East Austin: The History that Made Us

Brenna E Van Skiver
17 min readDec 8, 2021


A UT Austin student’s investigation into student perceptions of East Austin and its history, and how we can use this history to become better neighbors to all members of our community.

Image via Austin.com

M y name is Brenna Van Skiver and I’m a 3rd year Corporate Communications student at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m an implant to the state of Texas from New Jersey, but I love learning about the complexities of the city that I now call home. I’ve lived in Austin for much of my 2.5 years here, and strongly identify as a member of the overall Austin community.

When I think of my home here in Austin, I recall the saying that ‘it takes two years of living somewhere for it to feel like home’. While “home” can be defined in many different ways, I believe that this saying rings true. As the typical time to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree is four years, it’s probable that many UT students would consider Austin to be their home.

As we move through life we identify with many different communities, but one very important one is the community that surrounds one’s home. These are often neighbors, people you pass on the street or dine next to in restaurants. Community is built from those who surround you, and who all share one undeniable thing: you live in the same geographic region.

One of the greatest things about the University of Texas at Austin is its location so close to Downtown Austin while still maintaining its own identity apart from the city itself. The 40 Acres at times feels like its own bubble, but it is still an essential part of the greater Austin community for which it is named. One thing about the University of Texas at Austin, as with virtually every other Southern school, is the history of segregation and discrimination to non-white populations. Any sense of “community” in the city was wiped away by decades of discriminatory city planning and housing policies.

Despite the 1917 Supreme Court ruling that segregation zoning laws would not be permitted, Austin’s Plan of 1928 created a “negro district” to confine Black and Mexican-American residents to one area. They were only offered services within this area, barring them from branching out to attend other schools or purchase property. Minority-owned land in other parts of Austin was seized by the city in the name of profit and progress.

Essentially, the goal was to keep non-white individuals out of sight and out of mind during Austin’s phase of expansion. This plan is now nearing a century old, but it seems that the history and stories of these people are still out of sight and out of mind.

The divide created by the 1928 Master Plan was only deepened through decades of housing discrimination that reinforced segregation. Redlining, or the process of marking neighborhoods predicted to decrease in value, specifically targeted communities of color. According to a 2015 Statesman article by Dan Zehr, housing discrimination in Austin practically barred African Americans from purchasing a house at all. This was extremely crucial because home ownership is a major way to maintain familial wealth in the United States. With so many barriers to fair access, minority residents in East Austin were not only confined to a specific geographic district, but also discriminated against within that area.

What might be considered “Historic East Austin” is less than a ten minute drive from where I live in UT’s West Campus. East Austin itself was, and still is, undeniably a part of the greater Austin community. Still, East Austin and its history are very rarely talked about by UT Students overall. While I was lucky enough to hear about East Austin through coursework and a campus organization, most students lack this exposure.

During my freshman year at UT in 2019, I was involved in a UT Center for Community Engagement program called The Project. The Project is known as UT’s largest day of service, and involves students coordinating and performing community service work in a different East Austin neighborhood each year. We worked with members of the St. Johns community to address various needs such as giving local churches a coat of fresh paint or planting flowers at the elementary school.

Image by Brenna Van Skiver

In training as a Team Lead for The Project, I was taught about the historic discrimination in the area and the ripple effect that it had on St. Johns and neighboring communities to this day. This was my first introduction to East Austin as a concept, and it opened my eyes to an entire section of my community that I had never before been familiar with. This exposure drove me to want to engage further, despite the Covid-19 pandemic creating barriers to direct outreach in local communities.

While these community-based initiatives exist at the university, not many students are aware of them or become involved in them. I began to wonder, are my peers and fellow UT students being exposed to East Austin and the rich history that it has to offer? Do they even find it important to interact with this part of their community? If so, how can UT form a mutually beneficial relationship with East Austin? To answer these questions and more, I set out to interview a diverse range of my peers at UT Austin. I received 35 survey responses to the following questions:

  1. How long have you lived in Austin/ stayed in Austin as a student?
  2. Have you ever been to East Austin?
  3. What is one word that comes to mind when you think of East Austin?
  4. Do you find it important to be aware of the legacy/history of the community we are a part of?
  5. How would you rate your knowledge of East Austin history?
  6. Where have you learned the most about East Austin?
  7. Do you find the history of East Austin to be important? Why or why not?

In addition to asking these questions, I conducted four conversational interviews to dive deeper into what a few of my acquaintances had to say about East Austin and their experiences and thoughts on how UT can form a mutually beneficial relationship with the community. Based on these responses, I am able to draw conclusions in response to my original questions. To begin with, I tried to gauge students’ current perception of East Austin and their experiences as neighbors to the region.

What Do We Know about East Austin?

