Found: A Local Monument

East Avenue 1960

So, one of the things I learned while reading Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso is that Apache/Dene historians create meaning from places by answering some basic questions:

What happened here? Who was involved? What was it like? Why should it matter?

I wanted to practice answering these questions using something from the landscape I inhabit. “Even an unassuming rock can tell a story,” I thought to myself.  And so I looked around my neighborhood. I finally found something and it was much bigger than a humble rock. It was a monument hidden in plain sight!

This is my story about a place called I-35.

One day a man named President Eisenhower had a dream: to build a highway system all across the land. It was a complicated endeavor but he eventually pulled it off and near the end of his days he decided:

More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one (the interstate highway system) would change the face of America.

True words. I know many people think that the unbridled commerce these roads brought was a good thing. However, I have to wonder if they are the same people who think unbridled plastic surgery is a good thing, too.

The part of Eisenhower’s highway system that travels through Austin has a name: I-35. It also has a birthday: May 29, 1962. This date makes I-35 a Gemini, the sign of the twins. Oddly enough, it is an appropriate sign because I-35 cuts Austin right through the middle making two cities out of one.

To the west is the hill country where the soil barely dusts the light colored granite and limestone bedrock. To the east is the prairie with rich deep soil. Two quite distinct ecosystems.

This difference also extends to the human population.

When I first started thinking of moving to Austin my boyfriend at the time suggested I use the services of an apartment hunter. I thought it might be a handy way to get a quick tour of the city so I agreed.

Before I even hopped into her car, the hunter told me in no uncertain terms that we would not be looking at any properties east of I-35 because that was the “wrong side of the tracks.” Over and over again I heard people repeat the idea that the east side was somehow bad and ought to be avoided.

Eventually, I came to understand the meaning hidden in those words. This was my first experience of whistle dog politics. This is how it works: the speaker says something that sounds a bit like background noise to most people but to those clued into racial code words the phrase carries great meaning. The apartment hunter and all those other people were really saying: the hill country was for white and/or privileged people; the east side was for everybody else.

Two quite distinct ecosystems.

Separate and not equal. Hmm … that sounds like the kind of thing you’d read about in a history book.

Talk about cognitive dissonance. I thought Austin was the sweet and gentle city in Texas. I kind of hoped that this actual physical segregation was the result of some bizarre accident of fate.

Apparently not. City planners in the 1920s fully intended East Austin to be a “Negro” District. Please fasten your seat belt as we zip forward in time. The 30s come and go. 40s. 50s. Time passes. Nothing much changes.

Then comes the 1960s. The white supremacists of the day probably didn’t have to speak in code like they do in the 2000s although I’d bet they were probably starting to feel a little bit anxious. First, there was that woman who refused to give up her bus seat. Then there was that trouble in Greensboro followed by the Freedom Riders. Where was the country headed? When the news came that funding was available to build an interstate highway someone must have heard a whisper of hope in the whirlwind. What if they turned East Avenue into I-35? After all,

Good fences make good neighbors … don’t they?

All this matters today because TXDOT wants public input into making some changes to this road. Maybe this time they will hear more than one point of view. I hope they can recognize this as an opportunity to stop biggering and biggering the roads. We really don’t need more traffic. We need to get cars OFF the road and start moving away from fossil fuel dependence.

This is what East Avenue looks like today

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