Sheldon Lamey called Austin home for most of his life until the housing market became too expensive for him, so he decided to relocate to Pflugerville 10 years ago. He said his motivation was simple: a lower cost of living equaled a higher quality of life.
His experience is anything but isolated.
As Pflugerville’s population has increased significantly in the past 20 years, so too has the size of its black community. With a population of just over 16,000 recorded during the 2000 census, 9.5% of city residents were black. Seventeen years later, the city’s population had tripled to more than 58,000 residents, 17.1% of which identified as black.
According to data from the 2000, 2010 and 2017 population estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, Pflugerville has the largest percentage black population out of all suburban cities in the Austin metro.
Impact of Austin’s gentrification
When Lamey left Austin, the city was undergoing rapid changes, with predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods becoming inundated with independent coffee shops, live music bars and a myriad of mixed-use development projects.
The city of Austin has seen extraordinary levels of growth since the 1980s, making it one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States. More than 150 people relocate to the region each day, according to a 2018 Politifact analysis. But despite more and more residents calling Austin home, the same cannot be said for members of its black community.
At the 2000 census, 10% of the city’s 656,000 population identified as black. By the 2017 American Community Survey five-year estimate conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, that number had dropped to 7.6%. While the city now holds majority-minority status—no racial or ethnic group makes up the majority of its population—East Austin’s gentrification has shifted the cultural identities of surrounding suburban cities, including Pflugerville.
East Austin’s history of gentrification, or renovations that attract middle-class or affluent residents and increase property values, is not a new phenomenon, according to kYmberly Keeton, the African American community archivist at the Austin History Center.
“Gentrification has happened since the beginning of Austin,” Keeton said. “I would say it began when Austin was thought about as a city.”
Keeton said gentrification is interwoven into the framework of the city itself, built on the backs of slaves. The geography of the city’s east side in the 18th and 19th century featured sprawling prairies and rich soils, subsequently transformed into cotton plantations.
Its “ongoing cycle” of segregation predates the city’s infamous 1928 master plan, which called for the forced segregation of black and Latino residents and their facilities to the eastern side of I-35, then East Avenue.
But remnants of Austin’s segregation, according to Keeton, continue to endure through I-35, a physical symbol of the major political and cultural divide bisecting the city.
A changing narrative
The narrative surrounding Pflugerville’s growth has often been depicted as a byproduct of Austin’s own surge, paired with its gentrification and hiked property taxes. Black and Latino residents moving to Pflugerville are often depicted as poorly educated and lower-income, said Tony DeLisi, the vice president of Avalanche Consulting, an economic development strategy organization that conducts research on cities across the United States.
However, data compiled by DeLisi’s team shows quite the opposite is true in Pflugerville. Pflugerville has the lowest percentage gap in educational attainment for a bachelor’s degree or higher between nonwhite and white residents in the Austin metro area. In Pflugerville, there is a 13% difference in higher educational attainment for nonwhite and white residents, compared to Austin’s 27.3% difference. Nonwhite median household incomes in Pflugerville amounted to 88% of white household incomes, while Austin’s nonwhite median household incomes make up 70% of white household incomes.
While the country’s unemployment rate is low, many communities of color have not enjoyed the same economic prosperity, DeLisi said. This same phenomenon has persisted in Austin, leaving some black residents feeling unwelcome in their own communities, he said. Conversely, the income equity in Pflugerville has statistically been much more attainable.
“With those disparities, it’s so encouraging to see Pflugerville as this wonderful example within the region of both being more diverse and also a more equitable community where people of all races are seeing many similar opportunities,” he said. “I’m sure there are still barriers and room to grow on this, but we’re seeing much less disparities.”
For Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer, the gap between perception and reality extends from shifting perspectives. It is not cheaper real estate that is driving Pflugerville’s shifting demographics; it is a combination of the city’s educational attainment and income equity paired with its increased communal spirit, he said.
“When you have people of color speaking to each other about their experience in Austin and juxtaposing it with their experience in Pflugerville, people are going to go to where they feel welcomed, embraced and a part of the community,” Metayer said.
As a librarian and archivist, Keeton has helped facilitate events at Round Rock and Pflugerville’s public libraries. The residents in attendance, she said, represent the diversity of these cities in ways that are not reflected in Austin.
“It has been more friendly,” she said. “I see all different types of people with all different walks of life.”
