History of the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhoods: Blackland

By Bo McCarver

In the decades after Sam Houston sited the capitol of the new Texas nation at Austin, the area east of the new city was largely settled by immigrant Swedish farmers. They established a number of large farms on the rich plain of blackland soil that was well suited for growing cotton. This use dominated the area until 1900 when population growth prompted the subdivision of several nearby farms along Glasscock Avenue. The street was renamed Manor Road in 1940 because it had become the primary route to the town of Manor.

Swedish tradesmen built many of the houses in these new subdivisions. The wooden frame homes were practically designed and accommodated large families with multiple bedrooms. The homes featured numerous, double-hung windows and high ceilings. The foundations were constructed of cedar peers, the most abundant hardwood in the area. These peers “floated”in the continuously swelling and shrinking blackland soil— a condition that required frequent leveling to prevent windows and doors from sticking. These homes preceded the era of electrification and were wired later. Some of these houses can still be identified by double rows of positive and negative wires laced between ceramic insulators located in the attics and by a single wall outlet in each room.

Despite these inherent structural defects, many of the original Swedish houses remain in use over a century after their construction. Those homes that do not survive to this date were mainly destroyed by natural disasters, neglect, or by electrical fires caused by overload and fragile electrical wiring. They were not built in tracts but were dispersed equidistant from each other throughout the subdivision. The Swedes preferred the privacy afforded by space, a remnant of their farm heritage. In 1927, Austin adopted a master plan that called for displacing blacks from the area west of the capitol and relocating them to the east. The results of this plan also relocated many of them into a corridor that was also designated for future growth of the University of Texas.

In subsequent years, displaced blacks came to dominate the area’s population. Oral histories suggest that the name “Blackland” evolved to have two meanings. The first was for the rich, black farming soil. The second was for the majority black population. In 1956, the City of Austin abandoned the 1927 plan as racist. However, the administration of the University of Texas continued to cite the plan as the basis for its frequent eastward expansions as late as 1992.Like the Swedes before them, the new black residents used the building materials available. A few brick and stone structures appeared but the dominant style was smaller, wooden frame houses with lower ceilings— with electrical and plumbing accommodations designed into the original plans. Many of these houses were later enlarged— often without regard to city codes— as families grew.

Most “garages” were actually additional bedrooms rooms and storage areas. These modest houses filled in the lots between the original Swedish houses. During this era, the neighborhood became inscribed by the addition of major roadways – East Avenue (I-35), Chestnut Avenue (Holy Cross Hospital) and 19th Street that later was renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

As the black population resettled into the area, the University of Texas continued to pursue its eastward growth. The history of this expansion produced a pattern that the Austin real estate community found predictable and profitable. As homes just east of the most recently acquired property devalued and blighted, they were purchased by speculators at low cost and rented cheaply with minimal maintenance. The low overhead increased the profit of speculators who eagerly sold to the University at the next expansion. For the tenants of these houses the situation was a mixed blessing— the rents were low but stars could be seen at night through holes in the ceilings of many homes.

In 1981, at the outset of the University’s most recent eastward expansion, the Blackland Neighborhood Association formed with the explicit goals of defending its boundaries and ending the University of Texas’eastward movement. After two years of organizing, futile negotiations and bitter press wars, the association formed the Blackland Community Development Corporation (BCDC). The intent of this organization was to build affordable housing in the area and to actively counter the University’s development plans with plans of their own.

A sympathetic city council awarded the non-profit BCDC a half-million dollar grant and the corporation began to purchase lots. Despite heavy opposition from the University of Texas’administration, the neighborhood corporation built eleven units of affordable housing and celebrated with a ribbon cutting in 1986. Shortly thereafter, the school’s administration demonstrated its resolve by razing 25 single-family units they had purchased in the area between Comal and Chicon Streets.

The neighborhood leaders politicized their struggle and ran a protest candidate against State Representative Wilhelmina Delco whom they felt had supported the University’s easterly expansion. They also solicited the support of Governor Ann Richards who pressured the school’s regents to end their policy of land acquisition in the area. Members of the student body, affordable housing advocates and an organization of homeless persons joined the neighborhood in its struggle. A compromise was reached in 1994 that limited expansion to Leona Street with the exception of a strip along Manor Road to Chicon Street. The struggle lasted for 12 years.

As part of the agreement, the University of Texas divested its real estate holdings east of Leona Street in two phases to the BCDC. It donated and moved a number of houses from west of the Leona Street line to the east. The BCDC then used city housing funds and volunteers to remodel those homes to provide shelter for homeless families, giving first priority to families previously displaced by the University.

This “transitional housing” program also provided social services to the families. About a hundred families mostly single-parent have been assisted by the program since its inception. Blackland is the only community in Texas that hosts such families in dispersed housing throughout its neighborhood.

Presently the neighborhood corporation owns and rents twenty-nine houses and is building nine more to replace those destroyed by UT. There still remain a number of vacant lots and dilapidated houses in the neighborhood and the non- profit corporation continues to target those in its strategic development plan.

The architecture of the small neighborhood has evolved to be highly reflective of a hundred years of migrations, displacement and struggle. On each street each house presents a unique, individual effort to provide family shelter, given the social, economic and political circumstances at the time of its construction or remodeling. Because very few were built under the same historic conditions, the resulting array may appear eclectic and hodge-podge to strangers accustomed to tract housing. To most Blacklanders, however, the diversity is not only tolerated, but celebrated. The homes have stood proudly through time to serve new generations of families – and still hold promise for those that follow.

Like rows of well-worn, comfortable shoes, Blackland’s modest homes reflect a history of struggle, grief and joy. They line the streets like a living library of common people, teeming with sociology, each with its own story, yet unfinished.

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