Tang says a store once called the Hillside Pharmacy is now a restaurant called Hillside Farmacy. In fact, while the business that was there before was known to local residents as the Hillside pharmacy, its name was Hillside Drugstore.]

(SOUNDBITE OF CANCHA VIA CIRCUITO'S "SUENO EN PARAGUAY - EL BUHO REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.