East Austin Studio Tour, 2017 Photo by Andrew Reiner.

The East Austin Studio Tour is arguably the city’s largest art event. Add up the number of participating artists, the scale of the audience over the two-weekend event and the geographic footprint of the self-guided free tour, and EAST’s magnitude becomes almost exponential.

This year there’s 272 artist studios, 65 galleries, 194 temporary exhibitions, 44 happenings and ten public libraries that make up the 585 official EAST stops.

Shea Little, executive director of Big Medium, the organization behind EAST, estimates that this year’s iteration will see an audience of approximately 15,000 — or maybe 20,000. It’s impossible to get an accurate count.

But whatever the numbers, the event is a long way from when Little, Jana Swec and Joseph Phillips launched the first East Austin Studio Tour in 2003 with just 28 studios on a one-afternoon-long tour. At the time, the trio were among a growing wave of young artists of all disciplines moving into the then-affordable real estate of East Austin’s historically African American and Latinx neighborhoods, establishing art studios and warehouse theaters.

Over the years Little and Big Medium have expanded the geographic footprint of EAST, pushing eastward, northward and even southward across the Colorado River/Lady Bird Lake as artists have staked out working or living spaces beyond central East Austin.

By 2015, however, rising real estate prices in the rapidly gentrifying central East Austin area began to exert its pressure on artists and arts organizations. Several influential art studio complexes and warehouse theaters closed, sending the creative community into crisis mode.

Austin’s majority white arts community now finds itself increasingly priced out of East Austin. Which makes for the great irony of the East Austin Studio tour: While the event has been a factor in accelerating the gentrification of East Austin, the creative community it promotes is threatened by that gentrification.

Gentrification has had a corrosive effect on East Austin’s historically Black and Latinx communities.

A study by University of Texas scholar Eric Tang found that between 2000 and 2010, East Austin’s Black population decreased by 66 percent, its Latino population decreased by 33 percent, and its white population increased by 442 percent. And in subsequent studies, Tang and his co-authors found that the economic pressures of gentrification were the primary reason longstanding residents of East Austin had left the neighborhood.

By 2015, Austin was the least affordable of Texas’ four major cities, according to a report from Texas A&M. In East Austin, the median home price in January 2011 was just under $125,000. By December 2014, that number was nearly $350,000, a 180 percent increase.

In their most recent research brief released in May of this year, Tang and his team found that in East Austin dogs now outnumber children nearly 2-to-1. And while a dog-dominant neighborhood doesn’t necessarily signify gentrification, a steady decrease in children does.

Austin’s legacy of inequity

For all of Austin’s popular reputation as a liberal and progressive place, the city has a deep legacy of discriminatory public policy that today makes it a city of profound racial and income segregation.

When it was published in 2014 by UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, Tang’s study — “Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population” — grabbed local headlines as the city seemed suddenly confronted by a part of its history it had ignored.

Using U.S. Census data, Tang demonstrated that between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only among the ten fast-growing major cities in the United States to show a decline in its African American population.

And in “Outlier” and subsequent studies, Tang and his co-authors posited that African Americans did not choose to leave Austin so much as they were compelled to leave not just because of a lack affordability, but by historical and governmental forces as well.

“Rosewood Park for Negroes, September 8, 1938.” Rosewood Park was established in 1929 as Austin’s first public open space set aside for African Americans, a result of the 1928 Koch & Fowler plan that institutionalized racial segregation in Austin. Photo credit: Ellison Photo Service, Austin. Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

State-sanctioned segregation in the 1920s resettled Austin’s much of African American population into a designated district to the east of the city’s center.

In 1928, Austin officials followed a city plan authored by Dallas consulting firm Koch & Fowler that recommended creating a “Negro District,” a six square mile area that was the only part of the city where African Americans could access schools and other public services.  The city refused to to run utilities, for example, to homes and businesses in the established Black communities of Central and and South Austin. By the mid-1930s, approximately 80 percent of the city’s Black population was compelled to relocate to the eastside.

The 1928 plan also called for weaker zoning in the segregated district, allowing for the development of “objectionable industrial uses.” And later zoning changes in the 1950s permitted for an even greater area of East Austin to house noxious facilities such as bulk fuel storage tank storage and a power plant.

Likewise, federal financial programs started in the 1930s redlined East Austin, making government-backed property loans unavailable for its residents, limiting the equity-building that comes from home ownership.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, Austin’s economy and population surged. So did its downtown, promoted by city leaders who supported urban development. And that made the downtown-adjacent yet historically underinvested neighborhoods of East Austin prime for gentrification.

Austin’s concentrated segregation was followed by concentrated gentrification that resulted in the massive displacement of African Americans from their historic communities.

Tang is one of several featured at “Sightines Spoken: The Arts & Gentrification in East Austin,” a two-part panel that’s part of EAST this year. Organized by Sightlines, the event is a collaboration with Big Medium, Austin Creative Alliance and the George Washington Carver Museum & Culture Center.

It will be held at the Carver Museum Nov. 13 and 15. “The Gentrification of East Austin: Place, Culture & the Forces of History” is the topic on Nov. 13, while “Artists Respond: Considering Place and Culture” is taken up on Nov. 15.

Stay East, or go?

During last year’s East Austin Studio Tour news broke that after 12 years of providing artists with affordable studio space and operating a gallery, the artist-run organization Pump Project was losing its lease. Like other studio complexes, Pump Project’s distinctive yellow warehouse on Shady Lane was a top destination stop on EAST.

After new owners double the rent in 2015, most artist left Art Post, a motley collection of buildings on East Cesar Chavez.

Salvage Vanguard Theater — home to dozens of performance groups — closed in 2016, likewise due to new owners demanding enormously increased rent. And the Off Center, staked out in 1999 off East Seventh Street by theater collective Rude Mechs, closed when the University of Texas, the property’s owner, decided to expanded its adjacent elementary school.

This year’s East Austin Studio Tour is the last for the Flatbed complex which for 20 years has been home to fine arts printers Flatbed Press along with other galleries. Again, the property’s owners want to redevelop the former warehouse which is now surrounded by pricey apartments.

“It’s tough to be in the middle of the displacement,” says Big Medium’s Little, a native Austinite.

Earlier this year Pump Project found a new home — at least for the next three years — in a developer-built temporary arts complex going up south of the river in the East Riverside Drive area.

Pump Project co-director Emmy Larsen said that when polled, the group’s resident artists said staying on the eastside, and being included in EAST, was very important to them.

“Often we heard visitors (to our original location) say that EAST is the only time they ever came to Pump or got out to see Austin artists,” says Larsen, who added that at Pump averaged about 5,000 visitors during EAST.

But not all artists and arts businesses facing relocation think staying in East Austin is imperative.

Troy Campa is on the hunt for a new place for his gallery Cambia Art, which has been in Flatbed since 2014. And Campa is looking across the city.

“We participate (in EAST) because it is something that seems to be important to the community, and we want to support that,” Campa says. “But it has very little direct benefit for us, and certainly not in sales. We do get a lot of traffic from people for whom it’s a once a year pilgrimage, it seems.”

While the changing demographics will continue to change EAST, Little doesn’t foresee the tour ceasing. In fact, when Big Medium launched the West Austin Studio Tour in 2012, it was seen as acknowledgement of just how dispersed throughout the city Austin’s visual arts community really is.

“Austin needs some kind of mechanism to see the depth and breadth of its visual arts community,” says Little. “There really isn’t anything else besides EAST, and WEST too, that offers the opportunity to see the vast number of artists here who make great art.”

Portions of this article appeared in “EAST Shifts” in the Nov. 2018 of Arts + Culture Texas magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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