Undergraduate Research

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Emily Prines

Image of Emily Prines sitting in front of skeleton display case in the UT Anthropology department, giving the Hook Em Horns sign
Business and Public Policy Certificate
Graduation Year:
Summer 2020

Faculty supervisor: Dr. Marina Peterson
Name of project: Universities, Urban Design, and Unease: The Invisible Presence of The University of Texas at Austin in Shaping the City’s Landscape

Please give a brief, simplified overview of your research project.
Abstract: While there is a burgeoning discussion of the forces of urban renewal, gentrification, and investment in Austin, less attention has been given to UT’s contribution to this change. In addition, how the university moves and establishes a presence throughout the city is unquestioned. The university’s flow of operations is constant and without conflict, which allows the university to expand and develop in a silent and invisible manner. However, in moments of conflict the university’s invisible operations are revealed. I examine the Blackland Neighborhood as a crucial case study of a vocal community that responded to UT’s expansion into East Austin and revealed the university’s silent and powerful land procurement operations. I investigate East Riverside as a case study that exemplifies the university’s role in off-campus student housing and development across Austin. The university’s historic involvement in the development of E. Riverside in relation to the current rezoning crisis is a point of contradiction that reveals the true nature of the university’s operations and missions. We must consider UT’s roles as 1) a crucial property owner, 2) a developer, and 3) an agent for student housing across Austin. Bringing attention to the university’s roles and statuses within the city allows us to view universities as more than places of education, but as institutions that have the capacity to shape a city.

Describe the tasks you engage in as part of your work.
I researched the history of UT’s formation and land ownership by going through the archives of the Daily Texan Newspaper and the Board of Regents Agendas from the 1910s to now. I researched the housing crisis in Austin and the history of gentrification in the city. I reached out to the Blackland Community Development Corporation to build a relationship with an organization that has a history of land conflict with UT and the city. I researched and participated in the student protests and outreach during the rezoning issue in East Riverside in October. I conducted interviews with UT students and residents and completed hours of ethnographic research throughout East Austin and East Riverside.

Describe what you thought college might be like before you came to UT. Did you consider research when thinking about college?
I thought college was going to be academically challenging, but I never realized how difficult the other aspects of college could be, such as finding housing, transportation, and social networks. I thought college was a mix of frat parties, studying, classes, and napping, but gladly it is much more than that. I did consider research when thinking about college, but I had no idea what to research or where to even start. I also always thought research was done in scientific labs or think-tank rooms, I never really considered the different types of research before attending college.

How did you get involved with your research project?
My research was a senior honors thesis with the department of anthropology. Through the thesis program I was able to find an advisor and formulate my research. Before I applied to be a part of the program, I had to come up with at least a basic idea of the research I wanted to conduct. I knew I was interested in gentrification and how universities in large college towns contributed to it. I then narrowed my research down to UTSA and UT, but in order to have a richer product I decided to research only UT.

Do you see your project connecting with your plans for your future?
I believe my project and the research I conducted at UT connects deeply to my future and my passions. I enjoy working with the community and housing projects, and through my thesis I am able to understand the nuances and consequences of gentrification. I can recognize the patterns of gentrification and understand the pain many individuals face when being displaced.
I also hope to enter a grad program in the next coming years and my research provides me with great experience that I can apply in future classes. My research also opens doors for me in urban planning and design, as I understand the impacts institutions have on the landscape and the city’s citizens.

What is the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve gotten to do for this project?
During my project I got to interact with longtime residents of East Austin. I met an extraordinary woman that was born and raised in East Austin, and has lived within 4 square blocks of the home she was born in. I was able to study the deep culture of East Austin in the context of the way the broader city is changing around it and within it. Hearing the stories of East Austin was truly eye-opening and I am thankful to have heard them.

What advice would you give to a student who was thinking about research?
Conducting research or being a part of a research team is an excellent opportunity to discover interests, expand your knowledge, and contribute information to a greater pot of knowledge. If you are unsure about what you want to research, think about the classes you took and the concepts you learned. Was there something you wanted to learn more about or something that left you with unanswered questions? Another question to consider are passions, what can you research and dedicate a lot time researching that won’t bore you or make you regret research?
I have a passion for housing and an interest in gentrification. I got my inspiration for my thesis on a tour bus of San Antonio, where we visited neighborhoods that were being destroyed by gentrification. Then I realized through living in Austin, attending UT and working for UT, that gentrification is a huge problem in Austin and the contributors to gentrification are not always obvious.

What is/was it like working remotely? What difficulties have you faced?
I was mainly in the writing phase when I had to switch to remote work, so my transition was not as challenging as it was for many of my peers still conducting research or using labs. A major challenge was my inability to gather more research if something came up short during my writing. It was difficult to conduct interviews and work with the primary organization that fueled a section of my research. I could not include a lot of the ethnographic elements I wanted to, instead I focused on the historical information. A positive that came from working remotely was the time I could dedicate to working solely on my thesis. Being stuck at home and the extended Spring Break provided me with extra time to write and analyze the information I already gathered.

Any final thoughts relating your research to current events and issues…or anything else you would like to add.
The student protest aspect in the case of E. Riverside is striking. Protests need mixed demographics to effectively organize, rally, and communicate (mix of class, age, education). The student engagement combined with the Defend our Hoodz organization and movement displays this dynamic, but the interesting part is that it seemed like the students were a guiding force in the protests and used the Defend our Hoodz name to gain recognition and validation. Students getting involved in a housing crisis and questioning the authority and power of the university and city highlights the significance of young activists in sparking change and engaging in the broader community. The students were personally affected by the rezoning, making their voices the sharpest during the protests. Although East Riverside was rezoned, the students were successful in delaying votes and uniting the E. Riverside community. Young people are often politicized in college and it interesting to see these young individuals question the university with the knowledge they learned from the university.
Aside from the protests, in the context of the pandemic, displacement is a major concern. Housing instability in Austin is at extreme rates, especially in East and Southeast Austin. Many families living in these areas make well under the median household income and face rising rent and property taxes. With the inability to make ends meet during a “normal” time, I cannot imagine the struggle many of these families face during a global pandemic that increases financial strain. In addition, many of these households are multigenerational with family members 65 years and older, making these households very vulnerable to the virus. To add to the vulnerability factor, a majority of those living in these areas are considered essential workers which increases their risks of exposing vulnerable family members. Investigating housing and homelessness in relation to pandemics would be valuable research.