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E4 Youth confronts gentrification in East Austin with virtual, augmented reality

People can use a project created by students to digitally 'resurrect' sites historic to Black community

Carl Settles knows he can’t “ungentrify” East Austin, but he refuses to let the area’s rich history disappear. 

Dramatic demographic shifts, skyrocketing property values and an influx of wealth have over the past decade rendered neighborhoods at the traditional heart of Austin’s Black and Hispanic communities unrecognizable to longtime residents.

Settles, founder and executive director of the nonprofit E4 Youth, is training young people to use future technologies so they can preserve the past. The students, whom he calls “digital docents,” have been creating immersive alternative and augmented reality experiences that transform East Austin into a virtual museum, bringing to life sites that were important to the community.

The project has two approaches. Through the Austin Digital Heritage Project, people will be able to visit the Harlem Theater, the Victory Grill and one of the city’s first pharmacies for Black people. Through the social media initiative What Once Was, people will be able to create their own shareable content about those sites.   

The students working on the project take ownership of telling the history of marginalized people in Austin while developing valuable skills that will allow them to engage with the city’s booming tech sector. 

“We can't change the fact that some of these places have been erased,” said Joseph Mayang, a senior at the University of Texas who has served as an E4 Youth digital docent. “But if we can at least educate the public, educate the community on the severity of this problem as well as the people it affects, then, by all means, at least it's a start."

Preserving Black heritage in Austin

Settles formed E4 Youth over a decade ago to build a bridge between creative high school and college students from underserved communities and the high-tech industries that are transforming their city. Investors like the St. David's Foundation, Austin Communities Foundation, United Way of Greater Austin and Glimmer Austin sustain the nonprofit. Through the years, Settles has built relationships with corporate partners such as Microsoft, Applied Materials and Google Fiber, as well as the advertising agency GSD&M.

An accomplished keyboard player who performed in clubs around Austin for 25 years, Settles also has worked as a teacher, as an e-learning software developer and in advertising. He saw the way jobs in the so-called "creative sector" — careers that include programming, advertising and media production — drive the city's growth, but "Austin's creative kids of color and poor creative kids are really ignored," he said.  Around 2007, he decided to "put the whole music thing on the shelf" so he could focus on helping those kids reach their full potential. 

E4 Youth has a music program and a "Creative Pathways" podcast that features interviews with technology professionals, but over the past few years, Settles has focused on storytelling and history. 

As Austin City Council voted to use city resources to nurture the growth of an African American Cultural Heritage District in East Austin last fall, E4 Youth partnered with Six Square, the nonprofit that serves as keeper of the area’s history, to create content around sites within the district. 

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“With them actually saying that we're going to actually have a Black cultural arts district — we really want to be at the forefront of that,” Settles said. 

He continued, “We're training and employing college-age, BIPOC youth to research different locations around the city (and) go out and do interviews to collect oral histories.” (BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.) 

They use the stories collected to create immersive experiences related to those locations. For the digital heritage program, the students use a map-based storytelling platform that merges 360-degree photography, audio and video clips and historic photographs. While the content will be available via web browser, a virtual reality headset adds deeper dimensions to the experience, transporting the user to each site where community members share their memories.  

Harper Biewen, creative director for What Once Was, and Froliq volunteer Jorge Ortiz test E4 Youth's What Once Was AR module outside Victory Grill on Feb. 14. The project uses Instagram filters to restore significant sites in East Austin.

“(We) tell you the stories that are quickly being erased,” said Laura Souto, a UT student working on the project. 

They’re launching the project with sites that have strong cultural significance to the community. The Victory Grill was a popular club on the chitlin' circuit, a network of venues that welcomed Black musicians in the segregated South. In the building occupied by the restaurant Hillside Farmacy, Ulysses “Doc” Young opened one of Austin’s few pharmacies for Black people in the ‘50s. The Harlem Theater, a cinema house, was once a popular gathering place for Black Austinites. They are also creating content around significant Hispanic heritage sites. 

E4 Youth's augmented reality initiative What Once Was can be accessed through the social media app Instagram. What Once Was layers filters of historic locations over the current sites. Users can take photos or create videos telling their own stories about the sites and share them through Instagram and Facebook.

“We've joked amongst the Six Square team, we wish that there was an onboarding process for people moving to Austin,” said Regine Malibiran, who works on communication and events for Six Square. She thinks a crash course on the city’s Black and brown history could open people’s eyes, “especially if they're going to move into a cute flat on the east side.”

Both projects will launch with an event at the George Washington Carver Museum on March 12 during the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals. The event will include a panel discussion with Black academics and community leaders about the intersection of history and technology; a vendor market featuring Black makers and organizations; and demos of the heritage project experience with VR goggles. The event is free and open to the public. 

Harper Biewen takes a photo of Froliq's Jorge Ortiz and E4 Youth digital docents Darnell Wilson and Bekah Diaz outside the Victory Grill. Biewen, who works in advertising, moved to Austin in 2018. She had the idea for What Once Was after hearing countless stories about how much the city had changed. A dominant narrative was centered around the fact that it's becoming "more culturally white," she said.

A new way to experience history

Souto has spent hours editing interview footage collected by other digital docents. She was struck by the community members’ vivid storytelling. Going into the project, she was aware of the historical significance of Interstate 35 as a dividing line between Black and white Austin. But listening to another student’s interview with her grandmother about the street that was bulldozed to create the freeway was eye-opening. 

East Avenue was a broad city boulevard with green space in the middle. Kids would meet under the trees after school. “It was a really critical space to that community,” Souto said. 

As more people move to East Austin, “indirectly pushing out the people that lived these stories,” the more “diluted the history becomes,” Malibiran said.

“That is why it's important for us to engage people in unique and interesting ways," she said.

I-35 is one of the spaces that will be featured on the digital heritage project platform.  

When Harper Biewen moved to Austin, she was struck by the way “almost all true Austinites talk about how much it's changed over the years,” she said, noting that a dominant narrative was about how the city was becoming “more culturally white.”

Biewen, who works in advertising, had an idea for an augmented reality project that would “kind of reveal these BIPOC-owned businesses and cultural centers that used to be around and have since been gentrified.”

“But I didn't feel like that was my story to tell being that, you know, I'm a white woman who moved here in 2018,” she said. When she reached out to Six Square, they connected her with E4 Youth. 

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Jason Rodriguez, co-founder of Froliq XR, a company that specializes in creating immersive digital experiences, had already worked with Settles and E4 Youth through the organization’s partnership with the nonprofit Latinitas. Rodriguez grew up in the Austin area and calls the changes over the last decade “pretty mind-blowing in a lot of ways.” Partnering with E4 Youth and Biewen on the What Once Was project was “a no-brainer,” he said. 

“Being Mexican American and having hung out at these places,” he said, he recognizes the grief among communities that feel like they are losing “a piece of their heritage.”

The way most people interact with augmented reality is through filters on social media applications like Instagram and Facebook. It usually shows “what could be,” Mayang said. If you're making a post about a celebration, you can add “streamers or confetti coming down," he said.   

Businesses have experimented with using augmented reality to add things to a physical space. Amazon has an AR view feature that allows you to use your phone’s camera to place virtual furniture and home décor in a space. The popular game "Pokémon Go," where users hunt for virtual characters in real geographical spaces, is also built around augmented reality. 

“I had never seen it used to bring something back,” Biewen said. What Once Was filters will project the marquee of the Harlem Theater onto a fence in the empty lot where it once sat. At the historic Victory Grill, you’ll see an animation of a pair of Black musicians jamming on piano and bass. 

The fact that What Once Was allows users to create shareable social media content is part of its appeal. “We're living in the age of social media,” Souto said. 

As a young person, that’s where she gets most of her information. It’s also how she connects with other people. “So having that sort of connection point with the next generation, I think, is very critical,” she said. 

Carl Settles, director of E4 Youth, explains how the What Once Was project works at Hillside Farmacy in East Austin. The restaurant was once the site of Hillside Drugstore, one of the only pharmacies in the city that served Austin's Black community.

How do we build a bridge?

Some of the sites that the What Once Was project creators chose to highlight have been flashpoints of controversy around gentrification in the recent past. You can stand in front of Soona, a photo and video studio on Cesar Chavez Street, and see the façade of the Jumpolin piñata shop, which was demolished in 2016, sparking protests in East Austin. 

Settles’ team has been working with the owners of Lou’s Bodega, which faced accusations of cultural appropriation in 2019 when it opened in a space occupied by Leal’s Tire Shop and used the old business' Aztec murals as part of its branding.  

At the time, Settles said, organizers of the protests against Lou’s rebuffed the new business owner’s attempts to communicate. He believes that was a lost opportunity. In the same vein, some people were angry when the restaurant Hillside Farmacy opened in 2012, but the building "was vacant for how long before they moved in?” Settles said. 

“We're not trying to be sellouts, but we're trying to be realistic,” he said. “We're not going to be able to take it back."

He believes a productive goal now is: “How do we build a bridge?”

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Businesses often tell Six Square they want to invest in the community. 

“Part of the intent of including them in a project like What Once Was, is ‘OK, let's take that talk and now let's do something about it … help us tell the history of this neighborhood,'” Malibiran said.  

When E4 Youth approaches businesses about participating in the project, Settles takes a sponsorship package.

“We want to be able to go to those businesses and say, ‘Hey, you're here. Right? But here is a way for you to be able to invest in the communities that are being displaced,'" Settles said. "'And by giving these students these opportunities to learn these skills and be employed, you're really giving them an opportunity to access these high-growth careers.'”

As the What Once Was project grows, Settles imagines a future where users could go on scavenger hunts to the different sites, with the project bringing new customers to the business’ doors. 

“The idea for me is, again, how do you build this coalition that's acknowledging the past, but also really proactively building toward a more inclusive future?” Settles said. 

Jason Rodriguez, co-founder of Froliq, a company that specializes in immersive digital experiences, partnered with Harper Biewen, left, and E4 Youth to develop What Once Was. Rodriguez, who is passionate about working to bridge the digital divide, said it was a "no-brainer" to get involved in the project.

‘We lift as we climb’

While both of E4 Youth's history projects are about creating experiences to educate people, the process of creation is as important as the final product. 

The students learn how to research and find information. They learn how to storyboard and how coding works. They learn how to conduct, film and edit interviews. 

“Last year, we hired 18 college students as a part of E4 Youth, starting at $15 an hour,” Settles said. “About half of those were working specifically on creating this content.”

“They've really been the ones to bring this project to life,” Biewen said. 

The other half of E4 Youth’s young staff worked as creative mentors leading high school enrichment clubs, teaching those same skills to younger students.  

“We're technically like employees of E4 Youth, but at the same time, we're more than just employees. We’re young creatives who are working with each other. We're young creatives who are working with our community. I think that's what is very special about this role,” Mayang said.  

E4 Youth has partnered with other local nonprofits that support youths of color, including Latinitas, Creative Action and Con Mi Madre. “We're working with them to implement this curriculum in their clubs. The idea is that these kids use these exact same techniques to tell their own stories,” Settles said. 

An E4 Youth motto that stuck with Souto: “We lift as we climb.”

“The premise behind this whole project is to uplift as many people as possible,” she said. 

The project was deliberately designed to be scalable, and Settles sees a future where the Digital Heritage Project and What Once Was branch beyond Austin.  

“The idea is, how do you create a pipeline, right?” Settles said. “We want 15,000 plus kids, ages 16 to 24, across Central Texas, most of those BIPOC kids, to know the history, but also have all of these key digital literacy skills.”

“If you look at (tech industry) inequities, not just in Central Texas, but across the U.S., you can only see that it's accelerating,” Rodriguez said. Programs that target college students “leave out a whole group that might not even have the curiosity spark to even want to go. So hitting them and getting folks involved early is super key,” he said. 

Working on the project also underlined the core challenges of bridging the digital divide. Students were excited. They wanted to be involved, but some of them were already balancing school with work. In some cases, the students were working multiple jobs. 

“One of the biggest takeaways is that even (with) the best-intentioned projects (financially) supported by the right people, you still have real barriers out there to getting the knowledge out there,” he said. 

To address these challenges, Rodriguez’s developers learned to be flexible, sometimes meeting in the evenings to accommodate students' schedules. 

“What's kind of cool about us is, as we’re able to transfer that knowledge to some of the students, then you're reducing the time of the projects to be executed,” he said. 

It’s also exciting to see these students master emerging technology. 

“These things aren't being taught in schools yet,” he said. “Virtual augmented reality classes are just now going to specialized universities.” 

He thinks augmented and virtual reality technology will have myriad uses from assisted driving to medical applications in the future. 

For now, Settles is focused on developing a nine-piece workshop series that will teach club facilitators to use “really simple, cheap tools” to help students learn to tell their own stories. 

“And then they'll start to come up with their own stuff," he said. "And blow us away.”

What Once Was at SXSW

E4 Youth will celebrate the launch of their augmented reality project at the George Washington Carver Museum. The event, which is free and open to the public, will include a panel discussion with Black technology professionals, light refreshments, a vendor market and demos of the digital heritage project with virtual reality headsets. 

When: 1 to 4 p.m. March 12.

Where: 1165 Angelina St. 

E4 Youth Programs

E4 Youth's Get Creative enrichment clubs are available at eight Austin-area high schools including Crockett, Akins and East Austin Prep. The ATX Get Creative Virtual Club is open to all Austin-area high school students who are interested in building a digital portfolio. The club meets from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. E4 Youth also has a Creative Leadership Academy for ages 18-24.

Information is available at e4youth.org