Texas residents not in tune with international festival

South by Southwest helped Austin become a capital of cool but hastened the process of displacing many.


    Danny Thompson says God gave him the gift of music.

    Over the decades, the 58-year-old has played the drums with dozens of local jazz and blues bands - predominantly African American groups with names like the Killer Bees and Spy Versus Spy.

    It's cultural displacement, and we actually take a step further and say what has happened in this community is cultural genocide

    Lisa Byrd, Director of Six Square Black Cultural District.

    "Man, you had people, musicians all over the place," Thompson said, taking a break from his job at a local Cajun restaurant.

    "We used to sit at the corner every night and everybody would get together. We'd go down to the store, somebody would get some bread, somebody would go get the meat, somebody would get drinks and we’d meet at the corner.

    "And you'd have vocal groups and bands playing all around town, you know. That’s basically how it started."

    For many years - dating back to the start of the 20th century - an incredibly rich musical culture flourished in historically black neighbourhoods such as East Austin.

    That was one of the main components of the South by Southwest music festival when it was launched 30 years ago.

    But South by Southwest grew into one of the world's hottest music festivals - commercialised, corporate and expensive.

    All-inclusive passes for music and films cost more than $1,800 each.

    The festival bolstered Austin's carefully cultivated image as an ultra-cool hipster haven.

    Hundreds of new residents - mostly white and well-to-do - move into Austin each day.

    But community activists say the influx of newcomers drawn by Austin's attractive reputation has devastated their neighbourhoods.

    In East Austin, flashy new houses, coffee shops and yoga studios appeared overnight. Property taxes have soared and now many older residents on fixed incomes can’t afford to stay.

    People who have lived here for many years say the place has changed so fast that they hardly recognise it any more.

    "It's cultural displacement, and we actually take a step further and say what has happened in this community is cultural genocide," said Lisa Byrd, who heads works on cultural preservation as director of the Six Square Black Cultural District.

    "There are very few things - the cultural touchstones - to preserve because they've all been destroyed or torn down. As you go through this neighbourhood now, you will see very few remnants - the churches and a couple of barbershops. Other than that, it’s all gone."

    'Real fast' change

    Marshal's barber shop, at the corner of East 12th and Chicon in East Austin, is a place where African American men socialise. The banter is about sports, politics and anything else that comes up.

    Much of their talk is about change.

    "I would say it's happening real fast," said Ronnie Jackson, who has been a local barber for 16 years.

    "We are definitely getting a change of people. There are a lot more Caucasians moving into the neighbourhood, a lot more professionals. The taxes are going up, and a lot of people are being forced to sell. For taxes to push out grandpas and nanas that have been here for years and years, I don't really think that's right."

    Kendall Sawyers, a construction worker, agrees with Jackson.

    "Now you see a new ethnicity coming in, new houses going up," he said.

    "It's changed dramatically. They'll come in and buy one of these houses for $40,000, which seems like a lot of money for somebody that's never had any. And they'll flip that and sell it for $300,000 to $400,000.

    "And I don't agree with that. If you're going to come in and buy somebody’s home, then you should give them the right amount for what the property is worth."

    Danny Thompson played at South by Southwest in its early years. But now the festival is dominated by acts from places such as London, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

    He shrugs when asked what he thinks of the quality of the music these days.

    "I can't say that it was intentional, but I played with a lot of the players, I played with pretty much most of the best that came out of Austin, and I don't know any of them that actually benefited from South by Southwest."

    South by Southwest helped Austin become a capital of cool.

    But it hastened the process that has displaced many of the very people whose God-given talents made it such a success.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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