I’m upset about white dudes doing all the talking, sooo… I’m going to say a few things. I just want to acknowledge that up front. (I’m also a white dude in case you somehow stumbled in here unawares.)
White people have a long history of loving places into oblivion. We loved Africa and the New World literally to death. We always mean well. (Do we really?) I’m not convinced we really do, but I am sure that we usually convince ourselves that we do. It makes it easier to keep going. So there’s that.
Sometimes it seems that we understand this on a certain level. We are willing to take a critical lens to history and confess the sins of the past, especially if those sins don’t affect us today and happened very far away. However, when it hits closer to home things can get much more uncomfortable. We are still loving places to death. It’s just that now it comes under labels like “development”, “gentrification”, “economic opportunity”, and others.
This came to the fore recently when I listened to a podcast about a place that I love, Waco History Podcast’s episode on East Waco. For those that don’t know or love Waco like I do, you may not be aware that the area known as East Waco (in at least some sense it is east of the Brazos River) has the highest concentration of African Americans in Waco. From Waco Drive to Baylor University’s McLane Stadium the population is 70-90% African-American. From Waco Drive to the river and north to Gholson Road the population is 50-70% African American according to census data (Source: https://www.policymap.com/).
So I was a bit upset when the podcast discussing the “past, present, and future of East Waco,” was dominated primarily by white dudes who love this place. They did interview Carla Dotson, the African-American Owner and Operator of Boardwalk on Elm, a food truck on Elm Avenue. I appreciated a lot of what she shared, but it felt like too little too late after sitting through four white guys talking about East Waco.
So if you’ll indulge me in the following you are probably either from Waco or you love where you live as much as I do and are interested in the way these things play out on the ground in local contexts… I suppose there are other reasons for you to care to read this, but those seem like the best ones.
I have no doubt that everyone on the podcast loves Waco and honestly wants the best for Waco. They have podcasts celebrating many of the cool things, businesses, and people in Waco. Some of those people have ridden in on the downtown boom related to the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ show Fixer Upper and the Magnolia Silos downtown that are attracting 30,000 visitors per week. Others were around long before this recent tourist influx and were part of the reason we fell in love with Waco and have made it our home.
This kind of growth is exciting, especially for a city like Waco that has felt pretty stagnant for decades. Even with an unusually high concentration of social services, charities, and non-profits working on it, the poverty rate in McLennan County has not changed dramatically for decades. The tornado in 1953 devastated the city and it never fully recovered. Things like the Branch Davidian standoff with federal authorities in 1993 and the more recent biker shooting at Twin Peaks in 2015 seem to always haunt the town. So I can understand people’s excitement about Waco finally reaching its potential and perhaps earning a reputation for something besides shootouts and standoffs.
I appreciate that the hosts of the podcast said some of the right things. They referenced a group of community members that City Center Waco has created to help advise and give input on development. They mentioned some of the issues in East Waco related to food deserts and transportation. I’m not suggesting that they are ignorant of these issues. They seem well-intentioned in highlighting the challenges as well as the good things happening. I just don’t think we need them to be the ones to mediate this information for us.
There were a few cringe-worthy quotes from the episode. Austin Meek said that there is “a way for new Waco to take advantage of old Waco.” I know he didn’t mean it the way it sounds, but it is how development often comes across to low-income neighborhoods. He also tried to address fears about gentrification by saying that it is “overblown” and that’s not what’s happening. He said that with the “development” of course property taxes will rise, but seemed to dismiss it as an issue.
This is exactly the problem with the way we love places to death. Rising property taxes isn’t gentrification in Meeks’ eyes, so it is a non-issue or just the price of developing an area and making it better. This kind of love really does hurt. Andrea Barefield, City Council Rep for District 1, was interviewed by KWBU about rising property taxes in the District she represents. “What happens to people [who] are on a fixed income? Because I can fix mine,” Barefield said. “What happens to those people [who] cannot?”
The question is what an actual plan would look like to deal with the reality of how “development” affects low-income people. The truth is that gentrification usually isn’t gentrification until it’s too late. People’s concerns and fears about it should be taken seriously and addressed from the perspective of those it will affect, not just the forward march of “progress.”
Meek also compared East Waco to East Austin at one point saying, “The east side of Austin is cool because it’s other.” Again, I want to give the benefit of the doubt, but out of the heart the mouth speaks. Referring to low-income, minority neighborhoods as “other” does not serve to build up and lift up the voices in that neighborhood.
When it came to the story of Paul Quinn College, they started with Nancy Grayson turning the abandoned buildings into Rappoport Academy. That’s a great part of the more recent story of East Waco, but starting there puts another white person front and center and gives short shrift to the 110 year history of a historic black college that most Wacoans know very little about!
God Bless Doreen Ravencroft! She’s a wonderful person who loves Waco and I think does listen to the community and try to serve them. She deserves credit in large part for making the Doris Miller Memorial happen. I participated in a committee with her to remember the 100th Anniversary of the Waco Horror when Jesse Washington was brutally lynched. She’s the real deal. That’s what made it a little awkward when the host asked her about her advice for the development of East Waco at the end of the podcast. Her answer was to listen to the community.
Perhaps, if they had heeded Doreen’s advice before recording the podcast they might have had the aforementioned Andrea Barefield on. They could have had Dr. Peaches Henry, President of the local NAACP. They could have asked Shirley Langston who runs Restoration Haven in the Estella Maxey housing project. They could have asked Ramona Curtis from the
Office of Community Engagement & Service at Baylor University. The Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce has a very nice website with contact information that is not hard to find!
If we really do love a place, especially as white dudes, then we should love it enough to know when to step aside and when to be silent. If we are not able to notice when we are doing this, then we need to ask ourselves whether we really love this place or our idea of what this place should be. White dudes have a history of imposing their ideas about the way things should be on others.
It seems hard to imagine, especially as a white dude, but the colonization of brown people is still present in our local politics. I’m not sure we will be able to truly love where we live until we are able to confess and wrestle with this reality. Inviting people more qualified to speak about East Waco on the next podcast would be a good start.