east austin history


Although racism is less explicit today than it was just 50 years ago, Austin remains a racially and economically segregated city with an uneven distribution of environmental risks and benefits. While the city of Austin has long heralded its high quality of residential life and natural environment, these benefits have not been equally available to Austin’s African American and Mexican American residents. The overt racism that led Austin to relegate non-whites and undesirable industries to East Austin through its 1928 City Plan, restrictive deed covenants, and Jim Crow laws operates more subtly today. However, the legacy of these policies still defines the physical, social, economic and environmental landscape of Austin communities. Today, East Austin remains the home of most of Austin’s minority populations, and industrial uses and abandoned brownfields are scattered throughout its residential neighborhoods. (Figures 1, 2, 3)

Thankfully, over the past fifteen years, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER, a local grassroots organization) and other East Austin activists have been holding outside companies accountable to environmental regulations and challenging city zoning policies that perpetuate incompatible uses in their neighborhoods. Their impressive victories include: forcing the 1993 relocation of a Tank Farm (a fuel storage facility whose toxic emissions led to chronic disease in the residential neighborhood it abutted) and later (1997) down-zoning the property; calling attention to the negative impacts of a seven-acre recycling facility and forcing its relocation (1997); establishing the East Austin Overlay Ordinance which notifies residents when an industrial facility plans to locate or expand; and saving a treasured neighborhood park from becoming the site of the industrial Green Water Treatment Plant (2006).

PODER’s environmental justice efforts extend beyond the non-compatible land use conflicts just described; its leaders also work for expansion of affordable housing, opportunities in education, and other aspects of social and economic justice in East Austin. This broad definition of “environmental justice” has become especially important since East Austin became Austin’s “targeted development zone” in the late 1990s, when other environmental activists sought to limit development in environmentally sensitive watershed areas in West Austin. Gentrification pressures have increased in the past several years as many East Austin residents struggle to pay for rapidly increasing property taxes. Tax delinquency and foreclosure rates are dramatically higher in East Austin than in the rest of the city. Environmental justice activists here must at once fight to eliminate toxic land uses and promote solutions to their neighborhoods’ increasing affordability problems. (Figure 4)

For further reading:
East Austin Environmental Justice History, by Elizabeth Walsh