In the past decade Lamey has lived in Pflugerville, he said he has seen a more outward and progressive initiative on the city’s behalf to embrace its shifting demographics, all while celebrating its German heritage. But Lamey also emphasized the importance of citizens being proactive in facilitating change within their communities.
Lamey founded Black Pflugerville, a nonprofit organization advocating for inclusive civic engagement, in March 2016. The group, comprised of nonwhite and white residents, was created as an opportunity to elevate the voices of members of underrepresented communities within the city.
As black residents moved to Pflugerville, they began founding businesses, attending schools and creating places of worship within the city, Lamey said. Today, there are nearly 60 black-owned businesses in Pflugerville, according to data provided by the Texas Black Pages, an online listing of black-owned businesses.
Black Pflugerville became an opportunity to give credence to both the values and concerns expressed by black residents, Lamey said.
“We started Black Pflugerville because it was somewhere that we could actually organize, for the black people in Pflugerville to make sure they’re accounted for, make sure they have a voice at different things,” he said.
Lamey said the organization faced initial pushback from some community members over the organization’s name, deeming it separatist. For Lamey, it was not an act of defiance but an acknowledgment of the city’s shifting demographic landscape.
“The whole point of it that we have to educate people on is that it’s not separatist or anything like that,” he said. “We were trying to bring awareness that Pflugerville is changing demographically and everything, and is not just a German-based town.”
The collaborative efforts between the nonprofit and city government have grown significantly in the organization’s lifespan. Lamey credited Mayor Victor Gonzales’ embracing of the organization and its core values from the start of his mayoral term, adding other City Council members have engaged in group initiatives or been a part of the organization as well.
One of the major projects the group has tackled is the upkeep of the Historic Colored Cemetery across from Pflugerville High School, a portion of land that is a part of the city’s Historic Colored Addition. Originally named St. Mary’s Cemetery, the area was designated as a segregated burial site for black and Mexican residents.
Volunteers from Black Pflugerville adopted the site in 2016 and take care of its maintenance. Pflugerville City Council dedicated $3.1 million in infrastructure improvements and upkeep of the site during a June 11 meeting, which Lamey said bolstered the collaboration between the city and Black Pflugerville.
“When people look at black history or Mexican history or Asian history, they tend to look at those lenses as, ‘Well, that’s the history of black people, that’s the history of Hispanic people, that’s the history of Asian people,’” Metayer said. “No. That’s all our history. We are, all of us, the German settlement here in Pflugerville. That’s our history.”
Black Pflugerville, Lamey said, is an opportunity to look forward to ways all citizens can see their cultural identities recognized and celebrated. As the city’s population continues to diversify, Lamey said its diversity will simultaneously enhance the quality of life for its residents.
“It’s not just black people moving [to Pflugerville]. It’s a lot of Asians, Latinos, Native Americans,” Lamey said. “Pflugerville is a melting pot right now.”
As the city continues to grow in overall population size and diversity, Lamey said it is important for city officials to consider how to continually better the quality of life for its residents. Lamey said he would like to see more priority placed on establishing a public transportation system as well as being conscientious of the jobs available to keep residents working in the same communities they are living in.
Pflugerville’s future economic development
Approximately 92% of Pflugerville residents commute out of the city each day for work, according to data presented by Avalanche Consulting. It is a concern, Lamey said, that needs to be addressed on a citywide level.
“The whole problem that we had with Black Pflugerville when we first started was that lack of participation from the community—until they got to know who we were, a lot of people were not involved with us on the local level, with Pflugerville,” Lamey said. “They’re living in Pflugerville, but they work in Austin, and they commute back and forth, and they really don’t care about what’s going on.”
At a business breakfast hosted by the Pflugerville Community Development Corp. on July 11, former Pflugerville Mayor Jeff Coleman asked how the city can be proactive in advertising its diversity to help bring in outside business partners and economic developments. It was a question, Metayer said, that needs to become a central focus of City Council’s future initiatives.
“From our standpoint, we need to do a better job of conveying what we’re doing with our diversity, and how our diversity has driven our population numbers,” Metayer said. “Because they see a diverse population; they see a high quality of life; and therefore they want to be a part of it.”
Metayer said he wants Austin to succeed and credits its current council members with being more conscientious and taking measures to help mitigate some of the effects gentrification has had on the city. But what he sees as a vision for Austin, he said, is an existing reality in Pflugerville.
“We’ve shown that we care about embracing diversity and working with a diverse population and that you’re not going to be relocated to a certain area of town,” Metayer said. “You’re going to be in the middle and heart of our community.”