Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Gentrification of Rainey Street by Leena R. Vazirani

Gentrification, or the urban renewal of lower income neighborhoods, is the process of restoring run down areas by a wealthier class, resulting in the displacement of long time low-income residents.  As a born and raised Austinite, I’ve seen this phenomenon occurring throughout my hometown, and this is exactly what is happening at The Rainey Street Historical District in Austin, Texas. The Victorian style homes and bungalows on Rainey Street were originally developed in 1884 for middle class white families. As suburbanization moved them out of the downtown area to new suburbs, Mexican American families moved in for the desirable lower rents. The area remained a single-family residential area until it was rezoned as a Central Business District in 2004. This was the beginning of the redevelopment and gentrification of Rainey Street.[1]
Gone are most of the low-income families who couldn’t afford to keep up with the over inflated property taxes and rapidly rising rents. Property taxes are directly proportionate to property value. Given that property values skyrocketed as homes sold for around $400,000 each, many low-income earners couldn’t afford their property taxes and were displaced to other parts of town. From 2000 to 2010, the population in the area more than doubled from 2,386 to 5,512 residents even as old residents left.[2]
Present day Rainey Street is a mixed-use landscape. It is a small strip of bungalow-turned-bars, high-rise condos, food trailers and the remaining single-family residences situated on a two way residential street. As of March 2013, the city set up 31 “Pay to Park” meters on either side of the street and surrounding areas to improve mobility on the street and reduce congestion.[3] There are nearby parking lots as well as a resident who charges $5.00 to park in his backyard. The street is designed for walkability as most residential areas are. With their vintage style chairs, unique fencing, and even the choice of outdoor lighting, each bar on Rainey Street adds its own unique touch to the Austin feel. On a given summer night it is common to see people of differing ethnicities and ages socializing together in a very laid back setting and most importantly, having fun. Whether patrons are socializing outdoors, hula hooping at Lustre Pearl, playing a friendly game of ping pong, swinging in a hammock at Lucile’s, playing a friendly match of bean bag toss at Bungalow, or picking up food from one of the many food trailers, there is always positive activity and movement.  In the many times I have visited Rainey Street, I have never heard a single argument nor witnessed a fight. Instead, everyone maintains the easygoing vibe, which is unique in itself.
Typical patrons range in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties, which is similar to the demographic of those living in the immediate area. According to American Fact Finder, 18.3% of the 78701 zip code is composed of residents in the 25-29 year age group. The next largest group is composed of residents in the 30-34 year age range, which accounts for 14.9% of the zip code. This isn’t to say that Rainey is limited to a certain age group. Everyone is welcome on Rainey. For example, while visiting Craft Pride on a Sunday afternoon, I saw a little girl dancing to a local country rock band and drinking juice from her bottle on the back patio. Her grandfather supervised her from his chair as nearby patrons sipped on their beer and ate chicken bacon waffles. Anything and everything goes. Rainey is a very “come as you are” type of place. This is consistent with the Austin vibe. There is no specified dress code. Most tend to dress very casually in summer attire: t-shirts, jeans, cargo pants, summer dresses, tennis shoes and flip-flops. Dressy attire is acceptable as well, but considering that most people socialize outdoors and the area isn’t upscale in design, it is perfectly appropriate to come casual.
People who frequently visit and live on Rainey Street are typically Austenites, both local and Californian transplants, as well as tourists. One man I spoke with relocated from San Diego a year ago. In this short amount of time, he already refers to himself as an Austenite and calls Austin home. In speaking with him, I learned that he worked in the investment field of finance for a few years, but decided to relocate to Austin, as many do, for the cheaper cost of living. For what he was paying in rent and gas to live in California, he was able to move to downtown Austin and still live comfortably. He is now a regular to the Rainey Street area and is very content with his lifestyle.
All of these factors make the area more appealing and marketable, especially to young professionals in California. The urban luxury lifestyle of nearby high rises are marketed with the “live here, play here” appeal to this demographic.  Many people hear about the existence of Rainey Street by someone they know. In fact, each tourist I spoke with came to Rainey because a friend recommended it. This truly is the best form of marketing and it appears to be working. The cool factor of Rainey Street is the perfect setting for hungry real estate.
Though this has been a local hot spot and tourist attraction for the past few years, many developers and investors have other plans for this downtown prime real estate. The owner of Lustre Pearl, the first bar on Rainey, has chosen to sell her land and relocate. The building is going to be demolished as part of a plan to build another high-rise apartment complex.[4] This will be the third high-rise in the Historic District. These high rises will only further fuel the gentrification process as the remaining residents on the street are expected to have trouble keeping up with the inflated property taxes and rapidly rising rents.
With this trend occurring on Rainey Street, it’s uncertain to me how long it will remain a social venue for the local community. The appearance of Rainey Street has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. The neighborhood was a single-family residential area for over 100 years. In the past 7 years we can see the gentrification take place. High rises, bars, food trailers and parking meters have been added to its landscape. Foot traffic increased tremendously as businesses opened in the area.  Many families who have been there for years have left. The demographic changed from middle class white families, to low income working class Mexican Americans, to finally all ethnicities who can afford the lifestyle.            
With these changes occurring so rapidly in such a short period of time, I think it would be foolish to assume that Rainey Street will remain as we see it today. Even more so, I find it very interesting that it has only been a short 28 years that the Rainey Street has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, yet so much of its history is already gone.[5] What Rainey Street will look like in the next 10 years is anyone’s guess. Time will tell if it remains a historic district. My guess is that the area will continue to cash in on its cool factor for a while longer. It will re-gentrify again as businesses leave and real estate developers take over the land. The most important part is that somewhere in Austin, another hot spot will emerge for those of us who miss the vibe of the good old days when we used to hang out on Rainey Street.