Childhood Friends Wonder If Crime They Got Caught Up In Led To East Austin's Gentrification

Mar 23, 2017

Matthew Malcolm Kleinman and Andreas Mueller have fond memories of their childhood on the East Side.

“Old people used to sit on their porches and watch us, yelling at us while we were running through their yards, ‘Get off my grass!’” Matt laughs.

Andreas says it was the kind of place where if they saw a trampoline in your backyard, they’d come knock on your door to ask to use it.

Still, there were hard parts. Andreas' mom had lupus. He had to care for her, even drive her around, when he was just a kid. Matt says his parents often weren’t around. Money was tight, but the neighborhood helped raise them.

“We were not poor. We were working-class people. We were proud, working-class people,” Matt says. “We had mom-and-pop grocery stores ... black-owned, mom-and-pop. They were all over the East Side.”

Matt is white, though he has always gravitated toward black culture. Andreas' father was African-American and his mother was a white East German immigrant. Andreas says the feeling of never quite belonging may have been one of their early bonding points – without them ever knowing it.

Andreas shows off a painting of his mother and himself at his home in South Austin. She died in 1999.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

Things got harder, as they usually do, when the friends became teenagers. But they faced more than the usual challenges. Andreas' mom got sicker. Matt's parents divorced.

This was the early '90s, and the neighborhood was changing, too.

“Gangs and violence kind of started to have this place in East Austin,” Matt says, "and it came into my life."

On one had, they say, they feel like the East Side got a bad rap when it came to crime.

“Don’t let it be said that we were, like, the normal,” Matt says.

“No, no. Don’t make it sound like there was crack houses on every block,” Andreas says. “There were families over there, people trying to raise their kids.”

On the other hand, they say, drug dealing did become a part of their reality.

Crack hit the streets in the '80s. Police, who seemed to turn a blind eye to drug use in white communities, started focusing on enforcement on the East Side.

“There’s lawyers that live on the West Side that snort up tons of cocaine. You know what I mean?” Matt says.

He thinks that enforcement created more chaos than it prevented. When older men were incarcerated, boys like Matt and Andreas started taking their place. Dealing became a career option.

"That violence created this excuse to say, ‘We have to go into this community and we have to fix it for them.'"

"That was the best thing you could give me, knowing that my momma was fixin' to die," Andreas says. "Your best info that you can give me that I can take with me to all 50 states in America is to cook crack. And I can get paid regardless of what slum, where I live at. So that was the teachings of survival."

But it brought them close to death. They say they knew a lot of people who didn’t survive those years. And eventually, both of them did time in prison.

When Andreas got out in the early 2000s, he hardly recognized East Austin. Rents were up, a lot of the old businesses were gone, and, in a part of town that had been historically segregated, there were a lot more white people around.

“Something I seen when I first got out of prison, you know, it tripped me out: I caught a white woman walking down 12th Street at 3 o'clock in the morning,” he says. “And I was like, I’ve never seen this the entire time [I've lived here.] I'm 23, 24 years old, and I've never seen this."

For Matt, the influx of white people played out a little differently.

“You're in your jogging shoes and your yoga pants walking up 12th Street, man are you kidding me?" he says. "Now, when I go to the East Side, I'm just that white guy on the East Side. You’re just that white guy who came into my neighborhood and bought a house here,” he says. They say old neighbors moved away. In 1999, Andreas' mother died.

While he was in prison, Andreas couldn’t keep up on tax payments, so when he got out, he lost the house.

But he stayed in town. Matt did, too. They ended up moving south. It was a complete coincidence, but now they live just a few blocks away from each other in another neighborhood.

Andreas has a wife and kids. When he’s not working, he volunteers coaching youth sports.

“I want to give back because I know how easy it is to get in trouble and not get out,” he says.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

Matt says he’s focusing on self-improvement: not drinking or smoking.

“I’m boring, man,” he says. “I'm a tradesperson, I just work with my hands ... I like to do some music and stuff for fun. I walk my dogs.”

When they get together, they sometimes talk about the old neighborhood. They agree it will never go back to the way they remember it as kids, and they wonder if the crime they got caught up in ended up contributing to, or providing a rationale for, the gentrification that followed.

“That violence created this excuse to say, ‘We have to go into this community and we have to fix it for them,’” Matt says. “But they were coming from an outside position.”

What could help “fix" it? There are armies of social scientists and community activists who could provide a thousand different answers.

But, for Andreas and Matt, it comes down to money.

They says things like loans for family-owned business, wages that keep up with the cost of living and funding for improved public schools could go a long way toward battling social ills and keeping people in their neighborhoods.

But they don’t see those things happening. So, for now, these two friends focus on building a new community in another part of town.