Another casualty of gentrification: when rising incomes mean less business
The changing fabric of America’s cities is stripping away culture and memories — as well as control, again, from Black communities who have been historically devalued.
“C’mon in, hun,” a man relaxing in a folding chair out front called as I rolled up.
Inside the small auto shop office, three or four people hovered over the desk — covered not with tools and parts, but with plastic bags of napkins, styrofoam plates, tubs of potato salad, a loaf of spongy white bread.
Ed — the owner and mechanic — had two questions, spoken consecutively:
I had come by days earlier after a loud banging noise emerged from my van, Bertie, as she shuddered to a stop in the middle of the street. Then she did it again. I pulled into the closest auto shop and upon hearing my problem, Ed immediately hopped into the driver’s seat and drove us a few blocks.
“She seems all right,” he told me then. “Keep an eye on her.”
Now I was back.
“Have you eaten today?” It was Ed’s second question. “We’ve got BBQ.”
Wednesday, as it turned out, was “BBQ day” at the shop. Every week, Ed pulled out the black charcoal smoker and piled it high with whatever meats were on sale that morning — turkey legs, pork necks, quarter chickens, ribs — and tended the feast between mechanical jobs, though the only one I saw was my own.
The shop stuck out, and not just because there was a semi-professional smoking operation being conducted under the tin-roofed carport.
With its faded sign, old-school feel and collection of neighborhood types sitting around in mismatched chairs, C&M Auto seemed dropped onto Chicon Street by a spaceship.
Really, it was everything else that had arrived like an alien invasion, transforming the once all-Black neighborhood into one of Austin’s newest destinations. Over the last 25 years, an entirely new world had been trucked in, one building material at a time.
As one of the last-standing bastions of the old guard, C&M had become more than an auto shop. It was a hangout. A refuge. A place to reclaim the old days; to sit around with beers and barbecue.
In the two Wednesdays I was there, I watched a parade of neighborhood folks — shop owners, neighbors, the mailman — drop by for a plate. Some would stay for hours.
“We don’t sell it,” Ed said. “We just give it away.”
Blocks away from trendy micro breweries and sandwich shops, where construction was new, and patrons were mostly white, the auto shop felt like an ode to a bygone era.
Ed’s parents, Carmen and Manuel — the C&M of C&M Auto — had opened it in 1977, to much different surroundings.
Then, an area that has since been categorized into neighborhoods bearing the names “Chestnut” and “Foster Heights” was simply known as the East Side; a boundary that extended east of I-35 from 6th St. to Manor Road, and was rooted mostly by Black families and Black-owned businesses: movie theaters and bbq restaurants, baptist churches and tiny venues emanating soul music, to hear the longtime Austin residents who now hang out at C&M tell it.
Lingering street art offers a glimpse into the culture that once thrived here. “East Austin Pride,” a nearby mural proclaims. A few blocks away, the George Washington Carver Museum, now dormant amidst Coronavirus, chronicles the history of Black Americans in the neighborhood and beyond.
“There was community here,” said Wayne, a former taxi driver who was nursing some stewed beans and greens when I met him.
While the area had Black roots dating from the end of the Civil War, when the French Legation began selling land to freed slaves, a seismic shift happened in 1928, when the city drew up a master plan calling for all Black residents to move to East Austin. This legally isolated Blacks from the rest of Austin’s white population. Segregated schools and parks were created in the area, even as Austin simultaneously cut off sewer lines and city services in other Black neighborhoods to hasten the change.
The burgeoning Black community adapted, fostering culture and connection.
But it also suffered, tremendously, from ongoing systemic racism.
Alienated for its minority population, East Austin was regarded as an eyesore by city officials.
“For a long time, this area was redlined,” Wayne said. “You couldn’t get a loan to spend money here.
“Highway 35 was like the Mason Dixon line.”
While the city strategically divested in Austin’s Black segregated East Side, it simultaneously used the area as a dumping ground.
“Anything you didn’t want, they were putting it here,” Wayne said. “Landfills, you name it.”
Drug dealing and crime flourished.
“This place was a ghetto,” Ed said. “Drug dealers were running the streets. It was crazy.”
Then another change happened. Sometime in the mid-90s, as Austin became trendier and more desirable, white families from started moving in from the coasts and other parts of the country.
“These families didn’t mind paying thousands more [than the previous market price], Wayne said. “It was still a deal to them.
“But it drove up the real estate prices for everyone.”
New businesses, suddenly able to obtain bank loans, proliferated. Tax rates sky rocketed. Black families left. The soul venues shuttered.
Most of those hanging out at C&M Auto once lived in the area, but can no longer afford to.
Some vestiges of the history remain — Baptist churches, a barber shop, Sam’s BBQ, a few blocks over. They stand firm, next to vacant lots, new construction, ultra-modern, five-story buildings.
The auto shop, too, endures like a memory; a sepia-tinged photo amidst digital transformation.
“All the original houses are gone,” Ed said. “Everything is gone.
“Now you’ve got all these condo buildings, all these fancy restaurants.”
Wayne shook his head.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “The city is investing now.”
Ed was calling.
My new carburetor had arrived to his shop, by mail. I’d bring Bertie for the switch the next day. A Wednesday.
“Now its barbecue day, remember,” Ed reminded me. “So come ready to eat.”
When I arrived at 9 a.m., the smoker was already in the carport, and Ed was piling it high. Inside the office, two propane gas burners held heaping pots of stewed beans and greens, and menudo. Ed, whose family hails from Mexico originally, worked years ago as a cook in a Mexican restaurant, where he claims he learned his ways.
“He can mechanic, he can BBQ, he does it all,” mused Ural, a C&M regular who became an assistant after the cab company he drove for went out of business amid Coronavirus shutdown.
Ed took over the shop in ’84, and the pride he takes in it is contagious — he was practically excited to work on a carbureted engine again, to tinker with a Chevy G20, one of which he owned back in the early 80s; a buttercream model nearly identical to mine.
But now, close to retirement age, he was trying to sell the property — the shop, and the adjacent liquor store covered in murals.
The rich nest egg he inherited felt different now. The neighborhood around him had mutated; an entirely new community, dropped in by alien invasion. The buildings looked different. The people, too.
“The people here, they don’t know us anymore,” he said.
“They bring their cars somewhere else.”
The smoker, now, was emanating drool-worthy scents.
“Is it time for a sample?” Ed asked, handing me a chuck of pork neck via tongs.
My carburetor was in. Bertie was purring.
“You’ve got a badass van now,” Ed chirped. “You’re ready to climb those god dang mountains.”
Soon, perhaps, this relic of a place would disappear, too, following the long arc of neighborhood change. Burying yet another piece of history.
Ed was ready for it. Those in the mismatched chairs out front, I wasn’t so sure.
“Where will people go for their bbq??” I asked.
Ed winked. “That’s their problem,” he joked.
Just then Ural laughed.
“If we find out where you are,” he said, “you know we’ll be coming.”