East Side’s musical history provides insight into roots of gentrification

Megan Hix

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As soldiers returned from World War II and young Austinites looked for nightly entertainment in the late ’40s and ’50s, they were often drawn in by the sounds of jazz and blues music spilling out of downtown clubs on East 11th and 12th Streets. Up-and-comers and greats such as B.B. King, Etta James and Chuck Berry played venues such as Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse, bringing music to the predominantly black crowds segregated to the east side.

The venues helped make up what’s known as the Chitlin Circuit, a touring route that brought musicians to audiences who couldn’t go see them at whites-only venues. A close-knit economy of restaurants and other businesses quickly built up around this cultural hub.

“Long before Sixth Street, there was 11th and 12th Street,” art professor John Yancey said. “That was where the hot music was and the late-night scene.” 

Yancey, a longtime East Austin resident, helped memorialize the district’s cultural history with his mosaic mural “Rhapsody” in 2003, which depicts jazz musicians and the east side community in the era of segregated Austin. 

But as segregation ended in the 1960s, Yancey said black residents were suddenly free to go to any part of the city they liked — and they took their money with them, causing clubs and other black-owned businesses to close. 

“After about 1967 or 1968, when the economic decline started, people just kind of wrote that part of the city off,” Yancey said. “They assumed it had always been how it was, kind of a barren area, but there’s a rich history before then.”

Local music journalist Michael Corcoran said that the era following desegregation was an “aimless time” for East Austin. Even today, he said the east side music scene is thriving, but instead of blues and jazz, it’s full of “white music.” 

While the changes associated with gentrification are often cast in a negative light, he said the revitalization also has its benefits.

“Truly [the East Side] is like all of Austin right now — it’s a land grab … There’s so much money in the real estate that a lot of poor people can’t afford to live there anymore,” Corcoran said. “But the best example of the neighborhood turning around in a good way is what’s happening at 12th and Chicon … It used to be nothing but drug dealers and prostitution. You might say it’s gentrified, but it’s better than it used to be.”

Creating his 50-foot-wide mural required Yancey to dig through historical documents and photographs, but he’s been a first-hand witness to the changes that have happened since, which he said make his mural even more relevant today.

With such rapid development, the area’s residents — some of which Yancey said have owned property for generations — are often forced out. Austin’s African-American population, in particular, has decreased to about eight percent, making them the smallest minority group, according to the City of Austin. 

Musicians are also leaving downtown Austin. In last summer’s music census, 80 percent of musicians surveyed said they don’t earn a living wage, and 68 percent said there’s a deficit of affordable housing.Yancey said all but one of his original neighbors have moved because of affordability issues. His own property taxes have increased by about 600 percent since he moved in. 

“When I first moved to the east side, it was so isolated that it was like a small Southern town, set off to itself.Generations upon generations of families lived there,” Yancey said. “[Gentrification] was such a quick, drastic change of realities, very few families survived.” 

But Yancey hopes the permanence of his mural, which is cemented into the foundation of the building it decorates, offers a lasting reminder of the area’s rich history.

“The concept of [Rhapsody], in addition to commemorating what had happened, was to create a permanent marker in the fear that what was will not be there anymore and the people who were there will not be there anymore as time goes on,” Yancey said. “There’s a symbolic permanence to the piece that’s even under the surface.”