Walk by a magazine rack and take a look at the headlines. Chances are, you’ll find Austin gracing a “fastest growing” list. The traffic, the tech industry, the live music scene – everything is expanding in Austin. Unfortunately, so is economic equality.
The widening economic gap is especially apparent in the Rundberg Lane neighborhoods, where 95 percent of those enrolled in school are considered economically disadvantaged, according to a 2014 report by Dr. David Springer, professor in the School of Social Work and LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.
As with most things in Austin, new developments are in the works. Only this lofty project does not involve sky-scraping cranes and construction zones. The tools are in the hands of community members, city officials, researchers, nonprofits and police officers, to name a few key stakeholders. They are all taking part in Restore Rundberg, a three-year initiative that aims to improve a six-mile area in a manner that will be sustainable in the future.
Identified as “distressed” by the U.S. Justice Department, Rundberg is the first among 15 regions to receive the $1 million grant through the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, part of President Barack Obama’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The cluster of neighborhoods, just northeast of UT Austin, contains only 5 percent of Austin’s population, but accounts for a disproportionate share of the city’s violent crimes, property theft, prostitution and other violations.
To make a significant impact in a relatively short amount of time, the Austin Police Department partnered with a research team, currently led by Springer, to focus on the area’s three highest crime zones: Sam Rayburn Drive, Northgate Street and the intersection of Interstate 35 and Rundberg Lane.
All of these hotspots provide ample cover for illicit activities. They back up to open lots or fields, payphones (handy tools for drug transactions) are accessible, and there’s easy freeway access for a fast getaway. While the project is still ongoing, Springer and his team are already seeing some big changes.
“When the streets get cleaned up and criminals are arrested or connected to social services, residents start to feel safer being out on the streets and approaching the police more readily,” Springer says. “All of those collective efforts have made a difference.”
Elevated police presence didn’t stop at the hotspots. To make sustainable improvements to the entire area, the researchers advised a more proactive approach to policing. In order for residents to take back their neighborhood, they must work with – not against – law enforcement, Springer notes. But in an area that comprises a high number of people classified as refugees, that trust needs to be earned.
“One solution was to start a mobile walking beat to build relationships and trust among the residents,” says Springer, who is the director for the university’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. “We had APD officers policing on foot and bike patrol in the hotspots. They made over 14,000 contacts with residents and crime patterns started to go down significantly.”
When the revitalization project began in 2012, residents of the Rundberg zip codes reported the lowest level of trust in the police as well as feelings of safety in the city, according to a 2012 City of Austin survey. Now more than 70 percent of respondents in Springer’s 2015 survey claim they feel safe in their neighborhoods, as compared to about 40 percent in 2014. And despite the national trend of rising crime rates in most major metropolitan cities, the overall violent crime rate in all three hotspots was reduced by 15 percent. In the entire Rundberg area, violent crime dropped by more than 4 percent, along with a 14 percent drop in property crime.
Springer attributes much of the progress to the community-based policing strategies combined with community leaders who helped mobilize their fellow residents to take back their neighborhood.
“Once they felt like they were part of the solution, residents began working together and with the police to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood,” Springer says. “When you invest time and energy in the place where you live, you’re more likely to feel a sense of belonging and become more invested in your community.”
It Takes a Village
Austin natives like Monica Guzmán have seen Rundberg and surrounding areas deteriorate throughout the years, morphing from tidy rows of houses to graffiti-covered buildings and trash-strewn vacant lots. She and her colleagues on the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team know the potential of the area and are adamant about making it a safe place where children can play outside and neighbors can chat comfortably on their front porches over morning coffee.
“If we want to have a good, safe, healthy community, we all have to be invested,” says Guzmán, who represents the North Lamar/Georgian Acres Planning Area. “We can’t expect the city to do it for us. This is our responsibility.”
But in order for Restore Rundberg to live up to its name, all concerned parties must come to the table, she adds.
“The majority of Rundberg residents are renters, people of color and refugees resettling in the area,” Guzmán says. “When I first started coming to these meetings, I didn’t see these people, so I demanded that we focus our efforts on community outreach.”
