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Where Do We Grow From Here? Urban Farms and Gentrification in East Austin

Phoebe Ann Flanigan for KUT News
Eastside graffiti near HausBar Farms asks a pressing question about the future of the rapidly changing neighborhood.

Debate over whether urban farms contribute to the gentrification of Austin’s eastside was prolonged last month, when the Austin City Council decided to postpone a decision on changes to the city's urban farm rules. The council is slated to take action on that matter today.

Before their decision, a look at the issue from two standpoints: an examination of the gentrification debate, and a look at one urban farm in action.

Walk down the gravel path at 3300 Govalle Road and you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into the middle of the countryside. “It doesn’t even feel like you’re in the city of Austin,” says Dorsey Barger.

She would know: as a co-owner of HausBar Farms, she gets to live there.

But Dorsey doesn’t live there alone. She and her partner Susan Hausmann are surrounded by animals: Chickens, geese, and ducks scratch about the 1.8-acre farm, and two miniature donkeys no bigger than a couple of St. Bernards act both as lawnmowers and fertilizers.  

And then there are the vegetables. Lettuce, spinach, radish, kolrabi – all flourishing despite the early fall heat. Looking out across the lush urban farmscape, the plants look happy. But not everybody is. 

The trouble started last spring. Barger and her partner Susan Hauffman compost everything that would otherwise go off the farm into a landfill. This includes the unusable parts of the 20 chickens that they slaughter at Haus-Bar Farms each week.

“Any compost of any kind can become smelly if it gets off balance,” Barger explains. “We had a neighbor complain about the smell of our compost and we were able to shut the compost down immediately – just to add a lot of carbon to the system and just sort of kill the whole smell.”

Although Barger had taken care of the smell, the real stink was just beginning.

A Growing Problem?

Barger had been raising and slaughtering chickens on her property for more than two years, but the hubbub around the chicken compost brought new attention to her little plot.  Some neighbors began to worry that the business was getting too big for the neighborhood.

That’s when Susana Almanza and her group, PODER, got involved. Almanza has been working as an advocate for the rights of minority and working-class peoples in Austin for years.

For Almanza, the city’s Urban Farm Code is another legislative chess move in a land grab that’s been going on for centuries.

“For over 500 years we’ve been continuously displaced – if they discovered gold or other elements, oh we’re too close to the waterfront, etcetera. And now they’re saying ‘Well you’re on Black Prairie soil – that’s the new gold.’ And so, we’re really tired of it,” she says.

“I absolutely can see the gentrification that’s going on,” Barger says. “I absolutely feel the pain of people who will end up probably having to move out of the homes that they’ve lived in for all their lives and the issues of gentrification certainly should be dealt with – but farms are not taking away from affordable housing.”

Since 2008, the Sustainable Food Center’s Ronda Rutledge has been working with the city and the county to help neighborhoods establish community gardens on vacant public lands. And she’s been seeing some real transformations start to take place.

“What I love about what community gardens can do here locally and what they’ve proven to do nationally is they bring together people who might not have a chance to mix otherwise,” Rutledge says.

That certainly sounds nice enough—but what does it look like?

Blackshear in Practice

Caitlin Macklin and her neighbors established the Blackshear Community Garden in 2008. Back then the site was just an empty lot owned by the city.

“It’s actually on a piece of city property that is owned by watershed protection because there’s a storm drain that goes under, and so no one can develop it or build on it,” she says.

Macklin and her neighbors decided to start up a farm on the vacant lot. The deal that they struck with the city was one of the first partnerships to turn unusable public lands into a community garden.

At the time, Macklin was still pretty new to the neighborhood, and the garden became a way to connect with neighbors in the historically black community just blocks from Huston-Tillotson University. They shared stories, strategies, and resources to get the garden started.

Candy Roberts and his cousin Sherman Patton have been living in the neighborhood off and on for more than seventy years. Growing up, their community was defined by the segregation policies that forced people of color to the eastside. But with the integration measures of the 1960s and 70s, the face of the neighborhood began to change. And now, that change has accelerated.

“They are moving here in a hurry,” Sherman says. “A lot of people don’t like it, and that’s on both sides—but you got to ride the wave and get on out to sea.”

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