The Changing Face of East Austin

By Samantha Reichstein

At 5:45 p.m. every Wednesday evening, Adrienne Isom opens the backdoor of the Southgate-Lewis House to its East Austin neighborhood for community art classes.

 Located on the corner of 12th and Comal Street, the two-story Gothic-style home blends in with most others in the neighborhood. Besides the distinct, white-picket fence surrounding the property, its exterior mirrors many others around the area: an old-fashioned coat of paint slabbed on in a neutral, now faded shade. A convenience store—busy with customers at every hour—stands catty-corner to the house, while a plethora of painted murals cover every open wall space nearby, causing foot traffic for many stops and photographs.

 Very few of this foot traffic, however, steps inside the Southgate-Lewis house.

 Built in 1888, the historic home sits within the six square miles known today as Central East Austin, but what used to be the city’s Negro District, created in the early 1900s. Following the nation’s “separate-but-equal” mindset, city planners forced many black families into this part of town starting in 1928, which laid the foundations for prominent African-American culture and leaders to emerge.

Today, much of that culture has been buried underneath the new East Austin: a gentrified, millennial-haven. Renovated apartment complexes appear on any open patch of land, and Instagram-worthy coffee shops pop-up across various neighborhoods every few months.

 One thing that remains, however, is the Southgate-Lewis House, and Isom’s art classes that take place inside of it each week inside.

 Originally home to Wesley H. Passon, a Black educator and prominent churchman, the home was bought by a family in the 1970s, and later turned over to the W.H. Passon Historical Society in 1986. Today, the house remains vacant, but Isom unlocks this treasure-chest of history to any visitor curious about what lies behind its doors.

 “The South-Gate Lewis Home is the only place I know that houses this much of Austin history in such a confined place,” Isom said. “Without activity, things die; I can’t let all of this history go to waste without people learning and loving it.”

 Photographs, paintings and life-sized wax statues flood every open space both upstairs and downstairs, serving as a visual gallery representing the African-American experience in Austin and Travis Country. Framed memorabilia highlight the first black leaders in various positions, including members of the City of Austin Police Department and various Austin school boards.

 Isom first became interested in East Austin’s African-American history when moving to the area twenty years ago. An artist fascinated in re-creating historical pieces, Isom recently joined Travis County’s Historical Commission Board to re-store artifacts showcasing East Austin’s history, all housed in the South-Gate Lewis property.

 Each of her pieces relates back to African-American culture in East Austin, whether it’s a sculpture of the first black woman to be noticed in the city, or a re-creation of the Old Harlem Theater, the only cinema blacks could attend. Isom now offers a painting class once-a-week to the community, hoping the stories inside the house will not get lost over time.

 “My mother was a native Austinite; her photograph hangs on a frame inside this house as one of the first children to attend a black public school in Austin,” Isom said. “East Austin has changed, but we cannot let this new population bulldoze over important parts of the past.”

Today’s African-American population in Austin averages just below five percent, where only a few decades ago that number was just above 15. Known as one of the only cities in America to have a declining minority population, Austin continues to struggle with preserving its rich, minority culture alongside its technology, foodie and hipster persona. Over time, black families have found themselves priced out of their ancestors’ homes, forcing them to move into smaller towns and more affordable areas; a phenomenon known as “Black Flight.”

One resident in particular, Max Davniller-Varghese has witnessed the act of Black Flight throughout his two years of living in the area.

A native Austinite since birth, Davniller-Varghese found himself back in the city as a PHD student for The University of Texas. Though he lives in a relatively less-expensive part of the city, he still has noticed a distinct changing demographic and landscape.

 “The first two years of my graduate studies I lived in the Cherrywood neighborhood, and rent kept on going up to the point that I got priced out,” Davniller-Varghese said. “I don’t see that changing,”

 Now living in the Rosewood District—just outside the original Negro District lines—Davniller-Varghese said he can see how many tourists, visitors or even locals could not realize the area’s rich history.

 “Living just north of the Rosewood district, I am very close to where that cultural memory occurred,” Davniller-Varghese said.  “I think some people may not notice how much was really there unless they have lived in Austin for a while or really choose to pay attention.”

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