David Fairchild, a case worker for Refugee Services of Texas, stopped by a monthly community meeting last March to see how his organization could better serve Rundberg’s large refugee population. In addition to helping people begin new lives in Austin, the organization provides intervention programs for prostitutes, as well as offering rehabilitation services and assistance to those who are ensnared in human trafficking.
“We want to make sure that the area is safe, people have jobs and children have access to schools and libraries,” Fairchild said after the meeting adjourned. “We want this to be a thriving community, so that’s why I’m here today to meet with everyone and see what we can offer to the people of Rundberg.”
The Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team’s efforts are clearly paying off, according to Springer’s lengthy list of assets. In addition to tracking crime patterns, he also took inventory of all of the area’s positive attributes. One of the biggest assets, he says, are the AISD schools, which offer quality after-school mentoring, at-risk prevention programs, free summer camps and more. The diverse student population also adds to the value, he notes.
“I see the schools as one of the core assets for the neighborhood,” Springer adds. “In fact, a couple of officers came up with the idea to tap into the schools to rebrand Rundberg as the ‘Rundberg Educational Advancement District, or R.E.A.D.’ The idea being that if we hold up the schools in Rundberg as one of its great resources, we can alter perceptions about the area and make this a more desirable place to live.”
Another school on Springer’s assets list is UT Austin. Every year, students select a neighborhood for a two-year academic service-learning initiative that culminates in The Project, UT’s largest day of service organized by the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement (LCCE). This year, The Project returned to Rundberg for the third time to cultivate gardens, paint bridges, spruce up the schools and clean the streets. In one day alone, their efforts resulted in an economic impact of nearly $90,000. Students will engage in academic service-learning activities for a second year in the Rundberg neighborhood culminating in The Project 2017.
UT Austin students in the Austin City Hall Fellows Program are also participating in community meetings and outreach events to help prioritize and execute revitalization plans. A partnership between the LCCE and the City of Austin’s Mayor’s Office, the program aims to prepare future civic leaders through service-learning. Shadhi Mansoori, a current fellow, is focusing on improving community outreach, advising stakeholders on how to connect residents to the area’s myriad free or low-cost resources.
“This has been a really big stepping stone for me,” says Mansoori, a neuroscience sophomore who plans on pursuing a career in public health. “I really enjoy getting out in the community and learning about the problems facing the people of Rundberg, and how people are working together to address those issues.”
Connecting underserved communities with university resources is a big part of the mission of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), says Erica Saenz, associate vice president for community and external relations in the DDCE. A longtime Austin resident, Saenz has a vested interest in this cause. In 2013, she joined the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team and served as chair from 2014-16. In addition to leading the team in working with researchers and APD, she also oversees revitalization activities in eight other priority areas.
“Restore Rundberg is a community initiative that is of great significance to the City of Austin,” Saenz says. “It’s important that we align resources and bring additional focus to this area in order to have maximum impact.”
Looking back at results from the past three years, Springer considers Restore Rundberg to be a success story. Yet when the no-cost extension period of the grant runs out this September, it will be up to the residents to keep up the momentum.
“One lingering challenge is to sustain the changes we made,” Springer says. “Community engagement is critical to the ongoing success for Restore Rundberg.”
Guzmán said she is committed to keeping up the momentum, connecting as many community members, city officials and organizations to the cause as she possibly can. Moving forward, another looming challenge is the threat of gentrification. She’s worried that the double-edged sword of success can potentially turn her neighborhood into another trendy locale for well-to-do newcomers.
“Rundberg looks like what East Austin used to be: low-income housing and people living paycheck to paycheck,” Guzmán says. “It’s important that we work with community-friendly developers who aren’t focused on building condos and high-end properties we can’t afford. If I move out of the area I want it to be because it was my decision, not because I was forced out.”
Although gentrification may not be a big concern for those living on the west side of Austin’s dividing line, known as Interstate 35, everyone—rich and poor—is affected by the overall health of their city, Springer says.
“Austin has a lot of great assets and strengths,” Springer adds. “But the story of two Austins is growing and becoming amplified as I look at things unfold. The disparities continue to grow—and if we want to be the city that we think we are, we must find ways to improve the quality of life for residents living in crime-ridden neighborhoods so we can become one unified city.”
Photos of The Project by Bret Brookshire and Shelton Lewis
Portrait of Dr. David Springer by Marsha Miller