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The fight for Rosewood Courts

How to save African-American history in East Austin

On the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, Dr. Fred McGhee and I sit in an Austin, Texas, coffee shop just down the street from the first African-American housing project in our nation’s history: Rosewood Courts. McGhee, surrounded by young professionals, artists, and students nursing single-origin coffee and Topo Chicos, is explaining to me how he became so deeply invested in preserving this public housing complex in East Austin.

The population boom that brought those professionals, artists, and students here has created a demand for density and housing that’s redefining the neighborhood. The infamous 1928 master plan that encouraged city leaders to redline black residents into East Austin laid the groundwork for the current situation, as the city disinvested in the area and African-American residents who could afford to do so left East Austin for the suburbs. Today, homes once belonging to black lawyers, professors, doctors, and families are now available for cheap and are being razed by the block.

That’s the fate McGhee—who describes himself as an archaeologist, green builder, and raconteur—is hoping to avoid for Rosewood Courts. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin, which owns Rosewood, would like to redevelop the site into a denser complex with a mix of income levels and some homes for sale.

The one- and two-story block buildings that circle Rosewood’s cul-de-sac house 124 low-income apartments (some of the original 130 units have been converted into offices). The sloping corner lot, broken up by retaining walls and stairwells, is full of bright lawns, mature trees, umbrella-shaped clotheslines.

Other than gabled and shingled roofs atop the original flat slabs, and the aluminum replacements for the original wooden screens and steel windows, the buildings look very much as they did when built in 1938. Only 15 of these original units would be spared in the housing authority’s new vision for Rosewood.

That proposal was enough to push McGhee into action. He authored a petition to list Rosewood Courts on the National Register of Historic Places; its sister complex, Santa Rita Courts, which McGhee was also involved with preserving, is already listed. That the two public housing complexes represent important history is undisputed—they’re the first housing projects built under the U.S. Housing Act of 1937; they represent the legacy of the New Deal; and they have ties to Lyndon B. Johnson, who at the time was a congressman representing Austin.

"If you look at the criteria" for historic designation, "it not only meets that criteria, it exceeds it," says Alberta Phillips, an Austin American-Statesman columnist who has been writing about the gentrification of East Austin for years.

But community organizations, local columnists, city councilmembers, and residents dispute which parts of Rosewood Courts are historic. McGhee takes the widest view possible, arguing that everything from the dirt beneath the complex—once the site of a black-owned park established in 1907 for Juneteenth celebrations—to the facades of the buildings and the people and events associated with them are historic.

The housing authority would rather limit the petition to the site’s ties to significant people and events, making it less likely to interfere with redevelopment efforts. The fight over the scope of the petition is more than technical bickering. It’s a proxy for competing visions of Rosewood and the future of East Austin: preservation or unfettered redevelopment.

This isn’t the first time this site has seen such upheaval. The land where Rosewood stands, purchased at the turn of the 20th century by former slaves and their descendants as a place to celebrate emancipation, was seized by the city in 1938 through eminent domain. In passing the ordinance rezoning Emancipation Park, the Austin City Council suspended its own rules to complete the required three readings in quick succession and with no discussion—a move that still feels callous more than 75 years later. Only once it was meaningless did the city council accept residents’ petition for the park to be spared.

With $500,000 available from the 1937 Housing Act, LBJ campaigned in a radio address for the city to pass bonds financing the remainder of three proposed housing projects: Santa Rita Courts for those of Mexican descent, Rosewood Courts for black residents, and Chalmers Courts for white residents. All three are now considered part of East Austin, but each was built in keeping with the segregation of the time, with Chalmers the closest to downtown. Emancipation Park was chosen as the site for Rosewood because it was central to the black community. Santa Rita and Rosewood started construction on November 17, 1938.

A group of black children watching a youth prepare to dive from the diving board into the public pool at Rosewood Park, 1938.
Courtesy of the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

McGhee’s petition to list Rosewood on the National Register goes beyond this agreed-upon history. In 2007, McGhee authored a petition with the housing authority that earned Santa Rita Courts’s 40 original units a spot on the National Register for ties to significant people and events. The housing authority would like a similar petition for Rosewood, but McGhee now views his work on Santa Rita as a compromise—trading what he saw as the complex’s full history for the housing authority’s cooperation.

