Lench Martinez was about 24 years old when he began to notice a change in Austin, Texas. High rises began to pop up all over and the town the artist was born and raised in was getting more of what he describes as a “big city vibe.”
“It was new, it was different, but now it’s more the norm that anything. You used to be able to see miles in the distance and now everything is blocking the view,” Martinez says. “It’s taking away the essence of being in Texas. Now, Austin is starting to look like Manhattan.”
The culprit behind the changes in Texas’ capital is gentrification. According to Merriam-Webster, gentrification is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
This process has long been a complex issue and a term used in many changing communities throughout the United States both as a negative and a positive. There are those who say it brings benefits, like an increase in jobs and lower crime. Then there are those who say gentrification prices out and displaces longtime residents and business owners – people who have worked tirelessly to build up their communities.
“It feels like they’re stripping us of our identity,” Martinez says. “It’s funny how different groups can move in and change things and make it more like where they’re from, instead of adapting to where they’re moving.”
Martinez, now 30, remembers seeing the term gentrification in a high school textbook.
“It was more like a revitalization… that’s what you would like to believe,” Martinez says. “But what about the real issues on the ground?”
Frustrated by what he describes as bully tactics by landlords and the strategic displacement of minorities in East Austin, Martinez created a song titled “What Happened to Austin?” which has been making its rounds.
In the music video, Martinez raps about the frustrations brought on by gentrification and profits going to the “deepest pockets.” He also brings up decades-old segregationist policies that long ago created a divide in the city:
Built up an Interstate, hoping to discriminate,
Hoping we would stay put and we would never penetrate the west side of 35,
Isn’t it ironic that we were exiled,
Now these motherfuckers want it back?
Martinez refers to Interstate 35, a major highway that runs through the city. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the vast majority of Austin’s African-American and Latino populations remain east of I-35.
“It’s the truth,” Martinez says. “It’s the land nobody wanted and they put us over there.”
The influx of developers and wealthier people has caused longtime business owners to close shop, according to Bertha Delgado, an East Austin community organizer and president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association.
As the daughter of a Brown Beret father and a political activist mother, Delgado grew up around movements for change. The 36-year-old has been a leader in several victories in Austin, including the restoration of an iconic mural after it was painted over as part of a South by Southwest-related art project.
“What drives me to do it is the love and the passion that I have for my culture, the love and passion I have for my cultura. I’m just a child of that movement so I have to take the torch from the elders and continue to pave the way for our children, our next generation. So much injustice is happening that I need to fight for the people.”
Delgado brought up the case of Jumpolin, perhaps one of the most publicized stories in the vein of gentrification. In 2015, Monica Lejarazu, who owned the Jumpolin party rental and piñata store with her husband, Sergio, drove by the store to found a pile of rubble where the store used to stand, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
"The work of a whole lifetime, the substance of an entire family, was destroyed in five minutes,” Monica Lejarazu said in Spanish to the newspaper. “And I was never given any explanation whatsoever. None. They destroyed all of our work.”
According to the newspaper, owner Jordan French said he had told the couple that they needed to move out of the building since shortly after he and his business partner bought the land.
"Many of these businesses have been taxed out. If you're a minority, it's not easy to run a business if you don’t have the equity, the investors to take the business where it needs to do," Delgado says. "Many of the businesses have to relocate because they couldn't afford their taxes. Many business have also been driven away."
There are only a few Latino family-owned businesses left in Austin, the activist says.
"Everyone sees Austin as a capital city of the world, as a tourist attraction... but nobody sees that Austin natives are struggling. They're struggling to enjoy Austin and we created it," she says. "Our ancestors and our families created the beautification of Austin, and we can't enjoy it."