an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
For some Austin ended when the Armadillo became Threadgill’s South. For others, when S X S W started (or when wristbands began to cost three digits). Or when the warehouse district was built. Or when MoPac became a parking lot because of the tech companies in the Northwest. Or when Stevie Ray Vaughan died. Or when Real World Austin was filmed. Or when Save Our Springs passed. Or when 1st Street became Cesar Chavez. Or when the Varsity closed. Or the porn theater on Guadalupe ended its run. Or when the planters were put in front of the student union at U.T. Or when Half Price Books started charging the half the current price of the book rather than half the actual price of the book.
Building is ending. Building takes what is promise and possibility and puts something there in its place, something that lasts. Rebuilding, replacing one memory with another one, a Starbucks for Les Amis, for example, or a Tower Records for a $1 theater, can be especially painful. Les Amis and the Varsity were not just places; they were memories, symbols. But as semioticians remind us, symbols are constructed meanings, by those who receive them. So the person who comes to the Starbucks or Whatever That Space Is Now On the Northwest Corner of 24th and Guadalupe (WTSINOtNC2aG) does not feel the loss. But they will feel another a loss when they show up and their Jamba Juice has become a Space Smoothie or whatever the future of juice-yogurt blends will be.
Why does Austin feel like it’s full of ends? Why does every Austin experience wind up in nostalgia? Part of it is that we’re attached to the fourth dimension of Austin, the space and place mixed with our experiences in time. Austin brings many outsiders into its fold who find in Austin a type of cultural freedom and joy. Even with all the changes, Austin remains a place in which people find themselves unusually comfortable.
People build their experiences into a type of Austin archetype, a set of guidelines for judging whether something is authentically Austin. The type of crowd that loves Austin is virtually the same that worships authenticity in music and movies, and that finds authenticity lacking in things that are new.
I’ve never lived in a place that regretted its present more than Austin did, and it’s been 14 years since I lived there. I moved there for grad school in 1990, before the tech boom, during the middle of a recession when people questioned the city’s future viability.
The end of Austin is really the end of a particular authentic Austin, an Austin that existed in time, in the past, but is invoked as a type of ritual spell against living in the present Austin.
This idea of authenticity exists in much bigger places, including in New York (authenticity question: new Times Square or old Times Square), in culture, in terms of music, and in politics and culture, a type of nostalgia for simpler times.
I couldn’t tell you whether Austin today is preferable to the Austin of the 1990s when I lived there. Because when I come back, a huge part of my visit is rehaunting, a type of time capsule authenticity tour, when I go visit various places I used to go (The Hole in the Wall, Deep Eddy Cabaret, Kerbey Lane, Threadgill’s, Waterloo Records, Trudy’s, the university, Book People, Thundercloud Subs and so on). I admit that I like the changes for the most part, especially on South Congress, but that my experience almost always is centered on living the past. Newer Austin and my Austin obviously overlap, and certainly many people experience an Austin where old and new Austin mix.
But the end of Austin is seemingly inevitably the end of your Austin and mine, the type of end that has no beginning and no definitive end, but a type of resistive nostalgia, where the hierarchy of your experience trumps everyone else’s.
Jonathan Silverman is an Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and the co-author of The World Is a Text (Pearson, 2012), now in its fourth edition. He recently served as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway.
In part, it is a political issue. As pro-growth forces have dominated local politics (with an occasional environmental distraction) I have seen green spaces shrink, traffic worsen, schools deteriorate, and Austin’s charm become diluted. At the same time, my home value has risen. This seems good, but serves to only increase taxes unless I leave Austin and move to a cheaper place. My taxes must increase because, of course, the new arrivals (particularly businesses) never pay for the infrastructure needed to support them. That privilege falls on established residents.
If you don’t like how some Austinites understand what is happening to them and their city, you won’t be missed if you leave.
Psittacid- if you look at your tax bill, most of the increase is in AISD taxes- fully half the bill. The other costs of living here are, IMO, worth the trade off. Remember that much of the property here is owned by state and county and we the taxed make up for their services because they do not pay taxes. Our utility bills went up this year for the first time in more than a decade so the jump seems substantial.
Most cities give exemptions to new major businesses, as the promise of more jobs means more income. All cities do it- Seguin and Victoria gave incentives to Catepillar; Bexar County to Toyota; Schertz and Irving to Amazon. We are not alone in the practice.
We have city government that is willing to work on making our city livable, and though we have changes, there is a vibrant core rather than the ‘donut hole’ of dead space found in so many cities. Austin changes. Prices increase. The trade off has to be weighed. Pflugerville or Austin? Since we have decent bus service, Car2Go and relatively safe streets, Who else in Texas can make these statements?
I grew up in a small town that is just coming back to life due to fracking; residents drives 35 miles for groceries at HEB or Walmart; there is still no movie house; music is only found on cable TV or the radio. And walking is frowned upon. I left there for a reason in 1974 and came here. Austin changes, but there is still a contagious creative spirit and a great appreciation for the open-minded that one does not find in other parts of Texas.
I miss the ‘old Austin’ too. The growth has brought as much as it has replaced. I may reminisce briefly, then I come back to another decade and am thankful to be here.
Oh, my! Being in my 75 year and having been born and raised in Austin, I can tell you all that the new Austin has so much to offer. That being said, I truly miss being able to drive across town in 10-15 minutes, shopping in downtown, Holiday House lime cokes, football games at House Park where the student body wasn’t “lost” in the cavernous space of Burger stadium, the Chief Drive-In. . . Am happy that you can still get a wonderful, greasy burger at Dirty Martin’s, walking/biking on the trail, swim in Barton Springs and Deep Eddy, hike up Mt. Bonnell and so much more. The spirit of Austin, old and new, will always be of individuality and close relationships.
Boy do I miss Holiday House hamburgers and their onion rings.
Thank you Rene Strong Fitzgerald, for pointing out that Austin’s spirit is its nurturing of individuality and close relationships. Far too many apparently equate spirit with the preservation of any home built before 1966 (50 years ago).
The photographer of the traffic photograph above would like you to know he has lived in Austin since 1978 🙂
It’s interesting that a picture of traffic on 360 was used. I doubt if anyone other than longtime Austin residents would get the significance (or the irony?) of showing traffic build-up on a road that was once considered on the outskirts of Austin.
The one change that is not mentioned is the death of the live music scene. The days of the dive bar where you could hear musicians of the caliber of Stevie Ray Vaughan (by the way, his name is spelled with am ‘a’ after the h) seem to have disappeared. We still call it the ‘Live Music Capital’ but the fundamental driving force that brought venues like SXSW and ACL have slowly disappeared. Unless this scene is revived, the days of being the king of music will die.
Thanks, Russell for the spell check on SRV–alerted the site administrator to fix. And for your other comments as well!
Threadgill’s South actually used to be the Marimont cafeteria. The old Armadillo was razed to build the office building at the corner of South First and Barton Springs. Eddie Wilson said he got “as close as [he] could to the old Armadillo location.” I miss Bahama Mama’s and all the cute shops on Barton Springs.
Everyone: go to your favorite old Austin restaurants now, before they all disappear. Jamie’s Spanish Village, Nuevo León, Fran’s Hamburgers on South Congress have all disappeared recently. Player’s is slated to become the latest installment in UT buildings. I don’t mind some of the changes, but truthfully, everything I enjoyed doing as a child growing up in Austin, is too crowded, and too much of a PITA to do with my own family. One of the great things about “old” Austin, is that you didn’t need a lot of disposable income to have a good time, and the cost of living, even in the central core, was affordable. Families, minorities, and generational Austinites are being squeezed out of Austin.