Austin Capitol Building via Visit Austin

In order to paint a clear picture of how East Austin fits into the wider scope of Austin itself, I asked a few UT students to name what they consider to be an iconic Austin landmark. All four interviewees immediately mentioned the Capitol building.

Undoubtedly, the Capitol building is a well-known symbol of the capital city, being visible at almost any location you might travel in the downtown region. However, this begs the questions: are there other historical landmarks or locations that are just as important? Are the stories of minorities being reflected in our perception of Austin history?

“I work at the Capitol, and any white person can go and see themselves all over the walls, they can see themselves in the architecture, in the paintings, in the chamber, and as a minority who works there, I’ve heard people walking around who look like me being like, ‘where’s the paintings of the Black people?’” -Angelica D., 3rd year Plan II & Economics major

The Capitol building, and many of the largest Austin landmarks still perpetuate an image of Austin that excludes minorities. Angelica D. also wisely stated “representation matters”, both in general and in the history that we learn about Austin and the stories that we tell.

In general, our collective knowledge of Austin seems to be dominated by what we see on the surface. When there are few efforts to seek out the less-often-told stories, we are stuck with the same narrative. Unfortunately, the ‘same old narrative’ is not an inclusive or holistic view of Austin. It often does not include minorities who have existed in Austin as long as the city has been around. In order to know Austin and its history as a whole, it’s important to represent the stories of all people who make up the community.

Understanding the surface-level view or misconceptions of East Austin is the first step toward realizing what is missing from the holistic narrative. To get at these questions, I asked the survey respondents to rate their knowledge of East Austin history (1 being least knowledgeable and 5 being most knowledgeable). They were also asked to point to where they have learned most of their information. 80% of those surveyed reported having been to East Austin before, but had varying results of knowledge about it:

Captured from Capstone Survey by Brenna Van Skiver

The above graph shows that a large majority of the UT students surveyed ranked their knowledge of East Austin history as a 3/5 or 2/5. Of all surveyed, not a single person ranked their knowledge as 5/5. Overall, there is room for improvement in what UT students know about East Austin. Ideally, the graph would skew more toward the knowledgeable end of the scale rather than the less knowledgeable side.

Captured from Capstone Survey by Brenna Van Skiver

In regards to where students were getting their information, the results are varied. While friends/word of mouth received the most responses, it seems like students have a variety of sources for any background they do know about East Austin. Still, some respondents still claim to know absolutely nothing about East Austin from any sources.

Next, the students were asked to think of one word they associate with East Austin:

In this word cloud, there’s a range of perceptions of East Austin from ‘segregated’ to ‘hip’ to ‘sketchy’. We can see the ways that the area is changing through these different association words. Unfortunately, some of this change is erasing the Historic East Austin that was once better-known.

One of the survey respondents mentioned that “many people associate East Austin with trendy cafes and boutiques but fail to appreciate its true cultural background.” Again, the East Austin that is visible on the surface is not proving to be a trustworthy judge of the history and culture of the area. As this student has pointed out, the bells and whistles in newly revitalized areas might distract from the history itself.

It also seems like some of the current problems facing East Austin, such as gentrification, are dominating the current narrative around the space. Gentrification, the displacement of a place’s current residents as wealthier individuals move in, is known to affect various East Austin neighborhoods. By pushing out many long-term inhabitants of the region, some of the history risks being erased as well.

Gentrification’s Threat to East Austin History

In my conversations with students, it became clear that gentrification is a well-known issue associated with East Austin. In her own view, Angelica D. explains that “gentrification erases history that people already don’t know a lot about and kind of overshadows what people might seek to learn about the place”.

Still, certain aspects of urban renewal might have led to a safer perception of East Austin. Fourth year Physical Culture & Sports major Elias Q. is from Kyle, TX and grew up being told by his parents to “never cross East of I35” because the area was perceived as dangerous. Now, he travels east of the highway often to eat at different restaurants or to play baseball at Edward Rendon Sr. Park. He credits gentrification for making East Austin neighborhoods feel less threatening.

In a 2012 publication titled The Empty Stairs: The Lost History of East Austin, former Texas State student Sharon Hill describes how “urban renewal changes the social and historical fabric of the neighborhood”. She specifically references East Eleventh St., and Olive and Juniper Streets as areas in Austin that have changed drastically in the recent years. Areas full of Black-owned businesses or homes that were inhabited by many generations of the same family are now barely recognizable.

As long-time inhabitants of East Austin fail to afford the property taxes in areas going through this urban renewal, they are forced to relocate and are then replaced by a different socioeconomic demographic. A distinct East Austin character is now mixed in with clean, modern architecture that completely changes the ‘feel’ of the area.

