an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Nobody was forced to stay in their neighborhoods.
There was no police action or citywide internment. We all just started settling in by our own accord and didn’t notice how quickly we were confined. I mean, we noticed soon enough. When the lines on that map got real; that’s when folks started paying attention.
People saw that map with its street-by-street boundaries and colorful names and they all thought it was funny. A friend of mine pointed to his neighborhood and laughed. It was shaded a chartreuse hue and protected on its eastern border by the great Duval Yarn Wall. “Yeah, that’s about right,” he laughed.
The map was available at all the hotels first, you know, so tourists could see where they had to go to see hipsters or hippies or authentic live starving musicians. Then the map was everywhere. They started printing it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. People made bumper stickers and started putting up signs to let people know which district you had entered. Real estate agents loved it and mortgage officers found it particularly useful. It brought in a lot of royalties for the cartographer.
When the city council started referring to “Hipster East” and “Old Weird Austin” as official names of city “districts,” that’s when a lot more people started worrying. It felt creepy, mostly because the first time we heard it on the news was in reference to a contentious-turned-violent dispute over access to Barton Springs. The Greengos, a commune of verdantly-mustachioed hipsters who inhabited the old Holly power plant, demanded access in April. The Save Austin’s Soul coalition wouldn’t allow it. It was just too close to Earth Day. Years ago the Greengos had dyed the whole pool green on Earth Day. There was no limit to their irony. A local emo group wrote a song about the whole thing and it was pretty popular, at least, until they shut down KOOP radio:
Get out of the Springs, Get out of the East
Get out of the city you modster beasts
Shave your stache and quit your crying
The salamanders are dead and the Chicanos are dying
Some people loved the song. Others protested. Everyone started feeling a little less safe outside of their own neighborhood.
The brawl between the SASers and the Greengos was the first of twelve violent battles that broke out in Austin over the next ten years. I was actually downtown in New Cal Colonia when the famous Pond Weed riot began. I was standing in line for coffee when a group of about thirty activists set a food truck on fire while protesting the removal of hydrilla from Molly Ivins pond. No one died. It wasn’t like the Govalle bombing or anything. But I saw a bunch of activists in scuba gear beat the shit out of seven police officers right in front of a plaque that read: “satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” I remember looking up and seeing all the loftdwellers standing on their balconies, watching. They just stood there, casting apathetic stares and the occasional water balloon.
That’s what made the tourists stop coming. It’s funny, twenty-six churchgoers died in the Clarksville Massacre, but it was the Pond Weed riot that cemented Austin’s violent image to the rest of the country. Something about the sight of snorkel-clad activists drawing blood with rubber swimfins really freaked people out.
After that, people just settled in and self-segregated. Almost willingly. There was no master plan or interstate or railroad. People fortified their own with fear and self-preservation. I know I sure as fuck wasn’t going back to New Cal for coffee anytime soon. With Greengos and yarnbombers and state legislators beating people up for not displaying the proper bumper sticker? No, sir. No thank you. I won’t have any problem telling my grandchildren that I laid low like everyone else. I mostly stayed inside until the night of the 29th, the night of the Burn. I could have gone out. I knew the map better than anyone else. Most of the walls were symbolic—no armed guards or anything. But people were scared. I was scared.
Three years after the Pond Weed riot, neighborhoods started setting up checkpoints and demanding documents. Interlopers became the targets of district enforcers. People that had money could go out safely enough. The loftdwellers created skyramps to move from New Cal to South Domain, and there were reportedly tunnels that ran between Tarrytown and the Dells. Everyone else stayed at home and let the paranoia blossom. Occasionally there was a bombing.
It was the eklektethnos that really changed the momentum of the whole thing. Until the Burn, not many people had heard of them. They were a weird little bridge club of a cult. They would gather in basements and listen to analog recordings of John Aielli. They were secretive, but could sometimes be heard at night hmmmming their monotone mantras.
