By: Frances Molina
For even the least politically informed of Austin’s local residents, gentrification has quickly become a popular subject of conversation as the city has evolved from a sleepy college town for retired hippies into a bustling, congested metropolis of techies, transplants, and “trend” setters. But what was already a hot topic developed into something far more incendiary in the first few weeks of May 2017.
At the intersection of 12th and Chicon, a vibrant mural was erased with a thick coat of white paint. The original artwork by Chris Rogers depicted an array of famous black musicians - Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, James Brown, Bob Marley – painted in erratic neon reds, blues, yellows and greens. In corners of the mural, Stevie Ray Vaughn curled over his guitar, the famous Austin bridge bats took flight into a burnt orange sky, and a woman, her face painted like a calavera, gazed seductively from behind a curtain of green hair.
Many residents of Austin’s historic East side district were predictably upset by the sudden, unannounced appearance of the unforgiving white wall. This had been the second onslaught of unexpected change for Eastside artwork in a matter of days. Just a week earlier the artistic emblem for the Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman community organization, which works to bring quality, affordable pre/postnatal care to women of color, was replaced with (yet another) generic mural advertising Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
After what many considered a direct blow to the already dwindling visibility of black faces and black culture on the East side, the racial tensions that had been bubbling under the surface of Austin’s gentrification issue boiled over. The frustration of the community was perhaps best summarized by Defend Our Hoodz, an online activist community that organizes against “displacement and exploitative development.” Shortly after pictures of the half-covered mural began popping up online, Defend Our Hoodz posted on their official page, protesting that “Gentrifiers can’t even stand seeing murals with black people in them!”
The local Austin media circuit ran with the sensationalism. News articles flashed with headlines that called attention to the racialized elements of the situation. Defend Our Hoodz started tagging their posts on the issue with “#fuckwhiteart,” a catchphrase that only stoked the mounting animosity. However, as more details surfaced about the mural, its original artist, and the business owner now staking her claim on 12th and Chicon, the clean-cut narrative of black and white began to blur.
Not long after news of the whitewashed mural began to circulate, the mural’s original artist, Chris Rogers, stepped forward to voice his thoughts on the situation. Rogers had been notified by a friend that his art had been erased long before he actually saw the changes himself. He told KVUE that his initial reaction was not of anger, but of “disappointment.” The artist went on to explain that he had just arrived in Austin when he was commissioned by the owner of the Romani Art Gallery, the last tenant at 12th and Chicon, to paint the mural back in 2014. Rogers painted the mural for free and with no direction from the white gallery owners.
The fact that Rogers was not an Austinite or that the mural itself had little to do with the history of the East side district – or with Austin as a whole - did not appear to discourage neighborhood residents from quickly embracing the mural as a new East Austin landmark. According to Rogers, during its short time on the wall, many of the local residents had formed a connection to the art piece. Additionally, the mural was credited for bringing a bit of beauty to one of East Austin’s most notorious intersections.
“Art and music is a part of Austin, it’s a part of any neighborhood,” stated Danny Thompson, a longtime resident of the East side who was interviewed by the Austin-American Statesman in a video detailing the aftermath of the mural’s disappearance. “For someone to just randomly discard it like that…I don’t know, I guess it’s probably someone who’s not from Austin that has come in and bought a building here and is coming in to pose as an Austinite…well, they started off on the wrong foot.”
Although incorrect, Thompson’s assumption about the new tenant at 12th and Chicon was a popular one. Defend Our Hoodz declared “Austin’s ruling class” responsible for the mural’s changes and their tag "#fuckwhiteart" further convinced folks following the story that the people who had green-lit the paint job were white, rich, and careless. The truth, however, was more complicated.
Veronica Ortuño was not the villain so many frustrated East side residents needed her to be. She was not white or rich, and she certainly could not be considered a member of the supposed “ruling class” of Austin. Most importantly, as owner and director of the gallery and boutique Las Cruxes, she was no stranger to the neighborhood. She came up in the East side, establishing her presence in the music and art community as a drummer for local bands like Finally Punk and Mutating Meltdown and part-time fashionista.
Las Cruxes, aptly named by Ortuño, a first generation Mexican-American, was the place where she hoped her collective passions for art, music, and fashion could mingle. The shop is meant to serve as a showroom for independent artists and creatives– a physical space to represent the “culmination of all things that have and continue to inspire [her].”
