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Role of cultural heritage in historic zoning up for Council consideration

Thursday, March 10, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Debate over an East Austin home once owned by the daughter of a prominent member of the city’s early Asian community could open up a new front in the battle over the city’s historic landmark process. When Council holds a hearing on the Paulson-Sing house at today’s meeting, the issue of cultural and ethnic heritage will likely play as prominent a role in the discussion as architectural and historic significance.


The Paulson-Sing House, a frame bungalow located on Willow Street just south of East Cesar Chavez Street, has already divided opinion among Council’s advisory groups. Both the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of rezoning the house historic. City staff, however, is not recommending the house for historic rezoning because, according to city documents, “the test for ‘historic’ designation is not met.”


Staff’s argument is that the historically significant person related to the house, Joe Sing, never actually lived there. Rather, his daughter, Margaret, bought the house in 1992, 65 years after her father’s death.


Joe Sing emigrated from China and opened up a laundry in Austin in the late 19th century. He was one of the first Asians to reside in Austin and became a prominent member of the city’s Asian community. During a time when Asians couldn’t buy a house or even secure loans, Sing was known to lend other members of his community money, and his home was a social and cultural center for the city’s small Asian population.


Documents belonging to Sing were donated to the Austin History Center after Margaret Sing’s death in 2007 and became the Sing Family Collection, the first Asian-American archive acquired under the Asian American Liaison program.


Still, city staff determined that since Sing never lived in the Paulson-Sing house, it doesn’t meet the requirements of a historically significant home. That said, the house did receive a historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission last October because it “provides a physical link to the family’s Chinese history.”


At Tuesday’s Council work session, the Paulson-Singe House became the jumping off point for a discussion about the role cultural and ethnic heritage should play in the historic rezoning process. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, in particular, used the occasion to advocate for making heritage a larger part of the historic landmark selection process. The issue is particularly pressing now, with city staff preparing alterations to the landmark ordinance and citywide debate going on over the racial, geographical, and economic equity of the historic zoning process.  


“We’re starting to take into account heritage and how someone’s heritage truly adds to the value of preserving historical properties that reflect people’s heritage,” said Martinez. “I look forward to that because I think there is a dearth of historic preservation as it relates to Mexican American and Hispanic heritage preservation. And I think there are plenty of opportunities in East Austin for African American and Mexican American preservation of historic properties, and I’m glad to see that we take that into account. But I also want to say I don’t think we have as much as we should in regard to African American and Mexican American culture. I just haven’t seen it. (We’ve done some) but there are so many other opportunities in East Austin we’re not considering.


“How do we go about honoring the historic legacies of some of the folks who were born and raised in East Austin?”

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