The eklektethnos kept everybody up to date on the news after radio was taken over by the city council. They trained grackles to carry messages across borders. At first, it was just back and forth between South Old Weird Austin and North Old Weird Austin. Then a few folks in other neighborhoods started receiving messages. I remember the day my neighbors in Del Valle Abia, the Cantus, received a white piece of paper. The grackle cocked his head, whistled, and well…grackled…while we read those three words: Lite the lie. They looked at me and repeated the message intently. You know, in a way that made it seem that they knew what it meant, and that I should know too. Especially that I should know. Two days later, a grackle came a gently rapping at my chamber door:
Just stay behind the barricada and keep doing nada
Everyone knows you’re a strange enchilada
Or you could take up your pen and join the intifada
Send an armada to singe the cingulata.
“What the shit is that supposed to mean?” I yelled at the bird.
Over the next few weeks, the messages became longer and more esoteric. They were mostly long poems with bad rhyming schemes. Those poor little shiny black birds looked like they were carrying adding machine spools. The messages were cryptic, repetitive, and yet familiar. Some of us, the older ones, caught a lot of the references. I started working with the neighbors to offer interpretations. From what we could decipher, monks were moving all over the city, handing out bags of food, pot, batteries, and music. My neighbors got one. They cried when the hooded visitor arrived on their doorstep with a bag full of barbacoa tacos and some old Guy Clark CDs. The monk took something away with him in a backpack, but the Cantus never told me what it was. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t tell me. It was a big deal to get visitors in Del Valle Abia, especially since they closed the airport.
A month later, messages started to pour into our neighborhood. As many as one a day in November. One of them had my name on it, but no words. It was just a shoddy xerox copy of the old map of Austin, the one before the boundaries.
After that, I started writing my own messages and sending them back with the grackles. Sometimes I would copy messages and hand them out to people in nearby neighborhoods. I knew that things were changing when one of my messages circulated back to me from some old lady in the Dells. Pretty soon I got a message from a friend of mine in Hancock district saying he saw everyday people, not just eklektethnos, walking around the city, handing out packages and collecting maps.
On Christmas Day, either by grackle or by personal delivery, every house in Austin received the same message. There would be a meeting. All of us. All the neighborhoods. December 29th.
And we all went. It felt like the whole city was there. Some 400,000 people met together at Nelson square on the night of the 29th and burned a giant sculpture of those wicked little maps. And it wasn’t just the maps. It was the t-shirts, the bumper stickers, the mugs, the shot glasses—all those touristy little cracker jack maps had been pasted and molded together into a giant Armadillo by a group of South Old Weird Austin yard artists. We sang and we shouted and we all shoved our way to the front so that we could throw something flammable at the beast.
After that, we all went home.
We went to our homes and we went to our friends’ homes. The next week some bands set up about twenty old Fender amps at Molly Ivins Pond and started playing, impromptu, noise ordinances be damned. Supposedly everyone was wearing hydrilla necklaces. People started playing disc golf at Shoal Creek again. I even left the house. My neighbors and I went to New Cal Colonia and drank bathtub rye with the loftdwellers until we couldn’t pronounce Manchaca anymore. Two weeks later we all stood in front of the giant granite statue of Leslie at the capital building and watched as the new mayor pro tem announced that the city of Austin would remove all tolls, roadblocks, and walls—symbolic or otherwise—from the cityscape.
Since the Burn, there have been plenty of conflicts, sure, but there was a lot of bad juju got burned up with that Armadillo. Some say that the great re-districting (as it was later called) was the most contentious era in Austin history. I don’t know about that. But I know it ended well. This city needs a good shake up every few decades to bring out the bad blood. I want no part of it, though. I’m no activist, and I’m sure as hell no cartographer.
Joshua Long is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. His 2010 book, Weird City, uses the “Keep Austin Weird” movement as a central focus to explore the socio-cultural, demographic, and land use changes occurring in Austin at the beginning of the 21st century.