Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rainey Street: Gentrification and Changing Space by Chloe Sanchez

A relaxed, casual environment that is primarily outdoor dominates the bars on Rainey Street. To represent the culture of the street, I have juxtaposed hats and seating. Hats appear to be part of the fashion on Rainey Streeet, as patrons relax with friends on picnic tables and walk throughout the streets during social outings in downtown Austin.

In the last few decades, the city of Austin has grown from a small, alternative city to one with a global economy. Still, Austin strives to maintain a reputation for being cool, unique, and “weird” while balancing the growing pains associated with commercialization. The city’s expansion has brought land use changes, which have resulted in gentrification- a process where lower income residents in developing areas are displaced due to urban renewal and rising property values. The Rainey Street district, an area of downtown Austin now known for its bar scene, is one area that has seen these changes. While the bars on Rainey Street have been successful in creating a laid-back, friendly social atmosphere, the changes have come at a price. Changes in zoning, rising property values, and an evolving downtown scene have changed the Rainey Street district from a historic residential area to a commercialized entertainment space. This alternative use of residences as businesses also challenges the meaning of space.
The change in land use from residences to bars in the Rainey Street area came from a 2004 decision to change the zoning from residential to Central Business District. The purpose of this change was to attract the construction of a convention center, and since this has yet to happen, business owners have decided to use the space for entertainment purposes (Dunbar). The houses on Rainey Street were constructed between 1900 and 1924, and the area has been named a historic district (FindTheData). Although the intent of making the area a historic district was to preserve the area as a residential space, it has instead turned into an area for entertainment and tourism (Feit).
Factors about the Rainey Street district identified by the U.S. Census show why it is an attractive and convenient place for young people with no children to hang out. According to AmericanFactfinder by the U.S. Census, the tract that Rainey Street is located in has a higher number of residents than immediately surrounding areas, but a lower average number of people in each household. The average household size in the Rainey Street census tract is similar to that of other downtown areas, about 1.9 people, while the east and west side of the city have higher average household sizes up to 2.9 people. Similarly, the Rainey Street tract has a low child dependency ratio, similar to that of other downtown areas, compared to the east and west sides of the city. The bars were literally once used as houses, and the change in use of the space challenges our ideas of what a public bar, should look like, and how it should be used. The aesthetics and the built environment of the Rainey Street district affect the type of socialization that occurs at these establishments. While the bars on 6th Street are like fortresses, with a single wall separating the private bar from the street, the low fences and front yards of the Rainey Street bars give a more public and welcoming feeling. The homey feel of the street makes patrons feel relaxed, as if they are spending time at the home of a friend where both the indoor and outdoor spaces are used as one.
The usual boundary lines between public and private space are blurred because of the social integration between the street, the yard, and inside the bars. While the street feels free and fun, the area is heavily patrolled. Employees for each bar stand at the edge of the property, checking identification of every person that enters the business. In addition, these employees provide social control of the space, making sure guests are not behaving in a way they feel is inappropriate. Just like the private shopping malls discussed by Margaret Kohn in The Mauling of Public Space, the Rainey Street district has become a sort of “entertainment mecca” or vacation spot that “combines the pleasures of public life with the safety and familiarity of the private realm.” Any form of demonstration could easily be reported by bar owners as loitering, disturbing the peace, or harassing customers, which takes from the democratic value usually associated with a public street.
 The exclusivity of the Rainey Street district is seen further by the fact that most people appear to arrive in cars, unless they are residents of the high priced downtown living. I have observed that the Rainey Street patrons seem to be relatively young, appear to be affluent, and are mostly white. Although the population seems to be homogenous, the area still feels like a welcoming and relaxed place, although there is no denying that the area is gentrifying. As of now, the Rainey Street area has an appealing “gritty authenticity” (Zukin) that seems to be brought by the historical nature of the houses. Just like the city of Brooklyn, which Sharon Zukin describes as evolving into a “cool” place because of its urban renewal, pop culture, and trends, the Rainey Street district is clinging to its “cool factor” as the city of Austin changes (Lemon). In the case of Austin, the “coolness” associated with the alternative nature of the Rainey Street bars is what Austinites proudly describe as something that helps to “Keep Austin Weird.” As discussed by Joshua Long in Weird City, it is the commercialization of the very term that is a sign of the changing dynamic of the city, from a small “Creative city” to a top U.S. high-technology city.
The change in the use of the historical houses on Rainey Street seems to be just another step in the process of Austin’s transformation and integration to the global economy. It has been argued that Austin’s uniqueness cannot coexist with the commercialization and growth going on in the city today. For now, the Rainey Street district is both a popular spot for locals and tourists to visit, and also still a unique, “weird” part of Austin that has used old residences in a new way. At the same time, the future of Rainey Street and nearby residents is uncertain. New construction and gentrification in the area has the possibility of displacing those who have come to call the area home.

Dunbar, Wells. "City Hall Hustle: The Lure of Rainey Street, What Happens When a
Neighborhood Grows without Planning Forethought." Editorial. The Austin Chronicle 28
Jan. 2011: n. pag. Web. 02 July 2013.
Feit, Rachel. "The Ghost of Developers Past." Editorial. The Austin Chronicle 25 May 2012: n.
pag. Web. 02 July 2013. <
Find The Data:
Kohn, Margaret. Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. New York:
Routledge, 2004. Print.
Lemon, Robert: From class lecture on his definition of the “geography and urban ‘cool factor.’”
Long, Joshua. Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas. Austin:
University of Texas, 2010. Print.