an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
A fellow graduate student recently found a handwritten note on her car, which has a California license plate and was parked in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. It reads (spelling errors corrected):
Just thought I’d let you know—Austin natives consider your migration to Texas as a malevolent blight to our lovely town.
California clones have turned our traffic to the 4th worst congestion in the country—you love your big cars and your flamboyant exhibition of bling. Honey, we see a vapid, vacant, asinine caricature of an uptight pushy halfwit.
Get lost—and forget about moving to our neighborhood—real people live here—not wannabe blondes with sociopathic tendencies—
Just a bit of context: My colleague is brunette. She is a decidedly sweet and intelligent person and a fashionably understated dresser. She drives a Honda Civic. She’s lived in Austin nearly five years but hails from Los Angeles. She’s here to earn her doctorate so she can get on with her career, for which she will likely move again soon.
With all of that in mind, this strikes me as the kind of note that a teenager would write to the girl her high-school boyfriend just dumped her for. Or better yet, the note the ex-girlfriend’s best friend writes to the new girlfriend at the ex-girlfriend’s direction. There are recognizable rhetorical moves in such a note. You insult the target, you educate her about the “reality” of the situation, and you tell her to buzz off. And you can do all of this despite the fact that you don’t know her. You don’t need to, because you know the type.
Maybe the outrage evidenced in this note comes in part from a fierce love for the city and fear of losing the place and the lifestyle this person loves. The message is obviously important to the author. But as fascinating as that message is, it’s how it was delivered that warrants a closer look here, because this note is just one example of a larger trend. For example, the 2014 TEOA post “R.I.P. ‘WEIRD” mentions someone who posts signs near South Lamar and Riverside, including one that says “R.I.P. Weird, 1969-2014, We will miss you.” Others in that series of posterboard messages have included “Stop building condos or the salamander gets its” (written in the style of a ransom note, picture of said salamander included) and “Selfie Defense Training, call 512-xxx-xxxx” (I confess, I don’t remember the number). Then there’s this one, posted in my own South Austin neighborhood, written in protest of making a cul-de-sac into a thru street:
So, why anonymous notes?
Let’s first take a quick trip back to high school. Teenagers have the unenviable task of growing up while navigating the harsh terrain of an ecosystem marked by rigid social labels. In a time of identity formation and finding one’s own voice, preconceptions are obstacles to productive intermingling. In this context, notes strengthen existing social bonds, or they allow students to address someone they don’t have direct access to. As cities evolve, they do so within a structure that offers similar challenges. Rather than jocks vs. every imaginable variety of nerd, there are locals vs. invasive species, longtime local business owners vs. powerful development corporations. Of course, all those lunchroom labels dissolve quickly under scrutiny to reveal hybridity, contradictions, and grey areas—all the things that make people, and cities, interesting.
But differences remain, and negotiating the stereotypes we often use to classify those differences calls for inventive approaches to reaching an audience that isn’t necessarily familiar or accessible. And so as adults, faced with the uncertainty and stress of a rapidly changing urban reality over which we have little control, we pass notes. It’s certainly not all we do—we also write Yelp reviews, lament the changing landscape of our neighborhood with the local bartender, and plan excitedly with friends to try yet another new restaurant—but the practice of passing anonymous notes stands out for the ways it brings to light the related issues of authority and privacy. It also demonstrates that cities, like high schools, are constructed not just from wood and concrete but from words and conflict. It’s not difficult to imagine, then, the note left on the car as a note slipped into a high schooler’s locker and the notes posted publicly at intersections as a note scrawled across the locker bay. They are distinct acts with different implications, but they also have a lot in common.
In either case, the act is easily read as passive aggressive. It allows someone to assert a position without giving the people who are directly addressed or otherwise implicated in the note a way to respond. It can be cathartic to say one’s piece and drop the mic; it can be satisfying to get the last word. But I suspect that even if that’s a primary goal, these authors hope for more—maybe even that they’ll set something in motion that will ultimately change the situation.
Posting a sign isn’t like entering into a one-to-one conversation aimed at a resolution or reaching deeper understanding. But neither is a public speech, and still it addresses ongoing conversations and causes conversation to occur about and around it. It creates an opening in time and space and invites people to dwell there, however briefly. The note left on the car is really doing the same thing: though the author is addressing an individual, s/he isn’t really. The car might help ensure the message is received, though it doesn’t guarantee it’s thoughtfully considered. Targeting an individual, especially on her personal property, offers a higher chance that someone has heard you, even if it’s not really about that person. You feel better landing a punch on a punching bag than swinging into a crowd and hoping for impact.
The choice for anonymity seems to me an issue of authority. Maybe there’s an air of expertise and/or power that these note writers hope to derive from and convey with chosen anonymity. The resistance to development and migration suggests that the authors identify as Austin natives or long-term residents, though their decision to leave their messages unsigned makes it impossible to know for sure. In any case, they derive their authority from positioning themselves this way to their audiences, and their posture toward the city’s growth relies on the appearance of authority.
While anonymity is possible and it’s commonplace for people to emphasize and de-emphasize facets of their identity in different contexts, privacy is a well-guarded illusion in the current media environment. Even the note left on the car, a communicative act presumably meant to be relatively private, was immediately posted to Facebook to spur a public conversation. Left without a sender to respond to, the recipient turned to her social netword. Emotionally charged notes like this get passed all the time in online comments. Or dropped in lockers. The examples I’ve pointed to here are not exceptional in that sense. But I like to think about these paper notes in particular because they make a material claim along with an ideological one. They use public land to speak to a public audience. It’s interesting in these examples that the authors don’t call out anyone by name. The authors’ real concern seems to be more for the overall preservation of the city than against those who they see as threatening it. It’s a call for collective action based on the invocation of a common, nameless enemy.
I can only speculate as to why the authors have made these particular rhetorical choices and what they might mean for the city at large. I can say with more certainty, though, that it they are significant acts of placemaking by Austinites—that is, they participate in the ongoing formation of the city and its associated identities. Cities are always in progress, never fixed or tangible entities. So are the exchanges among residents—however unconventional—that help them create social, political, and cultural spaces for themselves within the city. These exchanges help contour the city itself. They also help shape its evolving identity and the identities of residents, native or not.
Megan Gianfagna is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at UT Austin. Her dissertation takes up Imagine Austin to explore urban redevelopment as rhetorical invention.