By: Emma Acosta, Estefania Espinosa and Benita Ozoude
As the sun goes down and the Texas summer heat finally begins to subside, the adults sit on their porches talking to neighbors, while the children run around and climb the jungle gyms of the central playground.
This seemingly peaceful community, Rosewood Courts, has become the subject of much controversy because of plans to redevelop the property. Residents face an uncertain future until the Austin City Council decides whether to grant historic status to the complex.
Rosewood Courts, between Chicon Street and Salina Street, opened in 1939 and was the first African-American public housing complex in the nation. The brown, boxy units were built on the site of Emancipation Park, where Juneteenth celebrations were held. Despite this rich history, the housing authority that oversees Rosewood Courts has plans to demolish and rebuild most of the complex.
“When you’re talking about destroying Rosewood Courts, now you are talking about the destruction of Black East Austin,” said Fred McGhee, head of Preserve Rosewood and urban historical anthropologist. “You’re basically saying that black lives and black history do not matter.”
However, many residents point out the desperate need for improvements on the aging buildings. The units suffer from outdated plumbing, deteriorating gas lines, steep and narrow stairwells, mildew, no central air conditioning and no clothes dryers.
“We need to move forward while honoring history and not leave the families there living in subpar conditions,” said Steve Witcher, resident of Rosewood Courts.
In a recent survey by UT’s Institute of Urban Policy Research, 45 percent of respondents said they felt they were pushed out of Austin. The data was collected from 100 African Americans who moved to nearby suburbs but continue to attend church services within Austin, revealing their close ties to the city.
“African Americans did not choose to leave Austin so much as they were compelled to leave by several structural forces — historical, economic, and governmental — that continued to create inequalities in their lives,” said Eric Tang, co-author of “Those Who Left: Austin’s Declining African American Population.”
In February, after much debate on the topic, City Council voted in favor of initiating the process for historic zoning, which would limit the housing authority's redevelopment plans. The city manager is expected to present options regarding the fate of Rosewood Courts by Aug. 18, after a previous June 9 deadline was extended.
District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, who sponsored a resolution in favor of preserving the complex, said they were waiting on a third party to survey the property.
“It was a bigger part to bite off than we expected,” Houston said. “So we just need a little more time for the people who are committed to this to finish their work.”
The start of what has become a point of contention among Austinites was in December 2012, when the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) decided to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because the application guidelines require collaboration with local leaders, residents and other stakeholders, HACA held 15 resident meetings and seven community meetings throughout 2013 and 2014.
Although the Rosewood Resident Council has expressed their support, acknowledging the housing authority’s effort to involve the community, some residents remain opposed to redevelopment.
Willie Savage, 65, has lived in Rosewood Courts for five years and has grown accustomed to his surroundings. He enjoys getting visits from volunteers of local churches and playing bingo or dominoes at the nearby center for senior citizens.
“This is the most convenient place in Austin,” Savage said. “We’re in the middle of everything and it makes this prime real estate. Well, it’s prime real estate to us, too.”
Savage, who wasn’t able to attend any meetings because they conflicted with doctor’s appointments, said he doesn’t want to be forced to leave the complex. While he wouldn’t mind wider doors for him to get around more easily with his wheelchair and oxygen tank, he worries about his future in the case of redevelopment.
“It’s disheartening to know that you don’t have no choice,” Savage said. “The options they give you, hell, there ain’t no telling where they’ll put us.”
HACA said a comprehensive plan will include relocation services, and tenants' right to return. Furthermore, official agreements will be written up by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and Austin’s Tenant’s Council to protect resident interests.
The discussion acquires new meaning against the backdrop of a significant decrease in Austin’s African American population. The Texas capital is the only major city in the U.S. to simultaneously experience rapid overall population growth and a decline in African American population.
The Queen of Rosewood
When asked if they would consider moving back, more respondents answered “yes” than those who said “no,” with some choosing “maybe.” Tang, assistant professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at UT, said these individuals suffered “social losses” as a result of the move.
“The sense of history, culture, and belonging that respondents feel for Austin neighborhoods in which they grew up and in which their families have lived for generations is irreplaceable,” Tang said.
For Rosewood Court residents, this “sense of rootedness” comes from a neighborhood of people who care about each other, such as Lola Stephens-Bell, owner of local restaurant Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food. Stephens-Bell feeds the homeless a few times a week, traveling on a bus designed for this purpose.
Adding further evidence to the importance of community, the survey also found respondents rated their neighbors in Austin more positively than their neighbors in the suburbs. Savage echoed this sentiment when he described Rosewood Courts.
“We have a little family here, all of us,” Savage said. “We know each other. We talk to each other, look out for each other.”