Old and New: Austin’s Struggle with Gentrification on South Congress

Old and New: Austins Struggle with Gentrification on South Congress

A white building sits on its crumbling foundation in the middle of South Congress Boulevard, neglected. This building is a result of gentrification within Austin, something we’ve been seeing for a few years. If you’ve lived in Austin for a while, you might have noticed some changes occurring within it, both in terms of the people and the places.

When driving around, people tend to focus on the bright, new, modern buildings of the town, and ignore the broken down houses and stores that have stood there for what seems like forever. All building’s stories are different, and every person’s story is different, but they’re all connected by the fact that they’ve lost the homey feeling of a small town, and are being closed in by an entirely new one.

However, this does not mean Austin is all bad. One highlight is the improved and more diverse culture of the city. “There’s significantly better restaurants, and as a vegetarian, my options are much better than when I moved here. On any given weekend, there’s cool stuff to do, some of it free,” said Tony Slagle, a longtime resident of Austin.

Austin has been changing and growing, as any city naturally does, for a long time. But many businesses have recently dealt with the rapidity at which it is expanding. “We were compelled to find a new space,” says Lisa Schemanske of Uncommon Objects, a unique antique store that moved last year from it’s iconic South Congress location, to a new location down South, in 78704.

Schemanske has been working there for 15 + years, and has seen it grow as a business. She noted that when she started working there, it was known as a sleepy, even rough part of town. However, she enjoyed the environment of the store, and it was a flexible and convenient schedule for her. Although, around 2010 that area of town became more noticed. More hipster, if you will. New buildings were popping up, and it became tourist central. On the plus side, this was nice for the business. It provided them with enough money for rent, which they had already been paying a decent amount for 25 + years. Adding to that, the popularity of Youtuber grav3yardgirl and her love for the store helped them receive a lot of media attention.

This is when things started to get kind of crazy. The store would be packed with dazed tourists or interested artists. Sometimes the store would even get to 200+ people at once. It wasn’t enjoyable for the employees to have to tell people to leave or keep their big strollers outside, and the busy-ness became a distraction from the relaxed environment that it used to be.

The owner of the store had been renting it for 25 or more years from a couple that owned the space for over 50 years. However, when they got older, they passed, and their children were left with the decision on what to do with it. The son wanted to keep it, but because of the value of the space, and how much business a spot like that would bring in, the daughter decided to sell it for millions of dollars.

“I think I started to notice the big difference about 5 or so years ago with the changes to South Lamar and downtown 2nd and 4th streets and all the new developments on the east side,” said Rebecca Sensat. She works at Parts and Labour, a store on South Congress that sells local items. “I think Parts & Labour is an anomaly, we are small business… but we have the special privilege of having a spot on one of the busiest streets in Austin,” said Sensat.

However, there is a lot that comes with being a smaller business on one of the largest streets in Austin. “Personally, I sometimes find myself conflicted about this because as an employee of a small business and as a representative of over a hundred local artists, I’m grateful that we can sell our wears and support those artists but as a native Austinite I see firsthand the sheer volume of people swarming to live in Austin and I see their Madewell and Warby Parker bags, asking about Keep Austin Weird shirts and I get very frustrated.”

It’s difficult balancing new and old Austin, Sensat acknowledges. “It’s these habits that people bring with them here and change the ‘groovy’, chill, laid back vibe that we have cultured for a long time,” Sensat said. All of this said, there is hope for our beloved city. “Change is good and progress can be beneficial but I hope the people moving here and the companies planning buildings and businesses can see the remaining pieces of the special place I grew up and have the heart to try and keep some of its neighbors and its charm,” said Sensat. And hopefully, no matter what Austin goes through, it won’t lose its charm.