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East Waco Renaissance Brings New Life To District One While Fighting to Preserve Culture

(Kristina Valdez/ KWBU)
Elm Avenue

Major changes are coming to Waco’s District One. Thirty seven percent of the city’s new reconstruction and design budget will be poured into several areas including East Waco, Cameron Park and McLennan Community College. Residents in District One are looking forward to the new changes but not without concern. 

Before I-35 moved traffic through Waco, Elm Avenue in East Waco was the main street to get through the city. Elm Avenue brought business, people and life. Andrea Barefield was elected as city councilwoman for District One in May 2018.

“That was a hub. Anything that was culturally specific to black life — it resonated in East Waco,” Barefield said.

Barefield became Waco’s first African-American council member to grow up after the civil rights movement.

“What I have the opportunity and privilege to do is take a perspective of post-integration,” Barefield said. 

She is the daughter of the former Waco Mayor Mae Jackson – who became Waco’s first and only popularly elected African-American mayor.Barefield watched her mother serve as both city council member for District One and mayor. She says she has noticed in her first year that she is dealing with some of the same problems - like infrastructure - that her mother had to deal with almost 20 years ago.

“In a way, that’s my greatest disappointment: that there hasn’t been a lot of evolution for my district, but it gives me the opportunity to, one, finish what she started and, two, put a little Andrea on it,” Barefield said. 

But while Barefield acknowledges the issues in District One, she has a plan that will grow the predominately African-American community. 

“We have a streetscape project underway,” Barefield said. “We’re getting new pipes, waterlines under the street. We are getting new sidewalks, ADA specification lighting.”

Along with the improvements, new businesses like hotels will be joining the district. For business and home owners, preserving the historical parts of East Waco is a priority also – but some are concerned about what the new development may bring. 

Carla Dodson owns a 25 by 30-foot lot where she manages a family food truck on Elm Avenue. She has been there for six years and makes a point to wave at customers who honk as they pass by.

Carla Dodson owns the food truck Boardwalk on Elm. (Kristina Valdez/KWBU)

“Everybody is not in agreement with the changes but, you know what, change happens,” Dodson said.

After Dodson served in the United States Airforce, she moved back to Waco and made District One her home. Her top concern about the development is rising property taxes — specifically how they affect the elderly. 

“People buying them out and not really giving them the value of what a home should be. And then you got some of the people who don’t want to move,” Dodson said.

She also said she has also seen her property taxes increase.

“What happens to people [who] are on a fixed income? Because I can fix mine,” Barefield said. “What happens to those people [who] cannot?”

Despite her worries, Dodson is excited for the changes happening to District One.

The growth and change happening in East Waco is also reaching new residents. Chris Clark began renovating his new home in District One seven months ago.

“The growth opportunity seemed good. It is a good place for young entrepreneurs like myself to come back,” Clark said.

Chris Clark moved back to Waco after finishing law school in Minnesota. He is renovating his house off of Elm Avenue. (Kristina Valdez/KWBU)

After graduating from Baylor University and finishing law school in Minnesota, he moved back to Waco to start his own law practice. He says he is looking forward to the changes coming to the neighborhood. 

“I’m really excited for the new streetscape coming on Elm Street as well as the turning over of the different properties — even just that the properties are changing hands to folks with some vision,” Clark said.

Although he is for the development, Clark still recognizes some problems it could bring to current residents. 

“I think East Waco has this particular energy about it and its fear of gentrification which is well noted,” Clark said. “I think East Waco is particularly strong in advocating for its own rights.” 

Andrea Barefield said she knows when to negotiate and when to fight for the rights of District One, a lesson she learned from her mother. 

“We are strong in our community, we are strong in our voice and we are flatfooted about it,” Barefield said. “And unapologetic about what we want to see happen in our community.”

Barefield also says she is excited to see a new renaissance in East Waco, welcoming the evolution and growth.

“It is a historic African-American business district,” Barefield said. “If you are not of color and you’re coming to East Waco, just know where you are coming.” 

Although many residents can agree that the development in District One is needed, no one wants to lose what this community was built on.

Kristina Valdez joined the KWBU staff in January 2019 as a reporting intern. Kristina is a junior journalism major from Dallas, Texas. 2019 is a big year for Kristina: she will be studying abroad in London during the summer and graduating a semester early in December. Kristina is excited for a career in journalism, telling thoughtful and rich stories.