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.