Las Cruxes was originally located just off East Cesar Chavez street, but made the jump to the infamous intersection of 12th and Chicon at the beginning of May. When she arrived she was already thinking about repainting the mural, but like a respectful new neighbor, she discussed her intentions for the wall with the East 12th Merchants Association. They encouraged Ortuño to consult further with the local community before making any executive decisions. However, in a rush to prepare the shop for its re-opening at the new location, Ortuño went through with her plans to paint over the mural before getting the greenlight from her surrounding community members.
The backlash was immediate and aggressively hostile. The store received threats of vandalization and arson. The local media depicted Ortuño and her husband as careless and insensitive, conveniently neglecting to mention the immediate efforts Ortuño had made to repair the damage and seek forgiveness from the community. Defend Our Hoodz, now aware of Ortuño’s heritage, claimed that she demonstrated a new form of gentrification – “gente-fication” – in which Chicanx people take part in their own erasure, and even went so far as to criticize her for allowing her white husband to come to her defense.
In an effort to step away from the rampant, misinformed negativity, I spoke with Adrienne Alyssa Greenblatt, an employee at Las Cruxes who shared her unique perspective on the situation with SMEAR.
SMEAR: What was your reaction to what happened to the mural at 12th and Chicon?
A: When I saw Las Cruxes was priming the wall, I put my full trust in Veronica. The original plan was to replace the mural with an image that was representative of the East Austin community and honored the historically Black neighborhood. But as Veronica has stated herself, she acted in haste and didn’t reach out to the community as much as she should have. A mistake was made, but she is taking accountability and taking steps to fix the mistake.
S: And what about the uproar that followed?
A: The uproar was monstrous. While I understand and validate people’s hurt and mistrust, I personally feel the threat of violence and arson was not warranted. I was terrified of having to go into work because I thought I was going to get attacked by the people saying these truly horrifying things on the internet.
Honestly the whole thing was just so ugly and it hurt me so much because this space has done so much for me as a Latina woman and as an artist. Las Cruxes has made music, fashion, and art accessible for everyone – not just rich white people. So sitting and reading misinformed comment after misinformed comment absolutely tore me apart.
S: Race and race relations has always been an issue in Austin – I mean, it’s the whole reason the Eastside exists as community. But I was appalled by how racially divisive the issue became in such a short time.
A: I think people are losing sight of the fact that the East side has historically been home to Black and Latino communities because of segregation. Both groups need to support each other and encourage the success of our neighbors.
The racial divisiveness surrounding the issue really made me sad. The meetings that we had with the community started out well, but then lines were definitely drawn. It made me sad because we all try so hard to make our space inclusive for everyone, but some people don’t think it’s good enough. There were people calling us white oppressors and white gentrifiers due to misinformation. Las Cruxes is an independent owned small business that is predominantly operated by people of color. We are not part of some large corporation.
S: When I began research for this article I was shocked by how much misinformation –or really just a lack of any information – was being circulated by the local media.
A: People’s anger was partly misguided due to the media shaping and spinning their own narrative. KUT depicted Veronica and her husband as insensitive through partial quotes. In articles and on the air, they repeatedly left out information about the plans for a new mural. Throughout the whole thing, people seemed to be lumping Las Cruxes with Eureka Holdings, the developers that covered the Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman mural. We are not nor will be affiliated with that company that is destroying the area.
S: As a friend and associate of Ortuño, did you feel pressured to “take sides” in the gentrification debate that sprung up in the wake of the mural covering?
A: Neither of the Ortuño sisters ever pressured me to feel a certain way. Part of the issue was there was so much misinformation – that’s why I “took a side.” After explaining to people what was going on, many calmed down. Some, however, refused to engage with us at all. They didn’t want an explanation – they wanted to be angry.
S: Do you feel that the changes Las Cruxes is set to bring to the Eastside community will be more positive and more unifying?
A: I think that Las Cruxes will bring a lot of positive things to the community. We have a Mixtape club, a drawing salon. We host in-store performances, art exhibitions, and pop-up shops. We are so excited to be started a Women’s Group and a Chess Club. We are space that is meant to unify people and to provide a comfortable environment for all those who enter.
S: And what about the wall? Will the community get a new mural?
A: Veronica and our property manager presented a great solution for the future of the mural. They offered Six Square stewardship of the wall and they’ve accepted; they’re an organization whose mission is to preserve the Black cultural assets of the East side. They are highly regarded in the community and are best equipped to represent the voices of the community.