an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
I flew into Austin in 1991 for a musical vacation and spent the rest of the decade there getting a doctorate at UT-Austin in American Studies. The city was strange, compelling, and still a bit under-developed: the recession of the late ‘80s hit the oil and gas industries hard and left a spectral downtown reminiscent of deindustrialized rust-belt cities. My first night, Jerry Jeff Walker played a sold out show at La Zona Rosa (before its outdoor stage) and I listened outside through an open window with two women who shared their wine and gave me a rundown of the clubs and taco houses. A few blocks east of my motel, I feasted on cheap, fresh tamales from an unmarked Mexican grocery. Austin was then a hip meme if you’d heard of it and if you hadn’t, it was just Texas.
For residents of a city with a healthy economy and a rich cultural ferment, non-native Austinites have always been oddly insecure. Austin has a young, educated population working in social media, software, semiconductors, and biotechnology and vibrant relationships between university and corporate research. In New Orleans, where I live now, there is no economy except tourism (mostly) through food and music. It’s all we have so branding is important. Austinites can simply enjoy their lives in the major liberal zone of Texas. So why this neurotic need to feel you’re hip just to live there?
Austin is neither hip nor cool at this point: it is a major American city with a healthy mixed economy. In the mid-‘90s, Austin still had an edge – and still had economic edges – before its triumphalist stage. I lived cheaply on 38-1/2 St. and then tucked in behind Fiesta on the East Side. You could park easily along Sixth Street and there was nothing along Red River below 15th Street. By 2002, every vacant lot was a thriving business and every spot was metered, from Lamar to Red River and from 12thStreet down to Oltorf. When the city shot up vertically, the highest stake in its skyline carried a name and aesthetic ironically opposite to its desert heart: The Frost Building. (It seems so alien to the Austin aesthetic I think of it as Romulan Headquarters.)
It’s all Whole Foods’ fault, really. In 1992, Whole Foods was a rare hybrid of post-hippie culture on Lamar and 10th: it was part food co-op and part neighborhood grocery, with an in-house natural-foods café and a relaxed vibe of low-level exuberance. Its objective was affordable healthy food for an organic local community. When its first HQ opened on 6th and Lamar in 1995, it foreshadowed the hollow modernity of the globalized Austin dream. I saw four-foot spiraling mounds of organic carrots at two bucks a pound, beautiful expensive slabs of fresh salmon, overpriced merch at every counter. It was a big-box store of pretty food attached to an abstract idea of community. The Yuppies had consumed the hippies yet kept their self-righteousness about improving the world with Fair Trade coffee or whatever. I liked eating there, sure, since WF was like The Borg: resistance was futile. Yet I found H-E-B’s Central Market to be less expensive, less manipulative, and less flattering to one’s ego. Whole Foods was now less about eating healthy than about being seen while eating healthy. It was high-class hipsterism (and hucksterism).
Once a city proclaims something like “Keep Austin Weird,” it is evidence of a unique cultural mix that has long since devolved into tourist rhetoric and cultural capital. New Orleans is often actually weird (as a set of experiences) but only newbies wear t-shirts like “Defend New Orleans.” If Austin wants to create a new kind of hipness — and separate itself from sisterly cities like Portland or Asheville (NC) — it should work to become a herald of borderland democracy, the heartland of a new multi-ethnic country.
If I were you, Austin, I’d dig into your local traditions and settle into being good hosts: barbecue and breakfast tacos, Texas blues and Tejano, Barton Springs and serious boots. That way, visitors can make up their own minds and enjoy the city by example. In other words: be cool, don’t sell yourself as cool.
Joel Dinerstein is Director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, where he directs the American Studies program. He is the author of Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture Between the World Wars (2003), an award-winning cultural study of jazz and industrialization. He is currently working on a cultural history of the concept of cool through two different projects: first, as co-curator of a photography and American Studies exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution entitled American Cool (opening February 2014) and second, as author of the forthcoming book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press).