1

A Crown Jewel in Austin?

(Note: Rather than use up space here on the background, the writer urges the reader to backtrack over the two previous articles about Austin’s Waller Creek Project.)

Looking South on Waller Creek from Sixth StreetThe Waller Creek Conservancy’s press release of April 28, 2011, says the group is made up of citizens who, as Councilwoman Sheryl Cole expressed it, want to “create a crown jewel amenity for our entire city.” But just the previous day, the editorial board of The Austin Statesman published an opinion piece, part of which goes like this:

Meanwhile, the stretch of Waller Creek that meanders through the eastern edge of downtown discourages visitors. Most Austinites have ceded the area to the transients who camp along the banks.

The authors speak of Waller Creek as “a waterway that suffers the twin indignities of neglect and abuse,” and “an environmental asset going to waste,” which the city ought to be embarrassed about. They say Waller Creek, if given a break, can meet its potential. They say the Conservancy will “give Waller Creek the break it needs to transform into the jewel it can be.”

The article contains lots of sentimental caring for the creek (which there is nothing wrong with, in and of itself), and zero mention of human beings except as undesirable “transients.” One appended comment recommends regular police patrols to “get rid of the campers,” despite the fact that everybody’s gotta be someplace. And check out this comment:

Why don’t we just start by killing the bums? Just a few at a time so nobody notices. Everybody wins!

That these remarks were published in the first place, and have not subsequently been deleted, is simply jaw-dropping. It’s abusive hate speech, and gives no indication of being meant as satire or “sick humor.” In other words, for a nominally reputable newspaper in a major city, The Statesman has an unusual Comments policy. Hate speech is a continuum that starts with talk and ends with death.

The entire article is astonishingly obtuse, breathtakingly smug, and shockingly insensitive. Hey, Austin! There are people on your streets suffering indignities of neglect and abuse. There are human assets going to waste, which should be an embarrassment to the city. There are people who could fulfill their potential, if given a break. There are homeless people who need to be transformed. And how about transforming Austin into the jewel of humanitarian awareness and activism that it could potentially be?

The city’s website has a “Frequently Asked Questions” page, all about the benefits of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project. It very helpfully mentions the construction of new facilities for boat owners, but we notice that not one of the frequently asked questions has to do with the impact on the homeless. The word “homeless” does not appear on the page, nor do the words “indigent” or “urban poor.” There is, however, a question and answer about how the project will help economic development in the city and county:

The Waller Creek Tunnel Project will put hundreds of people to work, including engineers, construction managers, electricians, truck drivers, plumbers, computer specialists, safety inspectors, general laborers, traffic control specialists, and landscapers, to name a few.

This is reminiscent of something — oh, right, the Soros organization’s Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative, which sounds like exactly the type of program that Austin needs. The NSI’s goal is to:

Link neighborhood stabilization to workforce development and broader economic opportunities for residents of the hardest hit communities through the use of transitional employment programs in property rehabilitation and asset management.

One might very well ask what has been done about training and hiring the people experiencing homelessness in Austin. And one might also wonder, like self-described disgruntled libertarian anarchist Charles Heuter, if any of it amounts to a hill of beans. He writes,

… the job-creation claimed in this document is temporary construction stuff, shoveled to well-connected civil engineering contractors. That’s something I don’t see mentioned often enough about these things: these aren’t jobs in the sense of a proper career. Some will last a few weeks, some maybe a fiscal quarter or two. Pulling out every dusty, graft-machine-and-neighborhood-association-approved wish list item doesn’t generate the kind of fundamental economic growth that stimulus proponents assume will happen. It’s a layer of icing over a hollow cupcake.

Then there were the comments on a page that can no longer be found for some mysterious reason. One of them said, “We need to have a city where the wealthy won’t feel nervous and uncomfortable.” This shows a touching concern for the privileged, which seems kind of unfair. The wealthy can always choose to stay home, enjoying every conceivable comfort and adequate security systems. The homeless have nowhere else to go. On that same lost page, a commentator called “loogrr” wrote,

…and the TRANSIENT problem must be dealt with too…how do you ever expect people to be attracted to LIVING downtown and pay 7 figures for high rise condo yet be unable to walk the streets after dark with Grandkids?? get real

On the other hand, a person known as “Old Blowhard” contributed this,

As strongly as I endorse conservative values, I’m just as strongly opposed to turning central Austin into a sanitized playground for the wealthy.

An enlightened society realizes that “our entire city” means the poor, too. An enlightened society realizes that homeless people also want to walk in safety after dark, or maybe sit in safety, and, yes, even sleep in safety. They have to be out there. They don’t have a choice about it. And, strangely enough, some of them have grandkids, too. An Austin acquaintance recently wrote, regarding the homeless, “The way they are treated here is criminal.”

Now, someone might ask, “And who are you to criticize and challenge what goes on in Austin?” That’s a valid question, and the answer is, nobody. Which is precisely why I decided to flap my jaws about it. I don’t have a dog in this race. As an outsider looking in, I’m in an ideal position to cheerlead the good-hearted people of Austin and point out how this beautiful city is in a position to show the world that a metropolis can prosper and help its least privileged citizens flourish at the same time. Austin has an unparalleled opportunity to set an example and be a shining light, and, yes, even create a crown jewel.

Reactions?

Source: “Waller Creek Conservancy, City of Austin Enter Into Historic Public-Private Partnership,” PR Newswire, 04/28/11
Source: “Choreographing Waller Creek’s reclamation,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Waller Creek FAQ,” City of Austin
Source: “Austin’s Government Wants $1,032,296,350 of Our Money,” Drizzten.com, 02/04/09
Image by William Beutler, used under its Creative Commons license.

  1. […] leader — Nathalie Paravicini in Houston — and I showed her a picture of Austin’s Waller Creek. I made her guess what what was in the picture: a creek, an abutment, a sleeping bag, a blanket, a […]