Because the current inhabitants of East Austin do not fully reflect the demographics of those that historically occupied much of the region, the history of East Austin can be hard to grasp. In discussing the appearance of East Austin, 3rd year Political Communications major Jarret C. explained how “you see the birth of gentrification all over that area”, especially in different styles of housing. All four interviewees mentioned taking note of the visible effects of gentrification in the region on trips to our through East Austin.

Image depicting gentrification, via Hilltop Views

Third year Psychology major Kaleb W. and I discussed the stark contrast that can be seen between the old and the new as you drive through East Austin. The past and the history of Historic East Austin communities is dwindling each and every year. There is less connection to those who came before them, their lives and achievements. Property is seen for its monetary value above its cultural relevance.

In general, Austin’s African American population is declining and taking some of the history of East Austin with them in their departure. A 2016 report from UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis provided data on 100 African Americans who moved out of Austin between 2000 and 2016. Their findings largely supported the effects of gentrification as a leading cause pushing African Americans out of Austin:

“When asked why they decided to leave Austin, 56 percent of respondents chose ‘unaffordable housing’ as their leading reason. Among the respondents, 63 percent lived in greater East Austin before leaving the city. This suggests that soaring housing prices incentivized many African American homeowners of East Austin to sell their properties to higher-income residents who could afford to renovate homes in disrepair and to pay hefty property taxes.”

Unfortunately, gentrification might be erasing the stories of historic non-white inhabitants as the neighborhoods change to represent new populations. Fewer people remain to tell their own stories, and the new outward appearances distract from the legacy of Historic East Austin. Gentrification seems to be just one of the issues that impacts UT Austin students’ view of East Austin. In the survey results, it appears that students were aware of the current threats that gentrification poses to Austin’s black and brown communities, but not specifically about the history of the communities themselves.

One anonymous survey respondent stated the following as an answer to why they find it important to learn about East Austin history: “Current gentrification and race boundaries”. This emphasis on current issues when it comes to a knowledge of history was common throughout the survey responses. There is a need to contextualize social problems that impact Austin today in events that occurred in the past. Another survey respondent argued that learning East Austin history “humanizes” the communities affected, leading to greater empathy when addressing current issues in the region.

This perspective is so essential when looking at East Austin; seeing Historic East Austin not just as a group that was wronged by history, but seeing the individuals who accomplished amazing things in the face of adversity. East Austin is not a hegemony, but is made up of so many diverse people and neighborhoods that truly contribute to how Austin is today. While it is important to be aware of the more negative aspects of East Austin history, I believe it is also important to recognize the notable accomplishments of Black and Mexican-American Austinites of past and present.

What it Means to be a Community

Of the 39 people I either surveyed or interviewed, 85% have lived in Austin for at least two years. It is undeniable that in this case, UT students are also part of the overall Austin community. They likely consider Austin to be their home despite having strong community ties specifically to the university itself. UT, after all, is part of the fabric that makes up Austin, Texas.

In our one-on-one interview, Houston native Kaleb W. referred to UT Austin as a ‘bubble’. This is a reality that many students are aware of but fail to address. To get to the root of what they think it means to uphold their responsibility as a community member, I asked my interviewees to share their perspective.

Angelica D. answered this question by saying, “community to me is trying to have everybody in your geographical or cultural region working together for a better future, or just sustaining yourself to where everyone can live in a reasonable way”. Her response points to the different ways that community can be defined, but also emphasizes striving toward betterment for one’s community. If certain community members are falling behind, it’s our responsibility to pick them up as we keep moving forward.

Jarret C. says “the Austin community cares about one another more than anyplace in Texas I’ve ever been… whether it be voting rights, women’s rights, public health, and it’s more of a community because of that”. He continues to address the fact that UT students tend to be fans of activism in his view, despite their activism being based in hearsay more than personal experience. As good community members, students should learn more about the people on behalf of whom they are advocating. In this case, East Austin history should be known to anyone fighting the presence of gentrification and other issues.

UT students understand that their role as a member of the Austin community is to advocate for other community members. Part of this advocacy involves educating oneself of the historical events that made Austin what it’s like today, and appreciating and protecting the culture of nearby neighborhoods. Angelica D. spoke about how she consistently sees UT-affiliated student organizations volunteering at local parks or raising money for local nonprofits. However, there is a noticeable lack of participation in community-based learning in class curriculums.

Kaleb W. went on to relay that she has never been involved in community work for a class in her three semesters at UT, despite recognizing the need for such community engagement. When asked if she sees value in knowing the history of our greater Austin community, Kaleb says, “[Learning their history] bridges the gaps and can help us understand each other more… it’s nice to know that someone is willing to learn about you and that makes a community closer”.

