Downtown Diary: Say What? An Open Letter
by Jenni Burton
Posted on May 3, 2007
I don't know you guys, but it was brought to my attention by a furious neighbor that you have a big, glaring picture of my building on your Plan Proponent MySpace page. I'm not sure what you mean by that. Are you using it as an example of Henry Trost's architecture? Is it up there as a beacon of hope for what Downtown could be? Or are you using that picture as an example of blight? I have the feeling that you meant the latter, so pardon my French, but, "Baisez-vous."
Why am I so irritated? I moved in here when I was 17, shortly after graduating from high school. I'm now 26 and I have spent the better part of my life in this building busting my ass for the kind of development Downtown needs. Regular readers of my column know exactly how much work my husband and I have put into our apartment [DT Diary 5.1.06], and know well that all of the residents of this building have put in an equal if not greater amount of work. So we take it as a matter of personal insult when some shmuck uses a picture of our building as an advertisement for The Plan.
I have included pictures from my upstairs neighbor (who asked not to be named, and who showed me your site in the first place), some pictures from my place with the intention of showing you what an individual can do with a space with sheer determination, a few tools and some buckets of paint. You can also find pictures of Armando Vargas's place on San Antonio Ave. here
(Downtown Life 3.20.06).
What my landlord did for us was fantastic. He opened up the top floors. Did some basic remodeling (kitchens, bathrooms and the like), gave us cheap rent and utilities paid, and let us have at it.
The residents of our building include: a painter/metals artist, a writer/ English teacher, an architect, musicians, a Grammy® winning recording engineer, a graphic designer/ printmaker, a chef, a photographer, students, and my landlord. Aren't we what everyone wants Downtown? So WTF?
I initially thought it would be a waste of breath for me to write this letter to you guys, but it's not so much for you as it is for the population in general. When I saw your group's blanket characterization of those with a social conscience or those with homes and businesses on the line as sore losers, I was appalled. It's really easy for you to talk smack when you've never owned your own property or business, isn't it?
You guys seem like the party crowd, who step out of your parents' cocoons to scrape by at UTEP and party hard when your meager service paychecks afford you the opportunity. I have no problem with clubbing, drinking, or the like. That's a matter of personal choice, and I've done my fair share. I also have many friends who live in similar situations, but they don't make it a matter of public record to make fun of and demean the poor of my neighborhood while simultaneously advertising businesses which many would consider contributors to alcoholism and poverty. Hmmmmm.....
So, why am I bringing this out in the open and not airing my grievances personally? Well, because I'm just sick of it. I'm sick of the apathy. Not just from you, but from those like you who judge my neighborhood on its façades alone. "But we're proactive!" No you're not. You haven't done anything here. You're living in other neighborhoods (possibly with your parents), you're not opening new businesses down here while the rent is still cheap, you're bitching about how ugly things are, and you're expecting every property owner in this town to foot the bill for the extravagant lifestyle you wish you had without doing a damn thing to make it happen on your own.
Meanwhile, I'm busting my ass renovating my floor, writing a business plan for an expanded business, working with other promising Downtown business owners to have more events down here, supporting these struggling businesses, running a green screen shop, all while I take care of two kids and write this column. If you think I'm being self-righteous, I'm sorry, dude, I deserve it.
Young hipsters in other cities would look at a dilapidated façade and see a golden opportunity: Cheap rent, endless possibilities, studio space all within walking distance of bodegas, restaurants, family-owned grocery stores, a 10 minute trolley ride to campus, nightclubs, affordable clothing stores, pharmacies, the best thrift shopping in the US, a variety of potential employers (from law offices to non-profits to bartending gigs) and, of course, Juarez.
I can't help it if you're unimaginative, or just lazy, but talk is cheap. I'm sick of kids like you calling yourselves "progressive". Do you volunteer at homeless shelters and soup kitchens? Do you do your part to live a more earth-friendly lifestyle? Are you actively involved in protesting real threats to our community (ASARCO, Western Refining, I'm talking to you)? Do you actually give a shit about poor people, or is it some sort of rhetoric you feel that you have to include in the conversation to give the impression that your views aren't completely based on where you'd like to shop and party? Do you care about programs which lift the poor out of poverty or would you rather they disappear in the mist of demolition?
As for your nonchalant attitude toward eminent domain....
