Each spring, a few weeks after South by Southwest and St. Patrick’s Day, Austin welcomes 40,000 visitors to town for the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays at the University of Texas. It’s known around Texas simply as the Texas Relays, and this year, some of the state’s best athletes will compete at the Mike A. Myers Stadium in events that will run from Wednesday through Sunday.
But "welcome" might be too strong a word. The Relays annually draw a predominately African-American crowd and an estimated $8 million in tourism money to Austin. In recent years that crowd and its money have been treated with disdain. In 2009, ramps to Sixth Street and other downtown exits on Interstate 35 were closed. Bars on Sixth Street said they wouldn’t open and, most famously, the management at Highland Mall closed the mall's doors at 2 p.m.
In 2010, after the black community protested outside of Highland Mall the previous year, City Councilwoman Sheryl Cole and others worked to create more cultural events for the African-American spectators and competitors in town for the Relays. The Mall stayed open, but there were more police added to address any security issues the ghost town of a shopping area had related to black visitors. All was seemingly well.
The Relays annually draw a predominately African-American crowd and an estimated $8 million in tourism money to Austin. In recent years that crowd and its money have been treated with disdain.
But last year, Bob Woody, who is sometimes referred to as the Mayor of Sixth Street because he owns a number of businesses downtown, closed the businesses he owned during the Texas Relays. One of his businesses boarded over its windows.
When I talked to him last year, I asked him if the decision was race related. His answer was that he takes his employees on an annual trip each year to reward them for their hard work. In 2011, the best time to take them all out of town just happened to be during Relays weekend.
It’s possible that this year Austin might finally get things right when it comes to the Relays, but it’s hard to tell. The Austin Police Department puts more police in place for the Relays than it does for the much larger and sometimes rowdier South by Southwest. Police did not respond to requests for more information about why that’s necessary and what plans are for Relays this year.
A Familiar Hurdle
Native Austinite Homer Hill, who started the Austin Urban Music Festival — now in its seventh year — has created the largest cultural event of Relays Weekend. This year, the two-day festival at Auditorium Shores will feature legendary names in R&B: Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Boyz II Men.
“A city seeing the population they view as an abject minority quadrupling, they don’t know how to react to it,” Hill says. “It presents the same dilemmas every event presents — parking issues, more pedestrians — it’s just more of whatever.”
African Americans make up about eight percent of Austin's population and are rarely concentrated in downtown spaces, if, in fact, they are concentrated anywhere in Central Texas. The response to a tripling or quadrupling of the black population, then, has led to “those incidents where certain venues shut down, or in some cases, there was over policing, which makes people feel unwelcome in the city,” Hill says. “But that’s not reflective of the city in general.”
The music festival drew about 7,000 people the first year, when Chaka Khan was the headliner. But the year after was icy and ticket sales dropped.
“The storm of the Century in 2007 still affects ticket sales because now people wait before they buy tickets,” Hill says. So his main hope is that spring weather will hold up and draw at least as many festivalgoers as 2011 (that was about 15,000 people).
For the first time since 2007, the festival has expanded to Friday and Saturday nights and will feature up and coming nationally known R&B acts like Melanie Fiona and Miguel.
“We skewed it to the younger population, and we hope to have about 5,000 people on Friday,” Hill says. “We didn’t schedule any hip hop into the lineup, since so many of the hip hop artists don’t want to bring their show down to a PG-13 level.
"We don’t want to censor people, and it’s a family festival.”
The 85th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays run through Sunday. Events will be held throughout the next five days at the Mike A. Myers stadium. General admission tickets are $10, and reserved tickets are $15.
The 7th Austin Urban Music Festival will be held at Auditorium Shores on Friday and Saturday. General admission tickets are $25 for Friday’s lineup and $30 for Saturday.