Austin moves toward preserving Mexican American Heritage through a Cultural District

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin is moving towards the formal creation of a cultural district to preserve and celebrate Mexican American heritage downtown.

A city memo out Friday details recommendations from city staff on how to officially create a district that “will best give honor and place-based testimony to this area’s rich Mexican American heritage.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, downtown Austin was home to thriving Mexican American communities.

Literature at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin explained that back in 1875, most Mexican Americans living in Austin lived near where Republic Square is today. City documents state that these working-class Mexican American families went on to live in the area bordered by Waller Creek to the West and to the south by the Colorado River; including the area which is currently the Rainey Street entertainment district.

The Rainey Street entertainment district in downtown Austin used to be home to a community of working-class Mexican American families. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The 1928 Plan in the city of Austin segregated minorities by limiting where they could access public services, pushing the Hispanic community to the area just north of the Colorado River and the African American Community to the area just north of that, literature at the MACC states.

A 2016 report commissioned by the city found that in the 1960s when I-35 was added to downtown Austin, the highway severed those Mexican American neighborhoods downtown from the communities in East Austin. Many Mexican American children in that area attended school at the Palm School, which closed in 1976.

An image of a portion of the painting “This is Austin- The History of Gentrification” by Mando “Tanner ” Martinez. Painting is at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

Paul Saldaña of the Save Palm School Coalition said his father and his siblings were students at the Palm School, as it was a school Mexican Americans in the area could attend.

“There’s a long history and legacy there, that was another reason people thought it would be a good area to do the district,” he said.

Saldaña has become familiar with the history of Mexican American heritage downtown.

“Republic Square Park used to be one of the only areas Mexican Americans were allowed to congregate in public,” he said.

Saldaña said he’s been part of an informal group that has been discussing ideas for this cultural district.

“We are certainly supportive of this,” he said of the new direction from the city.

Saldaña explained that Austin’s Black community has its own cultural district (known as Six Square), he said Austin’s LatinX community has been awaiting the chance to have one too.

Austin has created other districts that are focused specifically on culture, including the Red River Cultural District which was created in 2013, the East Sixth Street District which was created in 2004, and the Rainey Street Historic District/ Coalition which was formed in 1985. Rainey Steet was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

A photo from the Palm School in 1895. [Photo PICA_07382b], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.]

Saldaña expects that this Mexican American District would follow the model set up by the Austin’s Black Cultural District. He explained that part of the incentive for creating Mexican American and Black cultural districts is to recognize the people of color who are being displaced as the city grows and gentrifies.

“Because Austin has become so unaffordable that you are beginning to see Latino families move out,” Saldaña said.

“You’re seeing people starting to post photographic eulogies of places in Austin that used to be there for our Mexican American families,” he continued, citing the recent closures of several Mexican American owned businesses.

Saldaña believes the district will be important for native Austinites like himself and for newcomers to the city.

“I do know that folks value the diversity that makes up our community, I think that’s what appeals to people,” he said. He hopes the district will serve as a place where “those who are not from Austin, for them to be able to go to a part of our history as where we’ve been and where we need to go in the future.”

The 2010 Census found that around 35% of Austin’s population is Hispanic, and demographers estimate that the Hispanic population city will continue to grow. City analysis of demographic numbers shows that Hispanic families of every socio-economic status continue coming to Austin, but the areas where they are now moving to are not necessarily the same ones where Mexican Americans lived in Austin a century ago.

“Latinos represent the future economic landscape of our city and our community,” Saldaña said.

Plans for the district

The Mexican American Cultural District could include the Rainey Street/ Palm School District, it could also include the Fifth Street Mexican American Cultural Heritage Corridor, Saldaña said.

A photo of the Palm School during the 1920’s . [Photo C03746b], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.]

The possibility of this district was first highlighted in the Palm District Master Plan, which Austin’s council approved back in May. Since then, city staff has been working on the logistics for how to create an actual district there.

That resolution approved the creation of the Palm District, which includes the Palm School, Rainey Street, Fifth Street, the Mexican American Heritage Corridor, and the Austin convention center expansion.

Friday’s city memo says Austin is looking at how other cities, like Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Houston, have handled this process.

There’s a sense of urgency to get this district established soon.

As the memo notes, “the continued rapid growth of commercial property taxes and rent in Austin demonstrates a strong economic market, challenging Austin’s business community and specifically iconic, small, local businesses and cultural and historic assets with displacement and affordability realities.”

A photo of the Palm School from 1972. [Photo PICA-03346b], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Creating this district appears to come with challenges.

The memo highlighted that Austin “does not have a unified policy framework ” to do this. The memo notes the city has “gaps” in tools that will be needed to make this happen.

The city hopes to lean on already existing programs like Souly Austin to help create a merchant’s association to anchor the district.

City staff are also recommending the creation of an incentive program, to offer low-interest loans, tax incentives, and grants to offer to businesses as well as increasing the availability of affordable commercial spaces.

The memo also recommends that the council ensure zoning protections for cultural districts through the city’s rewrite of the land development code, including relaxed rules for site development for those in the district.

The city is also looking into applying for a district designation through the state of Texas. To do that, they will have to demonstrate art, historical, cultural, and natural heritage organizations in the district as well as a calculated return on investment for the district.

The city’s economic development department plans to hold meetings with the community and businesses about establishing this district in early 2020, the memo states.

A photo from the Palm School, undated. [Photo PICA-07386b], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

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