Forgetting Waller Creek: An Environmental History of Race, Parks, and Planning in Downtown Austin, Texas.

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Date: Nov. 2021
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 87, Issue 4)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Essay
Length: 18,451 words
Lexile Measure: 1490L

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Waller Creek is a flood-prone stream that runs through the center of Austin, Texas. To quote Joseph Jones, an English professor who published a 1982 treatise on the waterway, Waller Creek flows "quite literally" through "the inner heart of Austin." It originates in the city's north-central suburbs and flows generally south through the University of Texas (UT) flagship campus, past the historic Brackenridge Hospital, around the east side of Capitol Square, which sits on a hill, and down the eastern edge of downtown, where it empties into Town Lake, an impounded stretch of the Colorado River. It is Austin's most urbanized, polluted, and degraded creek; yet, as ecologists insist, it continues to provide habitat for a host of animal and plant species. (1)

A "flash flood alley," central Texas is a convergence zone for divergent weather systems, including massive, humid tropical fronts that roll off the Gulf of Mexico and cold dry fronts that move into Texas from the north and west. When these systems collide, they produce intense storms. Central Texas soils are relatively thin and rocky or heavy in clay, while the region's terrain is hilly, limiting the soil's capacity to absorb rainfall. As such, during intense storms, runoff flows rapidly into nearby streams, triggering sudden, high-velocity, and enormously destructive flash floods. (2)

Austin's racial geographies evolved from the interplay between such floods and racial capitalism as it took shape in the American South and West. (3) After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people migrated to southern towns and cities in search of work, education, and haven from anti-Black violence. They received a "chilly reception" from white innkeepers and landlords, and unable to find lodging, they squatted on the fringes of town "in tents, dugouts, and makeshift shelters." Recognizing that Black people were a captive mark, white owners of land on the city outskirts "were quick to seize the opportunity for profit." They subdivided their holdings and sold African Americans "the poorest land"--that is, steep land, land near industry, and, most often, lowlands susceptible to pestilence and flooding. Other African Americans settled nearby. They quickly established freed people's communities, or freedom colonies, each with its own businesses, churches, schools, and name. Consequently, as historian Craig E. Colten writes about the postbellum South, "The most common form of African American residential cluster was a bottomlands settlement near the city boundary." (4)

Black migrants likewise settled in Austin's bottomlands; however, the most common nineteenth-century Black residential cluster in the city was a riparian settlement located along the winding floodplains of Austin's streams. Because of Waller Creek's location, three of Austin's earliest, densest, and most enduring postbellum Black enclaves developed along the waterway's lower downtown stretch, between the Colorado River and 19th Street (the city's original northern boundary). These enclaves were the epicenter of Black settlement in nineteenth-century Austin (Map 1). Along with industry, they drew racially diverse settlement eastward, laying the foundations for Austin's Jim Crow geography.

In the 1910s, affordable automobiles hit the U.S. market. Confronted with pressure from...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A688496052