expectations change as area does
Austin . d R Just about twice a year during the 1970s, as Israel Lopez grew up in his home on Vasquez Street in Southeast Austin, the front yard would flood with sewage. One Christmas Day in the early 1980s, he was not able to go outdoors until city workers cleaned up the mess, which the family blamed on decrepit city sewer lines.
His mother still lives in the house, which sits across the street from the weedy Montopolis Little League baseball fields — and Lopez bought a place of his own two doors down. The occasional flooding continued despite what he says were years of calls to the city to replace aging sewer pipes. So it was not much of a surprise to him one day this May when a pool of stinky water appeared in a storm outlet ditch by the ball fields.
“It smelled like dead fish,” said Lopez, 40, but he was dubious anything would be done.
As it happened, Stefan Wray and his wife, Pam Thompson, neighbors who had recently moved in as part of a larger demographic shake-up that has brought more whites and higherincome families to the area, walked by with two city officials whom they were persuading to support a proposed walking trail through a nearby trash-strewn creek. The city officials promptly directed city vehicles to suck away the water.
Wray and Thompson followed up with a slew of e-mails, and, in
a project that began in early June and is due to end by midAugust, the city is replacing nearly 1,200 feet of corroded concrete pipe, dating to 1957, at a cost of $112,000, said Steven Schrader, who manages a sewer engineering division at the Austin Water Utility.
The demand for the pipe overhaul is a microcosm of what some residents and city officials say is a change in environmental expectations, even if it’s a modest one, prompted by a combination of changing demographics and stepped-up engagement from City Hall. Nowhere else might the juxtaposition of old and new Austin, of environmentally neglected and environmentally hip, be so pronounced.
At the same time, the socioeconomic tension and the tincture of race have dripped into discussions of the area’s green aims, as the neighborhood mulls issues of who ought to set its environmental agenda.
On Wednesday, Montopolis residents will meet to decide whether to expand language in the neighborhood plan to encourage a network of trails and the use of open parkland.
Packed together in the neighborhood are old housing stock, some of it dilapidated, mobile homes and small, handsome new houses that look like something out of a new urbanist manual.
Those new homes are the Frontier at Montana, an ambitious city project that broke ground in 2006 and meant to be the first affordable housing neighborhood in the nation composed of homes that would use less energy than they would generate. That aim has failed — the city was new to the homebuilding business and finances didn’t work out, said Fred McGhee, a homebuilder who has been active in the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, and currently only three of the 60-odd homes in the neighborhood have solar panels, a crucial component of most zero net energy homes.
But even with the affordable housing component — which requires that homeowners in the new neighborhood make no more than 80 percent of median family income, or $59,050 for a family of four in Travis County — newcomers tend to be better off than their neighbors. And, unused to the feeling among many old-time East Austinites that they have been unheard by City Hall, they are more likely to demand city services.
While the surrounding neighborhood averages 43 percent of median family income, according to 2000 census data, the most recent available, the 63 homes at the Frontier at Montana neighborhood earn, on average, 52 percent of median family income, according to records with Austin Hous- ing Finance Corp.
The new neighborhood is also significantly whiter: Nine out of the 63 households, or 14 percent, identify themselves as white. According to the census data, 0.4 percent of residents in surrounding homes in the Montopolis area are white.
Across this part of East Austin, builders have raised flocks of houses, changing the population’s makeup in ways that might not be clear until the 2010 census is released.
“You have an influx of new residents coming in who are more environmentally aware and probably know of particular city programs and incentives they can use,” said Oscar Garza, an environmental compliance specialist with the city’s Watershed Protection Department and coordinator of the city’s East Austin Environmental Initiative, an outreach program that began in the 1990s. “They put more focus on environmental awareness, and that infuses that into the neighborhood.”
For decades, East Austinites felt trampled on environmental issues. The most famous example might be the residents’ reaction to the placement of the Holly Power Plant in a Hispanic neighborhood in the 1950s. East Austin has had its environmental successes, too, such as the staving off a fuel tank farm, the establishment of the Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, and the closing of the Holly plant in 2007.
Lately the city higher-ups have committed more money to East Austin projects.
Howard Lazarus, the city’s director of public works, compiled a recent report showing that in the 2009-11 fiscal years the city will have spent $47.9 million annually on East Austin public works projects. That is up from $25.7 million annually from 1998 to 2008.
And in the Montopolis neighborhood, the city is beginning to hand out door hangers that say, in English and Spanish: “Plastic bags hanging from the trees … Plastic bottles floating to the river … Broken glass littering your park ... Don’t trash Montopolis!”
That message, meant to ward off apathy, points to a larger issue: East Austinites are underrepresented at the ballot box, according to city demographer Ryan Robinson, and they don’t make phone calls to put pressure on City Council members, said McGhee.
“A lot of it has to do with who’s doing the asking, and as much or more is how it’s being asked,” he said.
As far as getting city services goes, “obviously there was a language barrier sometimes, and some of the folks don’t know what department to call,” Garza said. “They get frustrated, they quit calling, and the problem keeps going.”
One of the people now doing the asking is Wray, a 49-yearold who moved into the Frontier neighborhood in October and does communications work for an Austin public access channel. On a large private lot and on some public property, only a couple of hundred feet from his five-star energy-rated house, equipped with solar panels and a xeriscaped front yard, sits what he calls the “trash lagoon.”
“Standing there at the edge looking down into the mess, the tires, the garbage, felt like I was in a Third World country,” Wray said of a recent visit. In a space cut through by a tributary and shared with toads, deer, woodpeckers and hawks, a homeless encampment left a clearing littered, a rusted-out car sat sentinel, and tires were piled everywhere. “I wasn’t in the cool, green, clean, hip, high-tech Austin.”
He and some other Frontier at Montopolis residents are trying to build a walking trail through the area — they have set up a Facebook page aimed at improving the neighborhood and pressing the city into action. He and Thompson, a 59-year-old housecleaner, have long been civically engaged: They served as Democratic delegates at the past three state party conventions, he has served on the board of the Save Our Springs Alliance, and she has served on the board of the Save Barton Creek Association.
“It could be a great place for kids, but it’s really nasty,” Thompson said.
The trail proposal is part of a series of amendments to the neighborhood plan to be discussed Wednesday. The amendments are “positive changes” and are expected to pass, said Susana Almanza, the executive director of the East Austin environmental group People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources and the chairwoman of the Montopolis neighborhood contact team.
But she said she has had to spend some of her time moderating the aims of newcomers and massaging the feelings of longtime residents.
“Newcomers have to respect those who have been there generations as well,” Almanza said.
Some residents, such as Lopez, don’t want the trail proposal to detract from more pressing issues in Montopolis.“
Let’s fix our fields, our streets, our street signs and work on the issues at hand — not try to connect roads to those new homes with these trails,” said Lopez.
“These people just moved in, and I’m not going to let anyone who just moved in dictate what we do,” he said.
Residents pushing for the trail hope it can be a unifying project.
“The entire Montopolis tributary (to Carson Creek) watershed is in pretty bad shape from an environmental standpoint, and that, in part, is why we have started this trail project,” said Wray. “Because when you have a trail, you shed light on the pollution problems. What we’ve uncovered so far is only the tip of the iceberg, and that’s just with a few eyes watching it.”
The city is committing more money to East Austin and has almost doubled annual spending on public works projects in the area. Old, damaged sewer pipes are being replaced in Montopolis.