AUSTIN: Anti-Gentrification Organizers and Community Win First Round of Fight Against Arts District

By Ed Dalton

January 1, 2019 was supposed to mark the opening of Presidium Group’s Riverside Arts District, located in the heart of the working class neighborhood of Riverside in central east Austin. Thanks to the poor planning of developers and the resistance of community members alongside local anti-gentrification organizers, the district’s opening has been delayed six months or more.

The Presidium Group developers and their primary collaborators, the Austin Creative Alliance, have been working hard for months to thinly veil mass displacement with their Riverside Arts District. In response, revolutionary community organization Defend Our Hoodz (Defiende el Barrio) has put up a tireless struggle against the project and called for a boycott of the arts district.

This past November, the Presidium Group, Austin Creative Alliance, and sell-out arts groups like Almost Real Things and Pump Project put up a tent at 1600 Pleasant Valley Road to host arts events. Every event held there was protested and disrupted by the people of the neighborhood and the activists who led them, at times with violent resistance in the face of violent displacement.

In an attempt to ignore their numerous critics, the developers have only admitted that the city has expressed concerns about the tent’s ability to withstand strong winds, and consequently deemed the project unsafe.

Nonetheless, Defend Our Hoodz is correct to celebrate the first victory in the opening salvo of a protracted struggle. It was their confrontational tactics and committed organizing that pressured the city to pay attention in the first place.

The Presidium Group owns the Quad apartments, a complex already organized against the slum-like conditions imposed on working-class tenants. This struggle has resulted in arrests of activists, confrontations with management, and targeted property destruction carried out by militants in support of the movement.

The first meeting held by developers back in April 2018 was disrupted by Defend Our Hoodz and other local groups to such a degree that the developers in attendance, as well as sell-out “community activist” and failed politician Susana Almanza, were exposed, confronted, and kicked out.

The artists who were duped into signing onto the arts district complained of being unable to afford rents where they were formerly located. They seem to be unaware of how big real estate investors use artists and the image of art-friendly cities to displace existing communities.

First the developers bring in artists, then the wealthier professionals who in turn displace the artists. Both collaborators with and victims of gentrification, artists must choose a side. Their victimization is real and made inevitable by their initial collaborations with gentrifiers.

Presidium and developers in general have made good use of this contradiction by offering lower rents to artists, which distracts onlookers from their overall plans of mass displacement. In a recent article by the liberal-bourgeois Austin Chronicle, Daryl O’Neal of Sun Radio, one of the slated tenants of the so-called arts district, was quoted stating that the developers had offered him half the rent he was paying at their previous location.

Developers hand out incentives for their unscrupulous artist collaborators, meanwhile tenants are denied decent living conditions and robbed of promised monetary incentives for re-signing their leases. As a statement on the DOH Facebook page bluntly said of Sun Radio, “thanks to the Presidium Group developers offering them a massively discounted rent. Meanwhile working-class Riverside residents keep getting rent hikes. Screw those sellouts and their cheesy hippie dad music.”

Like the rest of the community, the only chance tenants have to stay in their homes comes down to uniting to fight gentrification. Developers see artists as they see workers—a disposable commodity.

For art to have any meaning beyond this commodification, it must serve the people. This means artists must take their place in the class struggle by siding with the people against displacement.

In heated struggles against evictions, poverty, and displacement, a vacant lot (like the one which held the pop-up art tent) is never simply a vacant lot. It is transformed into a trench of combat. While any community attempt to make use of derelict space is met with police repression, gentrifiers have free reign to exploit blight.

Riverside as a whole has become a trench of combat as resistance to gentrification heats up and new methods of fighting are introduced. These tactics consciously break with the old ideas of liberals who insist on petitioning the city as the only option.

Riverside is worth defending. It is the last holdout close to downtown which maintains a principally working-class character. For these same reasons, it is prized by the vultures of gentrification, the money behind them, and the influx of mostly white, wealthy invaders.

The first round in the battle for the neighborhood has been won by the anti-gentrification movement, but the battle is not over. New building plans for the Riverside Arts District have been released to the public, even as Almost Real Things retreats across the river and nurses its wounds.

Below is a timeline of the struggle against the ‘Domain on Riverside’, the developers, the apartment managers, and the artist sellouts: