By Camille Garcia, Thomas Hushen and Christina Noriega
Sitting at the corner of East Sixth Street and Comal Street, the small, dusty house turned bar named La Perla or “The Pearl” may seem out of place next to the upscale venues and pop-up food trucks lining the street.
Owner of La Perla Eddie Costilla said he regularly sees the new generation of East Austin goers pause on the sidewalk in front of his bar, peer in curiously and walk away.
“They’re not sure if they want to go in; they just don’t want to take that risk,” Costilla said. He admits, “It’s nothing too spectacular, but it’s not too big of a letdown.”
Preserved intact from the 1950s, La Perla is an East Austin artifact, a step into a past when gentrification had not yet shaken the neighborhood. On weekdays, the regulars – most of them Tejano men 50 years old or older– will congregate after work for a $1 Bud Light and chat over a Tejano favorite playing from the jukebox. But on Sundays, the regulars bring their families and friends for a game or two of pool. People dance to Bobby Pulido or chug down one of La Perla’s famous Armodelos, a spicy variation of the Mexican beer Modelo Especial. Before the buyouts began, this was the norm on East Sixth Street.
“Five years ago, we had at least ten bars down this road that were all Tejano,” Costilla said. “And now it’s down to one or two.”
With the closure of Tejano bar Cappuccino’s on Wednesday, La Perla is closer to becoming the only Tejano bar or cantina in Austin. As property taxes continue to rise in East Austin, Castillo said La Perla will eventually close too.
“All I can do right now is try to keep up with it and hope that [property taxes] are not going to go up too much more,” Costilla said.
With the City of Austin bringing in more than 150 new residents a day, growth has increased exponentially throughout East Austin, causing improvements in safety and property values as well as displacing residents and business owners who can no longer afford their rent. Castillo said the Tejano bars on East Sixth Street closed after their lease was bought out by wealthy developers, who then opened rock music venues or cocktail bars.
Julian Vasquez Heileg, associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin, said in major cities such as Chicago and Dallas gentrification has pushed out low-income and mostly Latino and African-American communities from land they had been segregated to.
“What wealthy individuals, especially real estate investors have discovered is that communities of color are located in very ideal locations,” Vasquez Haileg said.
Though the neighborhoods have drastically changed in the last decade, historically Latinos and African-Americans primarily populated East Austin, though not by choice. Vasquez Heileg said City of Austin planners pushed Latino and black communities from Central Austin to the East side during the Jim Crow era through real estate red-lining and other de jure segregation methods. In the 1960s, the construction of Interstate 35 sealed the divide between the primarily white, downtown Austin and the East Austin populated by communities of color.
Some of La Perla’s long-time customers or “the old-timers” as Costilla puts it grew up in Austin during this time. In his adolescence, Edward García, a devoted customer since 1955, said he remembers when Latinos had to eat their meals outside at white-only restaurants and when the Tejano bars moved from Central Austin to East Austin.
“Back then you didn’t know it was discrimination,” García said.
While the majority of La Perla’s customers have been regulars for decades, others like Ray Gonzales started going to La Perla six years ago, after the Tejano bars on East Sixth Street closed down. He said the gentrification of East Austin has erased many popular, communal spaces for Tejanos.
“There’s no place for us to congregate anymore and meet people unless you go to someone’s house, but it’s not the same. You want the music and the – it’s kind of hard to explain,” Gonzales said. “I’m losing my culture, I’m losing my people, I’m losing the businesses I use to go to, I’m losing all that.”
Vasquez Heileg said gentrification nationwide has revived the historical segregation of communities of color.
“What you see now in Houston, Austin, Chicago and Dallas is a redux of the historical approaches to these population except for now, these approaches are not under de jure practices or those required by law, but de facto practices,” Vasquez Heileg said.
Costilla said despite the decrease in Tejano bars, Tejano culture can still survive in East Austin
“If the few that are Hispanic and that have grown up in East Austin can all stick together even with the new people coming in, we can preserve that heritage in this East Austin area,” Costilla said.