While Santa Rita Courts wasn’t in the path of redevelopment, Rosewood’s plight has made McGhee more ambitious. His initial petition for Rosewood included all 130 units built on the site by 1941, and sought to link the style of the buildings to Bauhaus architecture, German methods of organizing open space, European public housing, and the International Style.

When that didn’t find support from entities reviewing the petition, his response was to aim higher, adding archaeology to the listing criteria. At the beginning, McGhee says, he suggested that he’d be willing to talk about scaling back the petition in return for the promise of saving more buildings from demolition. "Now, my current position is," he says, "we’re saving all of it."

"So far, the city is failing terribly as far as its historical preservation in East Austin," says Phillips.

Of the 600 or so landmarks recognized by the city, according to Phillips, only 40 or 41 can be said to represent the history of Austin’s black community. Only 13 represent the history of the Latino community. A skew in whose history is preserved doesn’t make Austin an outlier, however.

Of the approximately 900,000 entries on the National Register, only 8 percent reflect the stories of women and minorities. Only 3 percent of the National Park System’s 2,500 National Historic Landmarks represent women and minorities.

"It's a huge disparity in the national inventory," says Brent Leggs, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "There needs to be more intention in listing places that represent the nation’s diversity."

"For decades, many voices weren't represented within the traditional boundaries of historic preservation," Leggs says. "The movement needs to do a better job of telling the stories of diverse communities."

The front doors of two units next to each other at Rosewood Courts.

Contributing to the imbalance are assumptions about what qualifies as historic, according to Dr. Andrea Roberts. Roberts is a community planner and preservationist who is part of a new initiative on race, gender, and the built environment at the University of Texas at Austin architecture school.

Historic preservation relies heavily on paper trails and ties to wealthy or political figures, and favors buildings that are structurally whole and well-kept. All of which are challenges for communities with marginalized stories tied up in oral histories, rituals, or tradition.

A relatively early example of Austin’s black history being documented came during the integration of the city’s schools. Members of the local chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1970 published A Pictorial History Of Austin, Travis County, Texas' Black Community, 1839-1920.

The book opens with a poem from prominent Austin historian Ada Simond, "Remembering Things Past," that speaks to how black residents had to defend their role in building the city and contributing to its history as just as valuable as their white counterparts’. The poem concludes:

… you see your folks hep build this town

right long with theirs …

your roots run deep right here,

and all over this place.

you belong right where you’re at,

your roots are in this ground,

they drink from the waters of the river

and all these creeks.

your sweat and tears is mixed in the mortar

in them buildings,

in the pavement on the streets.

your blood is in the red you see in every flag they fly.

The tools that could help save East Austin’s black history, rehab the area’s aging homes, and ease the property tax burdens of its residents, allowing more members of the community to stay in place, have been around for decades. Initiatives, studies, and plans for the area all warned of the threats and recommended work be done on preservation. That didn’t happen, and the 20.5 percent increase in Austin’s overall population from 2000 to 2010 was accompanied by a 5.4 percent drop in the city’s black population.

Officially, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin supports the listing of Rosewood Courts on the National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A and B, the sections that deal with significant events and persons, respectively. McGhee’s petition faces an uphill battle with his addition of Criterion C, which tests whether a property represents a style or work worth saving, and Criterion D, which covers archaeology.

McGhee’s inclusion of archaeology in the petition is partly based on housing projects in other places—in these cases, built on known cemeteries—where human remains were found during demolition, and the possibility that remnants of early African-American domestic life and the homes cleared to make way for Rosewood could be beneath the site. This section is a late addition to the petition, coming only after his initial draft was rejected over his attempt to link Rosewood and the International Style of architecture.

Children playing at Downs Mabson Field at Rosewood Park. All of the Negro League teams, including the Austin Black Senators, and legends, such as Satchel Paige, played on this field. 1959.
Courtesy of the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

In McGhee’s eyes, getting Rosewood’s architecture recognized as significant would help proactively define what makes the buildings historic instead of leaving that up to those who want to tear them down. "I’ve developed a counternarrative," he says. "I think that’s the job of an advocate."

