Victory with a Price

The Blackland neighborhood and UT "Public Service"

By Ralph D. Tomlinson
February 1990; pages 3, 16; Volume 1, No. 4
Polemicist

Residents of the Blackland neighborhood may have gained a small victory in their 10-year battle with UT, but the taste of victory could certainly be sweeter. The University has agreed to limit its devastation to an 8-block area in the East Austin neighborhood. The City of Austin has purchased 22 houses from UT, for $10, to be rehabilitated as low-income and transitional housing.

But the houses relocated from the area slated for "future use" by the University are causing at least one Austin resident to question just how seriously UT takes its latest public relations image as a good neighbor.

David Langenkamp, according to the Daily Texan, recently mailed pictures of eight houses moved by the University to the 2100 block of Chicon Street to UT President William Cunningham and to the local press.

Langenkamp described the houses to a Texan reporter as "eight dilapidated one-bedroom shacks with old rusted tin roofs, wooden construction and broken structure. Several of them have boards missing and on all of them, they say 'The University of Texas.' It was really irritating to see those things."

Blackland Neighborhood

A drive down Chicon St. confirms those assertions. All the houses are emblazoned with a red-stencilled warning, "UT PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING." They sit atop freshly poured concrete piers, which are spaced about 3 feet apart and placed under the floor joists and sills. Upon closer inspection, one can see that termite tunnels and dry rot have weakened the sills, which support the outer walls. Inside, light shines through cracks between the walls and the floors.

"People think UT gave us junk, trash," said Katherine Poole, a Blackland resident since 1965 who has long been involved in trying to save her neighborhood. "But they will be rehabilitated to nice houses."

The City has budgeted some money for the renovation - $150,000 for the 22 houses, or about $6,600 per house. The Blackland Neighborhood Association has also applied for other federal and state grants to mend the structures for use as transitional housing for the homeless, according to Holly Bell, another active Blackland resident.

The buildings will need all new electrical hook-ups and wiring, plumbing, gas and sewage hookups, and in many cases even new windows and doors. Doubtless the rusted tin roofs will need to be replaced, and insulation installed, before they can offer protection from the elements.

"There are people in the neighborhood who feel UT should have rehabilitated the houses," said Poole. But there are dozens of things UT should have done for the Blackland neighborhood over the past 10 years.

When Cunningham defends UT's investments in Sematech, he cites UT's obligation to perform "public service" for the people of the state. UT spent $12.3 million to buy buildings for Sematech, and rents it out for $1 per year. Clearly housing corporations, not people, is what UT has in mind when administrators speak of "public service."

History backs up this claim. In the early 1980s, the University began sneakily purchasing land east of I-35, using Anderson-Wormley real estate agents and forming its own bogus corporation. Even as UT's holdings grew, officials told Blackland residents they had no intention of moving south of Manor Road. Eventually the expansion plans became general knowledge. But the neighborhood refused to die quietly.

Many East Austinites had seen their homes bulldozed in the mid-1960s to make room for Disch-Faulk field under the guise of "urban renewal." Actually, the result amounted to urban removal.

Some people moved to the area bordered by Martin Luther King Boulevard on the south, Comal Street on the west, Manor Road on the north and Chicon Street on the east. This area, named Blackland for its rich, black soil, seemed safe until the real-estate agents began knocking on doors in the 1980s.

In fact, the original urban renewal plans called for demolishing houses in the Blackland neighborhood, all the way to Chestnut Street, four blocks to the east of Chicon. Only the lack of funding prevented the demise of the community in the name of the Great Society of the '60s.

Urban renewal did claim four other neighborhoods - including more than 400 acres - and displaced some 1,000 people.

Blackland Neighborhood

By 1982, the battlelines were firmly drawn. A former UT assistant instructor in governement and member of the Blackland Neighborhood Organization, K.C. Cerny, wrote in the Daily Texan that UT was paying "market value" for East Austin real estate, but market value meant property to the east of I-35 sold for as little as $1-per-square-foot, compared to West Campus prices of $25-per-square-foot.

The Austin City Council tried to stop UT's encroachment by forcing the University to request a zoning change before purchasing land, and hence be subjected to a public hearing. The Texas Legislature quashed the city's ruling with legislation forbidding cities from imposing zoning restrictions on state institutions.

Public pressure forced the University, the city and the Blackland Neighborhood Association to sign an agreement in January, 1984. The three groups signed a letter stating they recognized "the need for peaceful coexistence in assuring a smooth transition of the Blackland neighborhood from its present use, which is predominantly residential; to its future use, which will include a mix of residential and University campus usage."

Debate soon centered over the definition of the word "mix." For G. Charles Franklin, then-UT vice-president for business affairs, "mixed" meant that the areas to the east and south of Blackland would be residential and Blackland itself would be University-controlled.

The summer of 1988 brought demonstrations to the neighborhood, as the University demolished houses the city had deemed beyond renovation.

In July, protestors watched 12 cinder-block cottages crumble before the dozer blade. City officials said they considered most double-walled woord structures fit for renovation, and single-walled units were unrepairable and slated for destruction. Surely the cinder-block houses could have been saved.

Finally, in December, 1988, UT agreed to halt all land purchases at Leona St., eight blocks to the west of their original boundary for acquisitions. The agreeement gave the aforementioned 22 houses to the neighborhood for repairs. Residents would be allowed to remain in homes bought by the University until 1994 and UT agreed to help relocate residents.

Yet, for many, it's too late. Poole said many people died from the stress of the 10-year fight against UT. There were houses where the buildings Langenkamp referred to as "one-bedroom shacks" are now located.

Homes that Poole said were "much better houses." And much bigger houses. "The others had their own character," Poole said. She said, however, that the houses relocated on Chicon Street will become nice homes with the funds raised.

The city is negotiating to buy the property east of Leona Street from the University. UT owns the property under the houses moved to Chicon, as well as other parcels throughout the neighborhood.

Poole said if the city can't buy the land, the struggle will start anew in ten years. And as one Blackland resident told the Austin American-Statesman in June, 1983: "What occurs as UT slowly buys up any land that comes available is that the culture of the neighborhood is destroyed. Like a boa constrictor, it doesn't squeeze its victim to death. It just takes whatever space is given and keeps at it until it strangles its prey to death."

And though Blackland residents did prevent UT from devouring the entire 16-block area it originally hoped to acquire and were able to force the University to provide 22 houses for low-income and homeless Austinites, the community has suffered. Sturdy houses were turned to rubble.

The University still owns the land under the houses, and refuses to give up its power to gain more land through condemnation. Part of the reason UT stopped buying up land was the purchase of other tracts, including the old Villa Capri site and the 90-acre Montopolis Research Center where Sematech is located.

When the UT Regents regain their appetite for land, Blackland residents may once again find themselves fighting in the council chambers, the courts and the streets to hold onto their homes.

The question is, can the Blackland neighborhodd afford another victory like this one?