I am a conservationist and preservationist, an environmental professional who believes in the rational planning envisioned by the authors and supporters of environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Over the years I have taken pride in the fact that enactment of these and many other laws took place under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and constitute an important though diminishing part of his legacy. My general default mode leans in the direction of ecological protection; Swedish filmmaker Bo Widerberg summed it up nicely when he once wrote, “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to ask what things cost.”
I am also a pioneer in African American heritage preservation, in the private sector field known in the U.S. as “cultural resource management.” As the first African American to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a Ph.D. in archaeology, and the first to eschew academia for the private sector, I have been involved in many contentious land use disputes where Black heritage was an important, even the deciding consideration. I have received many scars over the years, but can take pride in knowing that I have always conducted my affairs with competence and honor, with the public interest in mind and heart.
But there are always exceptions. The nefarious NIMBY effort by Austin’s oligarchs to manufacture consent for the absurd and self-serving notion that the Lions Municipal Golf Course is somehow one of the most important civil rights sites in Austin is probably the most cynical mis-use of African American heritage conservation I have seen in my thirty year career. Equally galling is the simultaneous effort by mostly the same oligarchs to undermine and slander my efforts to protect and preserve the Rosewood Courts Public Housing project in East Austin, arguably the most important African American historic site inside the present-day Austin City Limits. The housing project has been depopulated and fenced in, with its final and irrevocable destruction imminent.
Up to now I have not taken a position on whether Muny should be redeveloped. I viewed that issue as separate and distinct from the claims of boosters that the site was somehow historically important because caddie Alvin Propps once supposedly played a few holes on the segregated golf course, or because Black laborers from Clarksville ostensibly helped to construct the golf course. But my mind is finally settled. The University of Texas should decommission the golf course and develop the property. Token historic preservation, perhaps the preservation of a couple of buildings, should suffice, as at Rosewood Courts.
Black and institutional supporters of the misguided Save Muny effort, ranging from Volma Overton Jr. (I first wrote about his support for this folly on this blog five years ago) to the city, county, or the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (which never met a corporate sponsor it didn’t like) should be ashamed of themselves. No thinking person should co-sign such exaggerated and orchestrated chicanery, certainly no historians or archaeologists.
I generally do not find myself on the same side as YIMBY activists or urbanist zealots. I am not a neoliberal and as someone who experienced and documented 1990’s public housing demolition and the role of organizations such as the Congress for the New Urbanism in making life miserable for urban ethnic minorities across the country, I have watched their hammerlock on Austin’s Planning Commission and city council with consternation. But on this issue we can find common cause. I hereby pledge my knowledge and skills in support of any efforts to undermine the fatuous claims of Muny’s significance as an important locus of civil rights advocacy in Austin.
The late Toni Morrison dedicated her career to writing stories of, by and for Black people where the “white gaze” was an irrelevancy, often non-existent. She caught her share of hell from critics; they perceived, correctly, that she wasn’t even addressing them. Instead, she went around and above them. It’s why so many of them were caught off-guard when she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. They accused the Swedish selection committee of engaging in “political correctness” and for elevating a “mediocre writer,” someone who “still has a way to go” before deserving such an honor. Irregardless of whether they understood what she was doing and writing, they knew they didn’t want someone like Morrison in their private club.
Living and working in Austin for nearly thirty years has given me a strong education in how the “white gaze” operates. It’s about money and power, and the well-funded Muny NIMBY effort has been “spreading the cheese” with aplomb. I will not sit idly by and permit whitesplained Black history become the plaything of neoliberal toffs with the gall to claim that a fucking golf course in the richest, whitest most segregated part of Austin is somehow significant in the civil rights history of our city.