an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
How does a community preserve a threatened treasure? In 2010, Austin citizens and University of Texas students joined forces in a popular uprising that saved the Cactus Cafe, the much-loved listening room that had brought live music to the UT campus for almost three decades. After administrators announced plans to close the venue, activists mobilized using tools both new – Facebook and Twitter – and old – rallies and marches, fundraising, confrontation, and negotiation. I was so impressed with what Austin accomplished that I documented the effort in detail in my recent book, Cactus Burning: Austin, Texas and the Battle for the Iconic Cactus Cafe.
I wanted to honor those who worked for the better part of a year to save the Cactus, and to provide a how-do-you-do-it blueprint for other communities interested in saving their own icons. Readers of Cactus Burning will come away with plenty of insight into the strategies and tactics needed to sustain a preservation movement. But the Cactus saga does differ somewhat from the many loss scenarios that arise from a complex mix of overlapping factors, which often involve deterioration and redevelopment, rising rents, gentrification, and, ultimately, homogenization. Compared to the ongoing struggles facing Austin and other communities, saving the Cactus was – and I dishonor no one here – relatively easy.
The immediate threat to the cafe came from one actor – a state university that had an explicit obligation to the surrounding community. UT, according to its Mission Statement, “preserves and promotes the arts, benefits the state’s economy, serves the citizens through public programs and provides other public service.” Nonetheless, it was UT that decided to close the Cactus and UT that had the unilateral power to keep it open. For preservationists, this presented a single target, and their tenacious campaign tactics ranged from economic pressure to a large helping of old-fashioned humiliation. The university, which needed ongoing good relations with its neighbors, succumbed.
A somewhat analagous situation had arisen a decade earlier, when BookPeople and Waterloo Records, two Austin retail icons, faced a threat from the then-giant Borders chain, which planned a competing store across the street. The locals organized a resistance campaign. Its centerpiece was an economic analysis demonstrating that dollars spent at homegrown businesses returned more revenue to local communities than dollars spent at chain stores headquartered elsewhere. That analysis formed the campaign’s rational, evidentiary underpinning. But the effort’s heart and soul – its energy – stemmed from the existence of an easily identifiable villain.
While the owners of Waterloo and BookPeople always spoke respectfully of Borders, many of their supporters fostered the specter of a rapacious interloper, one that wanted Austin’s money but was unconcerned with the community’s soul. After a protracted political tussle, Borders pulled out. It cited changing economic circumstances, not community opposition, but several years of acrimony took a toll. Would it have been worth it to come to Austin and vanquish two beloved local merchants located across the street? As the University of Texas found in the Cactus struggle, being the villain isn’t easy. Clear-cut villains make preservation campaigns easier.
But the ills that prompt the demise of local institutions aren’t always reducible to one tangible target. More often, they’re abstract and structural in nature. Talking to me about the Cactus affair, a student named Alex Ferraro said, “they’re gonna keep cutting things, because we’re … a public university that gets less funding from the state than we get from students.” Just a few years later, activists found themselves struggling to preserve the natural science wonders at UT’s 75-year-old Texas Memorial Museum. Addressing that controversy, campus president Bill Powers echoed Ferraro, noting that UT was under significant financial stress stemming from a combination of rising enrollment and flat state funding.
In any given situation, UT may have more financial flexibility than it acknowledges, but Powers’ (and Ferraro’s) underlying point remains valid. UT is subject to a legislature that seems determined to make the system run with as little state cash as possible. That legislature consists of 181 largely conservative politicians, elected from every corner of a vast state, who meet for a few months every two years. Altering legislative attitudes about higher education funding requires a years-long political effort. Single issue preservation campaigns that last for a few months may, cumulatively, help make the larger point that more funding is needed, but they’re not a direct attack on the underlying problem.
So it is with community preservation as a whole. When small businesses shut down prematurely, it’s often due to rising rents, which tend to follow a pattern of neighborhood deterioration and renewal, increasing property values, and rising costs. Structural issues such as income inequality, inadequate public transportation, and poorly examined development incentive programs, compound the problem. There’s no single target, rendering opposition more difficult. Absent the political leverage of BookPeople and Waterloo, local shops fall by the wayside and chain stores fill the void.
I’m glad that Austin saved the Cactus Cafe. That campaign was a necessary component of what I hope will be an ongoing effort to preserve a still-unique community. But within that larger effort, Cactus-style campaigns, in which preservationists embarrass and pressure a singular “bad guy” with the power to turn things around, will rarely be possible. All communities need sustained political and social programs that focus on the larger forces that combine to weaken local identity.
Michael F. Scully came to Austin in 1995 by way of New York and San Francisco. A former trial lawyer, he has a Ph.D. in American Studies from UT-Austin. In addition to Cactus Burning, he’s the author of The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance (University of Illinois Press, 2008). For more information on community preservation, take a look at the offerings of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.