AUSTIN, TEXAS — A CENTURY ago, freed slaves founded Clarksville west of downtown Austin on plantation land donated by a former governor. Hispanics lived in the Colorado River flood plain to the south.
But at some point minorities were shoved east, says Beatriz de la Garza, the newly elected president of the Austin Independent School District. Construction of north-south aligned I-35 in the 1950s cemented the physical division of the city.
"Let's not call it racism," says Orlando Mata, district director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Austin is still very much Texas provincial."
What's popularly called "east Austin" remains the core of the minority community in the city, which is 11 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. The area has always been "wall-to-wall cops" who keep order rather than protect life and property, says Dorothy Turner, president of Black Citizens Task Force.
Gary Bledsoe, local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, likens east Austin to the Spike Lee movie "Do the Right Thing.Except for beauty shops, barber shops, and barbeque places, most of the businesses are owned by people who don't live in the community," he says.
Thus, while white developers engage in a tug-of-war with white environmentalists over aquifers, birds, and cave bugs, east Austin community leaders say they have more important concerns.
They cite the dropout rate, schools inferior to those in white neighborhoods, job discrimination, lack of health care, red-lining by banks, police brutality, selective law enforcement, media bias, and exclusion from political power.
"People making $5 an hour cannot very readily be concerned about the environment," Mr. Mata says.
Other minority leaders say they do care, but in terms of protecting drinking water and not permitting the area to be a dumping ground for landfills, junkyards, and polluting industries. "East Austin has had a history of that," Ms. de la Garza says.
But popular swimming hole Barton Springs - "That's an Anglo issue here," Mata says.
Mr. Bledsoe has been swimming there for 15 years. Minorities were "less than 1 percent" of the bathers he saw there.
Environmentalists have sought minority community support by arguing that redirecting development east would bring employment opportunities.
"They're not concerned about jobs in east Austin," scoffs Ms. Turner. "They're concerned about keeping their environment safe and clean for them on the west side."