AUSTIN, Texas — We don’t yet know when President Obama will touch down in Austin this week. We do know he’ll be in town to shake hands at a Democratic fundraiser and provide the opening keynote for SXSW Interactive on Friday. We also know Michelle Obama will deliver a keynote address to SXSW Music the following Wednesday.
We don’t know exactly when they’re coming, but we do know what they’ll find when they land: a microcosm of the challenges facing an America to which they are preparing to hand over the reins.
None of the “growing pains” this city has experienced in the last two decades — the Austin-Round Rock area’s population ballooned by more than 35 percent between 2000 and 2010 — are unique. They’re as emblematic of the state of our union as the newly declared taco war with San Antonio is to Austin’s vulnerable (yet delicious) psyche.
The president will run into one pain point — literally — before he makes it worse. Bemoaning the state of Austin’s traffic is one of the Internet’s fastest-growing cottage industries. It would be a tradition passed from father to son, generation to generation, if any of those families could still afford to live in the city limits. For those in Oklahoma, who traverse Interstate 35 daily, all I can say is don’t stray too far south. We boast the most congested stretch of highway in Texas, and it belongs to that hallowed “Adventure Road.”
“Traffic congestion on I-35 has gotten so bad, people in Houston feel sorry for us,” Mayor Steve Adler quipped online last month.
Why? Austin’s 30-year plan estimates an additional 750,000 new residents by 2039, a near-doubling of its current population. Spending on the necessary infrastructure to support those new residents has, well, not doubled. We’ve got an underfunded, underused and under-prioritized public transit system. (MetroRail offers a convenient option, so long as you don’t need to go anywhere south of the bifurcating Colorado River.) We have a single concentrated job center — smack dab downtown — and fewer than a handful of major arteries to get folks there. One of those arteries is under significant construction for several more months to add toll lanes. The presidential motorcade will likely close down significant portions of the other two.
Crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure should come as no shock to the rest of America. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent report card on the nation’s major infrastructure gave us an impressive cumulative GPA of a D+. Granted, that was an actual improvement from previous reports, but the simple fact of not failing totally is nothing to hang our hats on.
Economic and racial disparity
That’s just getting places. If you want to come home each day to an affordable place to live in Austin, well, you’re more likely to go the speed limit on I-35. It seems reductive, if not pedantic, to say the tech sector is our nation’s future. But the very real class disparity its boom is exacerbating is causing problems in the here and now.
Racial divide widens under Austin’s whitening by Nicole Hill
Last year, Austin topped a list of the most economically segregated cities. A number of factors play into these levels of segregation, as determined by the Martin Prosperity Institute. They include the size and density of a population, the overall affluence of the metro area, and the share of the population comprised of minorities. Another emerging trend, however: A robust high-tech industry presence shows a correlation with higher degrees of economic segregation.
No one begrudges a creative, skilled workforce. No one questions the importance of the tech industry as we attempt to steer America’s course forward. It’s not just Austin. Columbus, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago — they’re all in the top 10. We’ve collectively done a sub-par job at spreading the gains and sharing the load. As the report notes, “It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.”
Why does it matter? Why should it keep the president, and the rest of us, up at night?
“This trend threatens to undermine the essential role that cities have played as incubators of innovation, creativity and economic progress,” according to the MPI report.
In Austin, we’re already seeing important cultural contributions flee with the mass exodus of African-Americans to outlying areas. The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas, Austin, issued a startling report in 2014 that bestowed upon the city a dubious distinction: Between 2000 and 2010, Austin “was the only major city in the United States to experience a double-digit rate of general population growth coincident with African-American population decline.”
Of course, in Austin’s case, there are a number of reasons to explain the flight of blacks to suburbs, historically codified racism among them. But high on the cause-and-effect charts is the inequality inherent in the rampant gentrification of predominantly black and brown East Austin. One hopes the initial commercial growth of the area will foster future investment in education and infrastructure, but, for now, the price is paid in higher rents and massive demand for limited housing.
A GOP sideshow
As a sideshow to the substantive challenges facing this city, and this country, of course, is the histrionic state of affairs in our political system. While the nation tries to erase the alleged size of frontrunner GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, the Travis County Republican Party continues its shrieking attempts to rid itself of its newly elected chairman, Robert Morrow, who’s been charitably described as a “firebrand” by local news organizations.
It’s difficult to engender productive political discourse when the county chairman of one major party spends most of election night tweeting about the sexual orientation of former Gov. Rick Perry and the genitalia of former President Bill Clinton. Welcome to 2016, where the rules are made up and decorum doesn’t matter.
‘What future will it be?’
Where do we go from here? That’s for more studied minds than mine. One of those minds will be speaking Friday, and he’ll have much to chew on as he, let’s say, chats up the line at Franklin BBQ.
One can only imagine Obama asks himself just that as he looks out the White House windows at his shining city upon a hill.