Op-Ed: For Austin Native, City's Narrative Increasingly Formed By Transplants
I was born in Seton Hospital in Austin on Nov. 13, 1982. I grew up in Dove Springs, a neighborhood on Austin’s Southeast Side. When I was growing up, being an Austin native didn't mean much, because everyone was an Austin native. Among the kids in Dove Springs, it was assumed you had always been in the neighborhood.
But things have changed since then. Everywhere I go these days, I’m the only person who was born and raised in Austin. “You’re actually from Austin?” they ask. Yes, I’m actually from Austin.
I’m far from the only native out there. I come across people who were born in Austin long before I was. When I have a chance to talk with them in depth, we tend to share the same sense that something sad is happening and that we have little to no power to control it. It’s easy to feel that way. The native perspective enjoys minimal prominence in Austin. Only one of our city council members, for example, is a native (Sabino Renteria). Mayor Steve Adler is from Washington, D.C. The “local” label is often fudged for businesses, such as Franklin Barbecue and Torchy’s Tacos, which were actually founded by entrepreneurs from elsewhere.
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The result has been the forging of an Austin narrative that is increasingly defined by voices representative of other places. This would be troubling at any time, but change is coming fast. As Austin becomes more enticing to people who can afford to move and settle here – and neighborhoods continue to transition – property taxes and rents go up. Thus, the most vulnerable are forced to get out of the way. Many of those most vulnerable are natives, people who have not only been here for decades, but who also may have never known any other home. Their lack of representation or a cohesive public platform has made them easy to overlook.
My family has been in the Texas Hill Country for at least a century – probably longer – and my childhood neighborhood, Dove Springs, is increasingly in a position to bat away development plans that would expose it to ruinous change. “Ruinous” may sound extreme, but we have all borne witness to the dramatic shifts in Central East Austin, the precipitous compromise of an old, residential culture for a newer, more consumer-fed one. I dread a similar transformation in Dove Springs, because it would mean a dismantling of my place of origin, a carving out of a significant part of my personal identity. It is entirely likely that by the time I am ready to buy a home, I won’t be able to afford to live in the neighborhood I grew up in. So regardless of the intentions of whoever might be moving in, they are putting me in a position to defend something I would have always thought should go unquestioned: that more than any other place on Earth, Austin is my own.
Regardless of the intentions of whoever might be moving in, they are putting me in a position to defend something I would have always thought should go unquestioned: that more than any other place on Earth, Austin is my own.
That is the most frightening possibility (in my heart of hearts I consider it an inevitability): that one day I won’t be able to return. That something innate to myself will still exist, but it will be inaccessible. I am concerned about this because while my parents continue to life in our family house in Dove Springs, should the time ever come that they do not, and I am left with no options for filling their space, how can I continue to fully be myself?
In the past year I have become obsessed with the phrase AUSTIN NATIVE. I’ve written it on the side of hats and had the phrase made into buttons. It has become a rallying cry. A stranger in a Chinese restaurant asked where he could get an AUSTIN NATIVE button. A fellow native exclaimed appreciation for the cowboy hat on which I had written the words in marker. My goal is to create an identity out of something I don’t think many people, particularly those who are not natives, often consider, or which if they do consider it, might offend them. They may sense an attempt, on my part, to assert the authority of my Austin experience over theirs. And for good or for bad, they may be right.
I lived in Chicago for a while and when I was there it was easy to be dismissive of tourists. They didn’t know where anything was. They only wanted pictures of the most boring, corny stuff. Overall, however, the tourists in Chicago were harmless. I have a hard time feeling the same way about tourists in Austin. The downward spiral Austin is in, particularly for those who are not well off, seems unstoppable, and tourists are one of the most visible signs of the spiral’s inertia. It isn’t the tourists’ fault. The real culprits more often function behind closed doors, in city planning meetings that have too often prioritized commercial growth over long-term livability for Austin families. If I had a choice, I would prefer to invest city funds in improving the lives of those who are already in Austin, and who plan to stay, rather than strategizing to entice the transient dollars of those whose hearts and minds simply don’t reside here.
I confess to all the transplants that, as a native, you scare me. You symbolize a tangible threat to some very precious parts of myself. But I will also confess that I know Austin has a place for you, just as it has a place for anyone else seeking a place to call their own. Even my wife is from Iowa. What we have, then, is a paradox. How can Austin be a closed, open circle? My hope is that a balance may soon be struck. Otherwise “obstruction” will be the word of the moment, and “conflict,” and “home.”
Sam Anderson-Ramos is a writer and frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle. He is on the writing faculty at St Edward's University and Free Minds, a local adult education program.