KUT's Jennifer Stayton spoke with Nefertiti Jackmon, executive director of Six Square, and Natasha Madison of the 12th Street Merchants' Association at a live broadcast during Morning Edition from the Urban Co-Lab on 12th and Chicon streets. The broadcast can be heard in its entirety here.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
Jennifer Stayton: Twelve years ago, the City of Austin launched an African-American quality-of-life initiative to try and improve the standard of living for African-Americans in this city. One of the efforts that emerged from conversations around that initiative was Six Square, Austin's black cultural district. The organization says it is "dedicated to celebrating the African-American heritage of Central East Austin and preserving cultural assets in the district through historical interpretation, promotion of cultural and artistic events and social cultural and economic development."
Nefertiti Jackmon is a Six Square executive director, and she's joining us live this morning. Thanks so much for being here, Nefertiti.
Nefertiti Jackmon: Thank you very much, Jennifer, for having me.
JS: So I want to make sure I describe the mission of Six Square correctly. Did I leave anything out? That's a lot to manage.
NJ: It is a lot. The one piece that I really want to highlight and emphasize, in addition to preserving the rich cultural heritage, we do want to emphasize that, additionally, we re-animate public spaces. So that's one of the things we do with art exhibits, which one was recently highlighted on NPR, with the East Austin churches, musical explorations. We do a number of things to show that the culture is still alive and thriving in Central East Austin.
JS :So are you primarily trying to interest people who are in the neighborhood already in sort of absorbing the culture and experiencing the culture? Or are you trying to get folks from all over the city to come?
NJ: Well, we're trying to get people from all over the nation, so I would say both. One of the art exhibits that we recently had, we had people who were primarily new to the area – we did not expect that but that's what turned out – and a great, dynamic conversation ensued after everyone had a chance to look at the art, and we had a very good conversation on gentrification. Now, that wasn't planned, but that's what happened. And part of our thing is to engage old and new residents, and so that was an opportunity that that took place. And, additionally, we want to serve as a model. We are the first African-American cultural heritage district in the state of Texas. But there are people from other places in the nation who are calling to find out what are we doing and how we're doing it.
JS: Is it difficult to sort of bridge that gap from old, established to new? Are those conversations tough?
NJ: The conversations, I want to say they're easy, but they are a little tough. I was at the Texas History Center yesterday with LaToya and other members of the community. And one of the things that I wanted to emphasize, because some people are focusing – and I get the focus – on people who are native to Austin. But what I shared with the group is we want to make sure that we expand that narrative, so that it connects to people on multiple levels and by expanding it and understanding that there's a number of intersections with people. The story of what's taking place in Central East Austin in the African-American community is the same story that has happened in black communities, especially urban centers across the nation.
JS: So do you feel there's a specific challenge for you right now? We've been talking about this morning in past reporting of course with Austin's population shifting, out-migration of the African-American population. How does that impact your efforts and the work of Six Square?
NJ: Right. It impacts it greatly, I would say. Something like this taking place in Houston would be easy, if you will. Because there is a very large African-American population in Houston, and it's also concentrated in certain areas. Whereas in Austin, and especially Central East Austin, the population is dispersed. So, although we have our work cut out in reaching out to people who have left Central East Austin – reaching them in Round Rock and Pflugerville and the other areas where they have moved to – so, we still get a lot of people know about us. But so many people come to the space and they're like, 'Wow, we never even knew this existed.' But the good thing is I will say there are many organizations who are partnering, working together. So there the work is great with a number of organizations right in this area.
JS: And just as we wrap up briefly I know economic development is also a slice of Six Square's work can you talk a little bit about about that part of the organization.
NJ: Yes, I will talk briefly on that. I was actually. There was a guest this morning who was here. He's gone now he's got to work with us to sort of develop that economic component more. But one of the things that we have done with through our art exhibits – that's primarily been the focus – we support artists in their work. They get to expose their works and their talents to other people. They buy their artwork. And then also with the receptions that we host, we select local caterers. And, so, that's something that generates revenue to people who are right here in Central Austin. And we are working to build a newsletter, which I was just talking about that this morning, to highlight the various businesses. And I just started working with Natasha, who I believe will be on next, with the merchants association here on 12th Street.
JS: Nefertiti Jackman is Six Square executive director. Thank you for joining us live this morning.
NJ: Thank you.
Jennifer Stayton: We are here at Urban Co-Lab at 12th and Chicon streets and Nefertiti's exactly right. We're now going to talk with Natasha Madison. She is with the East 12th Street Merchants Association. Natasha, thank you for joining us this morning.
