Tuesday, June 4, 2013

East Waco community meetings

In all the years I've been doing murals, I can't recall ever having community meetings in the building I'd be painting on later - another advantage of working at the East Branch Library. The mural wall, our design studio, community meeting space and main research source (the East Branch is the only library in Waco with an African-American section) are all in one place. Here in Waco over the last week we had three community meetings at the library. We also visited Rapoport Academy on the old Paul Quinn Campus, the Rotary Club, the Fred Batts Leadership Luncheon, did a live radio interview with McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson on 104.5 The Beat, and met with the Waco Library Board. Tomorrow will do an interview for the city's local cable channel.

Ashley and Catherine listen to Mr. Coffey at the Fred Batts Leadership Luncheon
On the afternoon of our first meeting, we put out twenty-five or so chairs expecting fifteen or so attendees. Over forty came and nearly the same number the next two nights (if you include those who chose to listen to my presentation a second and third time). Clearly this is a community that cares about how it is represented.

After a go-around where we introduced ourselves to each other and my presentation looking at the roots of community murals, we opened the floor to comments, questions and suggestions. Right off the bat we heard about a past that's nearly non-existent in Waco's local history books. In all the sources that we could find claiming to tell Waco's story, African-Americans hardly existed.

Our community groups recalled places and people long since gone. Schools like A.J. Moore razed, businesses like the great Alpha Theater closed, dance clubs and homes left to decay, and Paul Quinn College relocated to Dallas. We heard about great teachers and restaurants, about Elm Avenue, Bridge and Clifton Streets and how they used to thrive. It was nostalgia for sure but also a very important way of rekindling the spirit of a place that's hard to imagine when you walk around today. And since the history books don't show it, the stories and images they evoke have to be preserved through oral tradition.

The Alpha Theater in its hey day

The Alpha as it appears today
 Most of the comments and discussion related to the community's history. Notably fewer were comments or suggestions about how the community wanted to move forward and address the many challenges it faces. When pressed we heard that yes there was great need for a grocery store (ironic since the library we were in was a grocery store until the mid-70's), bank (if not an ATM) and post office all currently absent from East Waco. How to get them was a more difficult problem. The only economic development on the horizon was coming from Baylor University in the form of a giant new football stadium that will overwhelm East Waco with traffic on game days.

View of the Baylor stadium project in the foreground and East Waco behind it
Some attendees expressed concerns about the neighborhood becoming gentrified and local residents and small businesses getting priced out. It's a legitimate fear. There is talk of New Urbanism, food trucks and loft apartments being perfect for Elm. Our apprentice Catherine said she's seen it before on Austin's eastside where a formerly low-income multiethinic neighborhood is being recast as a playground for hipsters and other up and coming professionals. And Ashley and I are familiar with a similar scenario back home in Lawrence where our east side neighborhood is suddenly fertile ground for real estate speculators and arts district consultants. For some reason, it always seems to be the east side.

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