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Keeping Austin Cleared

The Green New Deal’s (GND) growing popularity presents a potential sea-change for popular movements in the US. A growing audience for a public and sustainable reorganization of everyday life offers plenty of oxygen for left-wing ideas. But because who gets what, why and how will be decisive either publicly or behind closed doors, understanding how these questions are being answered today is essential if we want to fight for meaningful change. Eliot Tretter’s Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism and the Knowledge Economy in Austin is a model for future research into these problems in Texas. Bearing the reputation of an environmentally conscious, liberal stronghold, Austin today is not only among the least affordable cities in the US but also among the most racially segregated. The novel leaders and political blocs that Tretter uncovers behind Austin’s knowledge economy are ones that movements in Austin and elsewhere will have to identify and disarm, to win the GND and challenge the ruling class. {…}

Eliot Tretter, Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism and the Knowledge Economy in Austin.  University of Georgia Press, 2016. 179 pp.

Review by Sans C.

The Green New Deal’s (GND) growing popularity presents a potential sea-change for popular movements in the US.  A growing audience for a public and sustainable reorganization of everyday life offers plenty of oxygen for left-wing ideas. But because who gets what, why and how will be decisive either publicly or behind closed doors, understanding how these questions are being answered today is essential if we want to fight for meaningful change. Eliot Tretter’s Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism and the Knowledge Economy in Austin is a model for future research into these problems in Texas. Bearing the reputation of an environmentally conscious, liberal stronghold, Austin today is not only among the least affordable cities in the US but also among the most racially segregated. The novel leaders and political blocs that Tretter uncovers behind Austin’s knowledge economy are ones that movements in Austin and elsewhere will have to identify and disarm, to win the GND and challenge the ruling class.

While the tech industry and its salaried workers loom large in explanations for the city’s state of affairs, Tretter calls our attention to the state’s flagship university and its role in organizing accumulation in Austin. The University of Texas emerged as a first officer for land development through two strategies for urban growth adopted by municipal leaders.  In the mid-twentieth century, city officials sought to build an industrial base of local manufacturing and commerce with the university as a key ligament for nascent industry.  With the Housing Act of 1950, however, states granted universities new powers to promote expansion – including the power by 1956 to impose eminent domain.  In partnership with predatory non-profits, newly empowered to enforce the demolition of “slum” neighborhoods, the university went on the offensive. The reason the university expanded south and east and instead of north and west was that the former contained the bulk of the city’s poor, black population, while the much wealthier white population remained concentrated in the latter. 

City planners had already deepened the racial segregation of the city in its 1928 master plan – the same year that the university’s bond issuing authority was expanded.  The city established racist zoning laws in the north and west that prohibited the provision or purchase of housing for tenants and homeowners of color, while concentrating social services such as public schools, parks and clinics for the city’s black population exclusively in the East.  Finally, the city overlaid its segregation plans with environmental markers, as zoning laws concentrate ecologically destructive industry east of Interstate 35.  Within a space of 12 years, the nonwhite communities west of I-35 were destroyed, and with it the city’s historically even spread of black communities since Reconstruction. Today, rising rents, and crucially, rising property taxes from the impact of new construction are displacing nonwhite families of these communities.

As the city’s strategy for growth shifted during the 70s and 80s, from local manufacturing and commerce to more ‘knowledge’ and R&D based industries, the university came into its own as a vanguard developer. The emphasis on technology and R&D reflected two calculations. First, it connected the city through the university to an expanding share of the federal budget allocated for the armed forces, ballooning during the Reagan years in which Austin underwent its most rapid period of expansion. Second, this sector was also attractive, because its labor force was relatively disorganized.[1]

Generally, UT would raise money by selling bonds against the value of the Permanent University Fund (PUF) and then repackage the funds into various bribes to compel companies to relocate. Whereas Stanford passively let capitalists avail themselves of fixed capital on campus such as machines and equipment, UT was more actively patrimonial.  The university often purchased desirable land or required machinery directly on behalf of emerging Texas firms, and the flagship university would now have a stronger basis to receive funding (grants, partnerships etc.) to perform profitable research. Campus faculty could shoulder capital’s R&D, market research and demographic surveys while, offering an auxiliary labor force to the private sector as they also taught and trained a layer of students as a future labor supply for industry.

The city’s growing R&D sector also posed a new set of environmental problems in the 80s and 90s.  The tech industry’s potential expansion onto ecologically preserved lands and wealthier white neighborhoods on the city’s westside split the city’s existing ruling bloc.  While “anti-growth” forces ultimately prevented development on lands covering the Edwards Aquifer, the victory came only through concessions to their opponents among developers and the US Chamber of Commerce.  Austin’s anti-growth city council didn’t neutralize destructive development so much as relocate it, with new policing and surveillance programs to clear the city’s downtown of homeless people and render the central business district attractive for investment.  The latter also demanded throwing the area of East Austin, containing the bulk of the city’s Black and Latino population, under the penumbra of planned development and displacement. The Malthusian content of the city planners’ motto of “building here and preserving there” – sacrificing people for the sake of a mythical “environment” that doesn’t include them – has remained at the core of the local ruling class strategy for patronizing environmentalism.  

If Austin isn’t to be a rehearsal for the future, then democracy will need to assume a larger place in progressive agendas for urban reorganization. After years of technocratic liberalism, there’s nothing terribly greener about Austin’s environment, even within the narrow terms of the local ruling class’ conception of it. New forms of clean public transport are undoubtedly necessary, but if Austin’s experience with its 2010 rail-line is any clue, capital-driven agendas will benefit the rich more than the environment, especially if construction schemes raise rents on poor families of color and displace them even further from their homes and where they need to go.  Adapting urban space to a rapidly shifting climate will implicate all moments of everyday life, which is why returning democratic authority to labor unions and working-class neighborhoods holds the only promise of finding solutions radical enough to the awesome task. The latter holds immense possibilities that Tretter is right to say we “should bask in.” With growing audiences for radical change, we should be able to do much more. 


[1] Tate, M. (2015) “Austin, Texas, in Sociohistorical Context.” In: Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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