From my conversations with students, I could sense a growing desire to be immersed in community engagement efforts in the classroom. Students want to feel like they are learning applicable skills in ways that are benefitting their local community.

In the words of Jarret C., “service learning is huge” and deserves a larger place in the UT Austin curriculum. He spoke of a program in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work that connected students with opportunities to work with Child Protective Services in the local community. Engagement like this, he claims, is so essential to being a good community member. This also emphasizes the mutually beneficial aspect of UT’s relationship with East Austin: community engagement shouldn’t feel like a burden when it’s done in a way that meets the needs of both parties.

One student who was interviewed did have the opportunity to volunteer in East Austin as part of a class and benefitted greatly from the experience. Angelica D. spoke of her experience mentoring a student at a KIPP school in East Austin. According to their website, “KIPP public charter schools are a non-profit network of college-preparatory schools educating early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school students.”

As a mentor to a 9-year-old student of color, Angelica D. understands the need for greater awareness of East Austin history. Specifically, she referenced the necessity of amplifying the achievements of minorities and East Austin natives. Looking at the life of the student she mentors, Angelica D. wonders if knowing about historic figures who made an impact in East Austin would act as a positive role model for the young student.

“What role models will she have to look up to? Who in her community is she looking to for support?… I think if they were more educated on the accomplishments of the people in their area and their demographic, these kids would be way more motivated”- Angelica D.

In reflecting on what it means to be a community, it’s important to keep the well-being of all community members at the forefront of our actions. If educating ourselves on East Austin history is a way to support them and increase engagement, then that’s the responsibility of the community. As UT students identify more with this mission, there is so much that can be done to bridge the current gaps between students and the East Austin area.

UT Austin’s Role in Remembering History

The acts of remembering East Austin’s history and community engagement go hand in hand when it comes to being good neighbors to the East Austin area. As students learn how the Austin we see today came about, they are compelled to engage more. Knowing the stories of those who came before us makes us want to honor their legacy, and improve Austin as a community with each coming day.

In the middle of each student interview, I provided a summary of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan and subsequent housing discrimination. Kaleb W. and Angelica D. are both from Houston, and their reaction was not one of surprise. They referenced similar historic events happening in their home city that discriminated against minority populations.

Still, each interviewee affirmed that learning about East Austin history made them want to engage more. Elias Q. mentioned that learning from our past is extremely important for how we interact with community members day-to-day. A survey respondent confirmed this, stating “I think students especially need to understand where certain socioeconomic groups live in a big city like Austin. Being aware of our history is how we learn and do better for the future and I feel like East Austin is ignored”.

No longer should East Austin, its residents, and its history be “out of sight and out of mind”. In the face of a multitude of threats to their history, it is up to the overall Austin community, including UT students, to actively counteract this cultural erasure. Not only is it essential, but it will ultimately benefit both parties.

After listening to student experiences, advice, and reactions to historical information, I have a complete view of student perceptions of East Austin and the way that knowledge of East Austin history has the power to drive engagement between UT and our neighboring community. In the wake of a tense history, it’s important for us as students to look beyond the image of Austin that is packaged up and handed to us.

Once we accept that there is more to the mainstream narrative surrounding Austin, we can educate ourselves about the history of Austin’s creation and the way that it affected minority communities in the East Austin area. This gives context to the problems being faced there today, and makes us feel closer to all parts of our city.

The next step is diving deeper into service-based learning and community engagement efforts that improve our skills while fulfilling community needs. We must recognize that community members in East Austin are already doing this work, but we must support them and amplify their voices. Through this, our education grows further along with our community ties.

At the forefront of the entire process is the East Austin community and those who came before the current residents. They should no longer be out of sight and out of mind, but central to how we live in Austin.


Austin’s “1928 Master Plan” Unleashed Forces Which Still Shape Austin Today. (2018). Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Houston/CM_OH_1928_Op-Ed.pdf

College preparatory schools. KIPP Public Charter Schools. (2021, November 15). Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.kipp.org/.

Hill, S. (2012). The empty stairs: the lost history of East Austin. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://gato-docs.its.txstate.edu/jcr:e08c7244-9193-49b1-b4d8 6cb3e4c4daab/The%20Empty%20Stairs%20The%20Lost%20History%20of%20East%20Austin.pdf.

Jackson, C. (2021, August 17). What is redlining? The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/realestate/what-is-redlining.html?searchResultPosition=2.

Tang, E., & Falola, B. (2016). Those who left: Austin’s declining African American population. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/iupra/_files/pdf/those-who-left-austin.pdf.

Zehr, D. (2015, January 18). Austin’s history of segregation THREATENS ECONOMY’S

FUTURE. Statesman. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://projects.statesman.com/news/economic-mobility/wealth.html.