You can't fathom the depth of this kind of loss because you own no property of your own. Your blogs speak the dialect of socialism, tax revenue and benefits for all, but the reality is that the retailers and developers courted, and the future landlords of the REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) have no intention of creating a place for us all to enjoy ourselves. Their concern is not you or me but their bottom line and how much rent they can eke out of a property. Downtown will become a playground of the Upper and Middle Class while the lower middle class, the poor and their neighborhoods will constantly be threatened by overdevelopment.
If you don't believe me, take a walk in Austin, in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago, and see the beginnings, middles and ends of gentrification. Witness how family-owned businesses were sold off to the highest corporate bidder. Witness how the poor are being pushed farther and farther into the burbs. Witness how wages in these places have scarcely kept up with the cost of living.
The average cost of an apartment near UT exceeds $1200 a month. Hardly what the average student working a service job can afford, wouldn't you say? Most students I know there live in South Austin and commute 30 to 45 minutes each way, while the wealthy who really don't need to be that close to the University are within walking distance. If we're looking at the "greater good" let us consider the amount of pollution that sort of commute creates. Just because a community is wealthier on paper doesn't mean it's better off.
Do you really think you'll be able to afford a condo once you have credit? The cheapest condos in Downtown Austin run well over $200k. "Well, what about those who will get rent controlled housing?" Initially the Plan didn't call for rent control- it called for rent reduction for four years. Rent control lasts for the life of the tenant. The City is trying to build egalitarian guidelines for the housing situation, but that doesn't protect tenants from a landlord's greed. Those in gentrifying neighborhoods in other cities who do have the luxury of rent-controlled housing have often been subjected to the cruelest and most degrading treatment by landlords in the hopes that they will move out so that the landlord might charge two to five times their current rent. Every year the Village Voice publishes these kinds of abuses as the 10 Worst Landlords. Several times HUD has won top honors. "Well, this isn't New York." I know, but this kind of stuff happens all over the country.
"Oh, well. That's progress." No, progress would be prosecution of slumlords. Progress would be a politician having the nuts to drag slumlords to court and find them guilty of a human rights violation (as they do in Los Angeles), and send their asses to prison. There are plenty of laws on the books that regulate landowners. Everything from the type of wood flooring you use in a historic building and the height of your fences to the weeds in your front yard can be fined. Pick the worst landlords in the neighborhood and make an example of them, and the rest will fall into line.
If a landlord is trying to improve his building and is bringing in new tenants, give him incentives. If the offender is an elderly homeowner who physically or financially can't do the work, help them find public assistance. This Plan has and will tear away at the fiber of our community, and has completely overshadowed any and all good work that our current council has done in good faith. Moreover, it has been made clear on repeated occasions that this Plan is about money. Why? It's so much cheaper and easier to do the quick thing than the right thing.
There are many wonderful properties that look great and serve the community which are located in the Redevelopment District: The Merrick Building, Holland's, The OP, The Mining, Lambda House, La Norteña, Starr Western Wear, The Texas Store, The Aleiman/Parker Gallery, the Historic Colón Theatre, etc. Should they be torn down? Many property owners are currently renovating their buildings in Segundo. Murals are being painted, windows replaced, façades
When a society loses its most basic principal of compassion towards each individual for the sake of "the greater good", it becomes a slippery ethical slope. The lack of empathy in my peers is so appalling, disgusting and blatantly driven by consumerism it makes me want to vomit.
I could go on about why El Paso isn't the economic powerhouse it could be. Hell, I could write a 100 page comparative thesis on the subject. But my deadline is nigh and I have to get some mimis. So instead, I pose this challenge to you, kids. There are spaces open in my neighborhood. There are apartments for rent in the Union Fashion Building. I don't know what rents are like right now (they used to be pretty damn expensive), but I'm sure Fred Dalbin will work with you. There are studio spaces in Union Plaza. There are a couple open above Latin Chico's on San Antonio Ave., spaces available next to the Kress, spaces in the Merrick Building, the Abrahams have rented out art studios in the Toltec before, and there is one apartment open in my building on the 2nd floor. I cannot vouch for the others (well...the ballroom in the Toltec is pretty spectacular), but I can tell you about that space on the 2nd floor. It needs work. Oak floors need to be sanded. The last residents repainted, but didn't go further. Do you have the balls to pour your heart and soul into something you don't own for the sake of an ideal? Do you really want to be part of Downtown revitalization, or are you content in watching others do the dirty work?
Essential Reading for the Misinformed:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Jane Jacob http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:458459[link]
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