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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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March 1, 2008 3:13 PM

How I burnt my shoe and met Rudy

Posted by Richard Wagoner

This post is by Will Mari, a University of Washington student who, along with other members of professor David Domke's blogging class, is filing reports from Texas in advance of Tuesday key primary election there. Go here to see other dispatches from the class.

AUSTIN- It’s about 9 p.m. on a Friday night in East Austin. Rudy Malveaux, a community organizer and volunteer for Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign, is busy grilling burgers.

I smell burnt rubber.

“That’s rather odd,” I thought. I’m talking to Malveaux about the Obama neighborhood block party that’s just now wrapping up. The buzz of street lights and crickets blend together in the humid air.

I look down, and note calmly that my right shoe is on fire. To be more accurate, the corner of the rubber sole is melting on a piece of stray charcoal. I stamp it out, and get back to listening.

What Malveaux is talking about is too important to ignore, burning shoe or no.

“What we’re talking about is the realization of the dreams people died for,” he says.

I finish putting out my shoe-fire, and look up. He’s got my attention. I ask him to clarify.

“We’re talking about a black man running for president and winning in a state that has so much history, I don’t know what to do with it,” he added.

That “history” is a history of racism and urban poverty in East Austin. Jim Crow didn’t die easily in this part of the South, Malveaux said, and that legacy of racism combined with poverty made for a painful combination.

It wasn’t long ago, Malveaux said, that his community was regarded as one of the roughest parts of town, with a reputation for drug-dealing and violence.

For the past several years, the at-times controversial Austin Revitalization Authority has been working to restore East Austin through community development projects.

But an Austin American-Statesman story from July 2003 on the ARA’s initial efforts in the area included this piece of criticism:

Some see the ARA as straying from its purpose, arguing that small businesses won't be able to stay when the ARA is done with the place.

"ARA was created to fulfill the initiative of transforming the 11th and 12th street corridor into a business zone with African American businesses supported by government funding," said Akwasi Evans, publisher and editor of the Nokoa newspaper, which operates out of a tiny office on Angelina Street. "Now 11th and 12th streets are being transformed into a business corridor for white-owned businesses."

Evans is not the first to charge that the ARA has become a vehicle for the "G" word: gentrification. The high-end office space, the town homes that will run in the $230,000s . . . Are they the best projects to help the small and minority-owned businesses and East Austin residents?

Still, the efforts have brought people of sometimes vastly different backgrounds together, despite the gentrification, or aging, of the local population as younger people move to cheaper areas in Travis County, Malveaux said.

But another force is at work to heal some of the still very raw racial tensions in this mostly minority community: the enthusiasm for Barack Obama that’s transcending old boundaries.

“Folks who never talk to each other are now shopping together, their kids are playing together,” he said. “We’re starting to realize that we’re in this together.”

He sees this election as an opportunity to change the way Texans vote.

“In a sense, Texas is responsible for Bush … what we’re doing is fixing the eight-year screw-up that’s GWB,” he said.

He admits that Texas Democrats, especially in Austin, still have a ways to go in terms of getting themselves organized for a post-presidential season.

“We’re a work in progress,” Malveaux said. But “we find that have more in common that we thought,” starting with Obama. Malveaux and others see Obama as a sort of living metaphor for what America can be, a racial uniter in the truest sense.

“It’s bringing people together like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

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