An image referenced, but not included, in the article: outside the Harp House, in North Waco
I’ve spent the last six weeks working on a big feature on Waco, Texas — specifically, the arrival of “The New Waco” in the wake of Fixer Upper, the HGTV show starring Chip and Joanna Gaines. You don’t have to have watched the show to be familiar with its aesthetics (“modern farmhouse”) which have fully infiltrated the contemporary American design vernacular, or its general thesis, which is that you can take the “worst” house in the best neighborhood and transform it into something far more valuable.
You also don’t have to be interested in Fixer Upper, or home remodeling, to be interested in this piece, which is about what happens when a town becomes “cool” (something I wrote about a few weeks ago) and what/who that development leaves out….while also being the story of a old fashioned company town, only the company is actually a trifecta of Magnolia (Chip and Joanna Gaines’ company), Baylor (Chip and Joanna Gaines’ alma mater) and Antioch (Chip and Joanna Gaines’ church).
I’ve been planning this piece since back in October, when I stopped in Waco in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections. While there, I met a woman who told me that she’d grown up in Waco, moved away after high school because it was so racist — but then, after the “Fixer Upper” effect (also known around town as “Silo-ification, after “The Silos” that have become the center of the Magnolia empire) began to transform the town, and bring in outsiders, she felt that the racism level went down just enough to move back. (Not that it disappeared altogether, she said — it just got a bit less overt, enough that she thought she could come back and make a life and make a difference).
We all know the common and expected exponents of gentrification: rising property taxes, generalized displacement of long-standing communities, businesses and construction that caters to a bourgeois (and though it often goes unsaid, white) ideal consumer. But “slightly less racist” was a new wrinkle — and something to explore.
I figured out the dates for Spring at the Silos — the big Magnolia Spring event, that brings upwards of 80,000 visitors to the town over Texas Spring Break — and made a hotel reservation. (Sometimes, the best way to make sure a story gets done is to make a reservation even if it’s six months in the future). I tackled other stories, but started cataloging bits of Chip & Jo information — reading issues of Magnolia Journal while standing in line at the grocery store, watching back episodes for the umpteenth time at the gym (but this time, paying attention to where in town each house actually was), buying Joanna’s quietly best-selling cookbook, watching how the Gaines’ celebrity appeal was framed and forwarded by People Magazine (which loves the Gaineses….in part because the Gaineses are very popular amongst their audience, but also because both People and Magnolia Journal are now owned by Meredith Corp., and magazine companies love to cross-promote).
My preparation began in earnest in early March, a week in a half before I flew to Waco. I asked for leads on Twitter, and started talking to anyone who’d lived in Waco for any time period. Most of the people who answered (or referred me to friends or family members) were about my age, which obviously skewed things in some important ways, but you have to start somewhere. Some had lived in Waco all their lives, others had very recently moved to the area, some went to college and/or grad school at Baylor, sometimes the third or fourth in their family to do so. Some had been previously involved in Antioch, others were part of the church that Antioch broke off from, some were Catholic, some had left religion behind altogether. I talked to people from the suburbs and people from the various neighborhoods, people who’d recently come back and taken the Waco Tour and thought analytically about the role of Fixer Upper in the community; others who just really thought Chip & Jo were doing great work.
Bits of these conversations made it into the final draft as establishing color, but they were largely valuable as a form of orientation: learning the animating tensions of the town, and how they’d changed over the last thirty years, but also just learning the names of the neighborhoods and the rhetoric used to describe them, or what your high school or church connoted about you. A lot of these conversations were over an hour, up to two — it’s so rare that someone just asks you to talk about your town, not as an authority, per se, but an authority on your own experience of it. Not everyone might find them interesting, but I love these conversations — they’re like a very unacademic form of anthropology.
The people I talked to also directed me towards the people who are authorities on what’s going on in Waco: the people involved in various philanthropic organizations, significant city leaders, academics, journalists and a whole slew of pastors. Some of these people I interviewed on the phone; most, I tried to meet with in person, on the ground in Waco.