This is his way of applying pressure on the housing authority to preserve more of the property, but ultimately, even if he got everything he wanted, it wouldn’t stop the housing authority from following through with its plans. Listing on the National Register by itself can’t stop Rosewood from being demolished—or even being redeveloped beyond recognition. The particulars of Rosewood’s future will be negotiated between the housing authority and the city.

While city commissions can make recommendations about structures that are listed on the National Register or located in a national historic district, the city has much more control over properties with local historic zoning, whether through landmark status or local historic districts. The housing authority recognizes that power, warning that local historic zoning that requires full preservation and rehab could result in up to a third fewer units at the redeveloped Rosewood.

That figure has been challenged, but McGhee’s own concept of Rosewood—renovated to passive house standards, which specify methods such as insulation and airtightness to maintain a comfortable environment and drastically reduce energy consumption—would result in many fewer units, too.

The block building style of Rosewood means the walls can’t be easily moved to reconfigure the small apartments, there’s no drywall to hang items from the walls, and the buildings are regularly compared to barracks. But they’ve lasted more than 75 years relatively intact.

"This is a community asset," McGhee says. "There are ways to explore renovation there that the housing authority hasn’t explored."

Phillips has a term for what’s going on in East Austin: predatory redevelopment. "Because it was predatory that there were no efforts to identify these things going on," she says of structures with historical significance lost in the midst of the land rush.

"There has been for some time a double standard," Phillips says of preservation decisions in East Austin, particularly in the case of Rosewood, compared to the rest of the city. The central question should be: Is this property historic? "Instead, when it comes to properties on the east side, the question is ‘What is the redevelopment value?’" Phillips says. "The historic question gets lost."

The city’s demolition process represents another bottleneck for preservation. The historic preservation officer, Steve Sadowsky, reviews any demolition application for properties over 40 years old and can administratively approve permits without any other oversight.

This system can allow significant places to be overlooked, their historic value proven too late. That’s what happened earlier this year with the demolition of the abandoned former home of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, a longstanding black congregation in East Austin. The church’s cornerstones, one of which is more than 100 years old, were later rescued from the rubble.

The blowback, from members of the city council and the community, pushed Sadowsky to channel almost all demolition permits for buildings that might be historic to the Historic Landmark Commission, creating bloated agendas and long meetings. At its meeting this past October, the commission had more than 40 demolition permits up for consideration.

Councilmember Ora Houston asked before the commission’s September meeting that all demolition permits in East Austin, part of which is in her district, be postponed. But postponement isn’t a solution. A demolition permit that sits for more than 75 days after the commission could have taken action is automatically granted. That timeframe lengthens to 180 days for properties in historic districts, but demolition is eventually granted nonetheless.

The city is close to approving a new East Austin Historic Survey designed to provide background and context on decisions such as whether to grant demolition permits. The area’s previous historic survey was completed in 2000, but the new study is supposed to include more detail on the properties within its boundary, which is either a promising sign for the new tool or an addition to the city’s failures.

"I think it's better it's already more comprehensive," Phillips says. "It shows you how poorly the city has done in identifying these things."

Advocates hope the new East Austin Historic Survey can lead to the creation of local historic districts in this part of the city. Local historic districts allow neighborhoods to decide the essential elements of neighborhood character and impose design standards on historic structures and new construction.

"The strongest powers we have relate to local historic districts," says Mary Jo Galindo, chair of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission. There are only three such districts in the city, but that’s not for a lack of trying. "We set a really high bar," Galindo says about Austin’s process for creating local historic districts. "It’s just very difficult. It’s very expensive."

Days after I spoke with Galindo, the Historic Landmark Commission considered a local historic district application for Aldridge Place—in Central Austin just south of Hyde Park, one of Austin’s local historic districts—that Sadowsky said had the highest level of neighborhood support he’s ever seen. Of the three-quarters who responded, 95 percent of affected property owners supported the district’s creation.

