Why These Murals Matter
There has been some commotion here in East Austin recently regarding some wall murals that have been painted over. Several people have asked me what the story is, so I'm writing this short blog to fill in some gaps for people trying to understand what’s going on, and why it matters for our growing and changing city. I don’t have all the details, know all the answers, or have the best solutions, but I’m trying to be a good listener to our community and be informed and involved in loving ways. Hope this is helpful for you.
Across the street from the building where our church meets (at 12th and Chicon), there were two wall murals that were iconic for the East Austin community. One of them featured the faces of several black musicians like Michael Jackson, Tupac, Prince, and Bob Marley. The other depicted a pregnant black woman and contact information for an organization called Mama Sana Vibrant Woman that focuses on "issues affecting mothers of color in Austin."
Recently, new building owners and business owners have had those murals painted over, and the community has responded with a lot of disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak. Both walls have been tagged with graffiti and messages of disapproval, anger, and a call to restore the original murals.
There has been a lot of response to this, and you can follow some of the news reports about it here:
WHY ARE PEOPLE SO UPSET?
History – East Austin was once primarily an African American community, originally set aside in Austin’s 1928 city plan as a segregated zone for African Americans. Over time, the community grew in positive and negative ways. Schools, theaters, libraries, and restaurants were built and established. 12th and Chicon became a hub for the black business district, but also drew a lot of criminal activity as well. There was good and bad. 12th and Chicon became the corner for drugs, prostitution, and gang activity. It was a rough place to live, and the city did little to nothing to care for the black community there for decades, which made a hard road to success for residents. As the city grew, the process of gentrification began, and the eastside became a potential location to spread new businesses and build new houses, slowly forcing the black community out as property value increased.
Today – The community has been going through gentrification for a long time, though in the past few years the process has become more rapid and aggressive. Large companies are buying more and more buildings, older businesses are closing down and moving out, and long-time residents are being displaced as investors are buying up houses and re-modeling them. It is a painful process for the black community to originally be told, “You need to go live on the eastside,” during a time when it was an undesirable place to live, and then years later be forced out as the eastside became more desireable with city growth and development. Fatima Mann, who is the executive director of Counter Balance: ATX, said,
“People who are seventh generation Austinites are having to move to Round Rock because they can’t afford to live here any more, and most of the seventh generation people here are black and brown.”
So when two murals featuring African American faces got painted over, it feels like a vivid message that the black community is not only being displaced, but their culture and legacy is being erased. The mural featuring the musicians was actually painted over with white paint, which only exacerbated that feeling. Chris Rogers, the artist who did the mural featuring black musicians, said in a recent interview with CBS Austin,
“It's a community with a rich history that's been displaced and the painting [over] of that mural, in particular white of all colors, was just a smack in the face.”
For the black community in East Austin, these murals coming down means being kicked out and erased from a community that they have built, and was once their livelihood. This is why there is so much pushback from the community, and so much desire to see those murals restored.
HOW CAN WE LOVE OUR NEIGHBORS?
This question is particularly addressed to Christians living in Austin, especially on the eastside, and to members of our church in particular. Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:26-40). Our love for God should truly overflow into a love for our neighbors, especially those who have faced oppression and are overlooked by those with power in the world. Here are 3 simple ways to love our neighbors in the midst of everything going on here:
1. PRAY – Pray for those who are hurt, especially our black neighbors here. Pray for the artists whose work was taken down. Pray for business owners and leaders to be more considerate of the community and respond in loving and sensitive ways to community pushback.
2. LISTEN AND LEARN – Check out the news articles, talk to long-time residents around here, and listen to the black community and try to understand how they feel. Spend time in local businesses and see what you learn. Take time to consider why murals like these are so significant, and why it’s worth fighting for their preservation and restoration.
3. GET INVOLVED – Two organizations that you can connect with to be involved in ongoing meetings and discussions about next steps are East 12th Street Merchant’s Assocation and Six Square. These organizations have been hosting some of the community meetings, and will likely be the decision makers for what happens with these murals. Show up to meetings and be a part of the response!
Seeing as how this situation has left a lot of people hurt, it is an opportunity for us to show the love and grace of God to those people by walking alongside them with loving compassion and prayerful engagement.