Natasha Madison: Thank you for having me.
JS: So, first of all I want to hear. You're a business woman. What is your business what do you do?
NM: I do a couple of things but I got started here because of my business that's East Austin Advocates, and what we do basically is help people to mitigate shortages of all the kinds and you can imagine there are several in this area. So economic shortages, food housing, et cetera.
JS: So tell us a little bit about that East 12 Street Merchants Association. Why was it formed? How did it come to be?
NM: So we were very fortunate in that we were part of the pilot program so the City of Austin's economic development department they launched an initiative called Solely Austin launched with three neighborhoods to be a part of their pilot program for developing merchants associations. There was Red River, Manor Road and East 12th Street.
JS: And tell me a little bit about who while is in the group. Are these established businesses? New businesses? I'm imagining it's a mix of everybody.
NM: And it changes every day. So, you know, I think Nefertiti sort of touched on it right it's a really nuanced area, and you have to be very sort of hyper-aware of the history of East 12th Street, in order to move forward. So, there are businesses that have been in this district for 40 years, as a part of the merchants association. And then there's me, you know, my business has only been here for a year. And then there's some people sort of in between like ancillary supporters who don't have businesses in the district, but are committed to seeing the development of East 12th Street go in a way that's hyper-considerate.
JS: How do you manage those differing histories and, I imagine, differing needs and sort of differing attitudes or thoughts about the changes going on in the neighborhood? How do you get everybody under the tent together?
NM: That's a good question and I'll tell you what I won't...um. I won't misrepresent it and say that we are all entirely under the tent, so far. But we are definitely making moves towards getting everybody under the tent, and the people that have sort of given themselves over to the desire to be a unified collective force have decided that whatever thing that they had that might have been an impediment to their desire to be a part of this is not worth it, in comparison to what we can do as an organization.
JS: So describe a little more about the association's relationship with the city. Is this a source of resources for you all coming from the city? What's the relationship there?
NM: It's it's multi-tiered and I'll say that, because we are part of a pilot program, I think there's a lot that's going on with Red River, Manor Road, East 12th Street that won't necessarily happen with future merchants associations. So, there has been some support in the way of financial support for legal fees, et cetera. So, as we are becoming a formed and official merchants association, there are some requirements about management classes, understanding the relevance of a board and how to select them, et cetera. So there has been some financial assistance but primarily it's been, you know, a formation-specific guidance.
JS: Are you finding would you say that Central East Austin and East Austin – and I guess sort of the Austin business climate in general – is Austin a business-friendly city?
NM: Absolutely. I mean look at all the data: Austin is the friendliest business city, according to all the data. One of the problems we find on the street, though, is that there are a lot of businesses that either are not thriving currently and/or won't moving forward because there's not enough very specific attention being paid to business development here.
JS: So what kind of attention then, here, does this neighborhood need?
NM: Oh, man, if I gave it three things, I would say facade improvements – the appearance of a thing, you know, really has a lot of influence as to whether or not a person patronizes it. So like you spoke about the juxtaposition. So we have half a million dollar house next door to an 800-square-foot, pier-and-beam house where the families fourth generation, they've been there for 50 years. These folks don't shop at the same places, right? And so we're trying to encourage some of the people in the district to keep their money on East 12th Street. But there's not much for them to buy. So they go to Mueller and they go to The Domain and, you know. So what we would like to see happen is some assistance in the way of subsidies that would help these businesses get in the black – the businesses that are in the red, get in the black – and get some real specific business development coaching. So those would be the three things.
JS: So if we think about the patterns that we've seen as far as changes in this neighborhood, new development, also the African-American population leaving Austin, if all of that continues on a similar path, do you all have an eye toward developing businesses for the snapshot of today in 2017? Or do you look at 2019, 2020 and Austin years from now, when you're when you're trying to attract and grow businesses in the neighborhood?
NM: Gotcha. It's complicated. We're doing both, you know. So, the future development of East 12th Street and the businesses in the corridor or has a lot to do with the businesses that exist currently. So, being able to help some of the businesses that are here currently survive the storm and, you know, be around later is fantastic. But we are not naive in that we understand that this is happening, you know. This change is happening all around us. We see it every day. We understand the specific details of it. And, so, we don't want to overlook the importance of looking at what the future development of the district looks like. And, so, both we're not in it for a sprint; it's a marathon.
JS: Natasha Madison is with the East 12th Street Merchants Association. Natasha, we thank you for joining us live.
NM: Thank you kindly.