Though that’s far above the required 51 percent approval benchmark, one of the two nay voters, Commissioner Arif Panju, cited the response rate as a reason for denying the application. Panju views local historic districts as fundamentally coercive and says property owners should be able to opt out of the restrictions.

Discounting what an opt-out would do to the efficacy of historic districts (if anyone can opt out, who would follow the design standards if they got in the way?), there’s no momentum behind the idea of changing how they work. That means local historic districts face the impossibly high bar of unanimous consent to make it past the property rights and development faction of the Historic Landmark Commission—not to mention the planning board and city council. Panju suggests that Austin should implement voluntary forms of preservation, such as facade easements, but like the opt-out, this idea is nowhere close to becoming reality.

Historic Landmark Commission members serve the same terms as the city councilmembers who appoint them, and Panju’s time on the Historic Landmark Commission is coming to an end. But there remain commissioners who are receptive to arguments about design standards being too restrictive, if affordable housing and landmarks can coexist, and hypothetical alternatives to city-designated preservation. So while the landmark designation process is derided as being too slow to save an area as comprehensive as a neighborhood, local historic districts look nearly impossible to create.

Wealthy, largely intact neighborhoods have the luxury of time to go back to the drawing board, come back through the process, or look for other solutions, all without risking too much. Even with the head start provided by a historic survey, neighborhoods in East Austin that arguably should be preserved start from behind in the race to keep up with the loss of historic structures. The survey could already be outdated by the time a local historic district application can be submitted or preservation tools are amended or created to appease factions.

Where McGhee’s petition and vocal advocacy have been successful is in drawing attention to Rosewood. While his petition seems unlikely to prevail, the city and members of the community have stepped in to explore alternatives that preserve more of the property but still allow the housing authority to meet its goals.

In April, City Councilmember Houston helped organize a listening session where residents and interested members of the community could talk through their concerns about Rosewood’s future. That first meeting eventually led to a working group that commissioned a study, paid for with $15,000 from the housing authority, on what the costs would be to rehab Rosewood’s existing buildings, how that would work, and how many units could be saved if that work was done.

"That first meeting was to kind of reset where we were," Houston says. "It had gotten so contentious. We met together and said ‘We aren’t going to bring up old problems.’ The purpose was to see if the housing authority, the folks interested in preservation, and the people who live in Rosewood could put forth a petition that we all agreed upon."

The study should be presented sometime in November. Once it’s been reviewed by those interested, the cost estimates can be used to make a better determination of how many buildings can be saved. In the meantime, the housing authority is participating in HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which would allow it to use private debt and equity to finance improvements.

"People in East Austin believe in the American Dream," Houston says. Part of that dream is homeownership and building wealth. "We couldn’t live anywhere we wanted to," she says of the days when segregation was enshrined in the city’s master plan. Now that it’s possible for longtime residents to sell their quickly appreciating homes and move somewhere else, it’s only understandable that some would take advantage.

But that doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to forget the history of East Austin’s black residents. "How do we as a city find the right balance of the history of people who came before and the history of people moving here now?" Houston asks. "Regardless of who lives in Harlem, I need to know the Apollo is there."

There are silver linings around the city’s failures in East Austin. The attention brought by the rapid pace of demolition is also bringing information about preservation to the forefront and might end up saving historic properties. The city itself is being more responsive, Houston says. "I think the staff is trying, the city council is trying, citizens are trying."

Greater preservation certainly isn’t a forgone conclusion. There’s still pressure for more density and housing. The processes for attaining landmark designation or creating a local historic district are still tough to navigate and politically fraught. There’s a spot in East Austin, Houston says, where a single owner has bought up so many properties on the same street that neighbors couldn’t successfully petition for changes to the development plan even if they wanted to. "How do you allow a part of your town to be colonized?"

Against that backdrop, it can be hard to see how preservation ever catches up with the demolitions or how the balance Houston talks about is achieved.

"We just keep fighting," she says. "Sometimes, when I think about it, I tear up. It’s a concrete example of man’s inhumanity to mankind because of greed."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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