(If you’ve read one of these post-reporting pieces before, you’ll also recognize the other reporting things I did: I ran around all the neighborhoods, walked them multiple times again, drove all over the city even if it just meant catching a glimpse of what it looked like in East Waco where the street dead-ended after the freeway blazed through, or what the high school in the chichi suburbs looks like compared to the public high school. I went to church; I browsed what felt like a billion Magnolia-influenced little stores; I bought a dog bandana. I ate at an incredible Mexican place and drank an over-priced sweet tea in a mason jar with a metal lid. I read the local paper and the tourist magazine and went to the library and listened to every conversation in ear shot).
In the end, I interviewed more than 40 people for this piece — and again, much of what we talked about didn’t make it in, not because it’s not important, but because the piece itself cannot be a book. In fact, the piece was one of the most difficult edits of my life — ultimately, I’m sure I wrote upwards of 15,000 words. I filed the piece at around 9500, then we wrung out the excess, then added what’s missing, then did the whole process over again. Sometimes that meant finding another person to interview. Sometimes that meant cutting an entire section on the Baylor Instagram Influencer twins, or five paragraphs on the specifics of the Baylor sexual assault cases, or an extensive elaboration on the “Waco Horror.” (To read more on either, I strongly recommend this piece (on Baylor cases) and this one (on the lynching of Jesse Washington).
There’s a lot more to write about Antioch — that will hopefully happen in the future, but this wasn’t a piece exclusively about Antioch; it was a piece about Waco. You could write another 8,000 word piece on what happens when a university “R-1-ifies” itself, or the fascinating history of “schisms” within Baylor itself, confronting the tension between its religious and academic callings. And you can write so much more about the aesthetics of Fixer Upper, and the particular type of femininity and masculinity and domestic space modeled within the show (and the brand at large). The struggle was to include parts of all of those things, while keeping the focus squarely on the town itself — a town where you could talk to 100,000 people and still learn a new wrinkle, a new perspective, a new piece of history and context with each and every one.
That’s the challenge of writing about a town — but it’s also the incredible pleasure. As I reported more and more, I kept telling my editors: it’s so interesting. But I think you could and would accumulate a similarly complicated and contradictory narrative about nearly any town of Waco’s size.
After all this reporting and reading and writing, I come back to the conversation I had that first time I went through Waco: that it’s slightly less racist. I think that verdict would vary, depending on who you talk to in town. There’s a fair number of white people who think that the town left racism behind with desegregation — despite the fact that the city itself remains largely segregated, and there were and are parts of town where white people simply never went for decades. But many other people told me that while the overt racism has decreased, it’s simply sublimated itself: in moments like when a student, upon hearing mention of East Waco, says that he used to go there to film “an apocalypse movie,” or in the rhetoric of “restoration,” or coming into a neighborhood and ministering to and “loving on” its residents.
“You know what that language is code for?” one resident asked me. “They want to come in and fix me. Fix us. But you know what? We’re not broken. Do we want to better ourselves and our circumstances Of course. But that doesn’t mean we need fixing.”
That’s the quote that stuck with me through the entire first draft and all the drafts to come. It’s the heart of the piece — the thing I hope most for both myself and other readers to internalize. Because it’s not just about Waco. It’s not even just about gentrification. It’s a clear rebuke of the 21st century form of colonization. The person who said that to me didn’t feel safe saying it with her name in Waco. But that’s one thing a piece of journalism can do: shout it from the rooftops.
This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:
What a breath of fresh air, to take Elizabeth Warren seriously
A stomach punch of a piece on Passover and the current state of Israel
A HISTORY OF BUCA DI BEPPO!!!! Who knew!!!
What it’s like to travel with a “bad passport”
A fascinating history of “ultra premium” ice cream
This week’s “just trust me” runner-up, so smart, so good.
This week’s “just trust me”
If you haven’t clicked on the Waco piece to actually read it, here’s another chance. If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences — inattention to small detail is what makes it mentally possible for me to write this thing every week for free. If you have thoughts on Waco (or Antioch!) just reply to this email, or find me at firstname.lastname@example.org