Black Churches Worth More to Austin, Texas, than Land Value

St. Annie’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood is in a bidding war that pits its preservation as a historic structure against its demolition for redevelopment.
St. Annie’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood is in a bidding war that pits its preservation as a historic structure against its demolition for redevelopment.

As I toured the trendy Bouldin Creek neighborhood — west of South Congress Avenue and just south of Lady Bird Lake — I could see remnants of a once-thriving black community of freed slaves who lived in this area following the Civil War and into the 1950s. Today, a handful of structures, including at least two African-American churches, are all that is left of the so-called Brackenridge community. 

Goodwill Baptist Church and St. Annie’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, both on Newton Street, were an integral part of that community, says Cory Walton, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, who showed me around. He pointed out other structures with historic value, including the home of Negro National League baseball great Willie Wells, which has been designated an Austin landmark.

While congregations of churches fled the neighborhood following Austin’s 1928 plan that forced African-Americans to relocate east of Interstate 35, the churches have remained remarkably the same — unmoved by time, events or circumstances.

But there are larger, more threatening forces amassing.

The city’s red-hot real estate market – especially in neighborhoods near downtown – has triggered a redevelopment frenzy that has deep-pocketed developers eyeing and buying black churches, which are sitting atop prime real estate in gentrified neighborhoods. With land so scarce near downtown, those churches – specifically the land underneath them – are being targeted for the next wave of condos, townhouses, apartments and other high-end homes.

In some cases, the churches have shunned enticements. In other cases, they realize they are sitting on gold mines and want to cash in on the opportunity at their door.

Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, looking to relocate to larger facilities to accommodate its growing congregation, recently sold its home since 1958 on Pennsylvania Street in East Austin to Dallas-based Zebra Chalk, a limited liability company. This year, the church’s property value was assessed at $2.1 million by the Travis Central Appraisal District.

Though the church is eligible for historic landmark status because of its age, it never applied for such status. As a historic landmark, its redevelopment value would be greatly diminished by policies governing historic landmarks and zoning, which restrict exterior renovations and make it more difficult to demolish. Without such zoning, demolition is relatively simple.

David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on East Martin Luther King Boulevard, designed by John Chase and built in 1958, also is contemplating selling its property and moving to another location.

Though those decisions might seem like straight-forward business transactions, they are complicated by race and history because so many African-American churches serve as markers of Austin’s racial duality, which denied African-Americans voting rights, equitable schools and access to public and private accommodations, including churches. At the same time, segregated communities in which blacks of all income levels lived spawned a black renaissance of entrepreneurship, homeownership, college education and upward mobility.

Selling out to the highest bidder might be a solid business decision for black churches that are gaining wealth. But it’s a losing proposition for Austin’s African-American community, whose legacy is being erased with each sale and each demolition.

That is the struggle confronting St. Annie’s AME in Bouldin Creek.

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Source: Austin American-Statesman | Alberta Phillips