an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Austin is the capital of the American Renaissance of the beginning of the twenty-first century. The explosive construction of bridges, ramps, roads, buildings; the flow of creative, inventive, and resourceful people from all over the world—it all creates a space like no other.
When you live in a city like Austin for five years, it still feels longer than it does elsewhere because Austin in the 2010s grows faster than it is possible to comprehend. The projects, places, ideas, and people come and go. The city rapidly devours its empty spaces (parking lots in the center are suffering) and demolishes the small old enterprises, restaurants and stores, as it constructs in their place new, mirror-like skyscrapers for offices and apartments. By no means a veteran in Austin, I still remember the shining absence of the newest multistory buildings in the downtown area; now they are ingrained in the landscape as if they always belonged here.
I miss many places which Austin does not have anymore and probably very few people miss. Take Kidz ’n’ Play, that playground in North Austin full of bouncy castles, bridges, labyrinths, and sharks. For my husband and I, it was a ritual of going there with our child, who was always eager to jump. We would sit at a table against the entrance, reading or writing, while our son would tirelessly engage in his leaping activity. We’d buy sodas and chips, and the girl at the counter would remember us. It was what living in a relatively small city should be like: you are recognized after two times of visiting a place. You fit the order of things.
I am not sure what happened to Kidz ’n’ Play, but it fits Austin’s grand narrative of gentrification. Another story is the opening of Blue Cat Cafe on the space of Jumpolin, which was demolished on February 12, 2015. 95 Navasota Street becomes 97 Navasota Street. One of the slogans with which citizens were trying to defend Jumpolin read: “Pet your cat. Sip your tea. On the ruins of Jumpolin.” Jumpolin was indeed set in ruins, turned into piles of debris, with the property inside, which the owners did not have the means to take out.
The process of gentrification is heavily racialized. “Keep Austin weird, but not just any kind of weird; keep Austin white weird, you know what I mean?“ as one of my interlocutors put it. That certainly adds to the portrait of the city that, despite being one of the rapidly developing urban spaces, has a “negative black population,” he told me, in this expression exactly, dropping the word “growth.” “I don’t even know what the fuck it means, ‘negative black population,’ ” he added pensively. (What it means—in nice, less disturbing words—is that the general population is exploding while the black part of it is drastically diminishing in Austin [MacLaggan, 2014; Donahue and Brown, 2014; Parker, 2015].)
The metabolism of this town, so recently so rural, is fast and unsentimental. And who would have predicted such an explosion? A professor, who worked at UT Austin and moved to the University of Southern California some twenty years ago, told me: “Nothing indicated that Austin would be growing so fast. At least I did not imagine it.” Now the dashed hopes disperse on the city streets, together with big expectations.
On 6th Street, if you would pay attention to the bronze plank sitting in front of the massive building, right below your foot, you would read patinated letters:
July 1. 1990
Time capsule to be opened on
the 100th anniversary of the
founding of American bank
June 24, 2024
Time capsule to be opened on
the 50th anniversary of the
dedication of American bank Plaza
When I write these words, the time for the first capsule to be opened has already passed, but the second has not yet arrived. As far as you can tell, the first capsule is still buried, and there is little doubt that the second capsule will repeat the fate of the first. In any case, there is no one who could unearth it with a pomp that corresponds with the magnificence of the intention behind this capsule, as, sadly, The American National Bank is not in existence anymore. Now, a faceless branch of the gigantic Chase Bank is in this building.
A curious personage founded The American National Bank. George Littlefield was a banker, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and eccentric, a son of a slave owner and himself a slave owner (Graham, 2007). He ordered and paid for the fountain in front of the main University of Texas tower, known as Littlefield Fountain. The initial plan was to adorn the fountain of the figures of the Confederacy heroes, the bronze statues on campus that ignited an ongoing controversy full of curiously vocalized opinions such as, “This kind of cherry-picking of the historical record makes everybody vulnerable; Abe Lincoln, the greatest secular saint in America, liked to tell racist jokes” (Graham, 2007). (And why wouldn’t a great white man be allowed to tell a racist joke indeed, a sarcastic commentator would not fail to add.)
The Littlefield Fountain could be described as an outburst of bronze mess built in the best traditions of high Italian art: horses, a winged figure of Columbia holding a torch, nautical symbols riding mythical allegories and whipping them with military meanings. Out of many details of Littlefield’s life that history cherishes in her grateful memory, one of the most fascinating is the fact that he raised twelve nephews and seventeen nieces; each niece received a home as a wedding gift, and each nephew received a business (Allen 2002). He seems to be an archetypal character, a capitalist who cared for his extended family and who actively turned the American Dream into reality by implementing ambitious extravagant, projects. (One needn’t concentrate on the problems of his affinities, it “makes everybody vulnerable.”)
Traces of the past that spaces bear represent the contesting futures as they were envisioned back then, the future in reverse, its inevitably failed expectations that now seem to be naive or horrendous. We are stuck with the remnants of the past, whether we are anxious about it or nostalgic—or both.
Not long ago, at the dawn of today’s technologies, many expected extraordinary breakthroughs in the near future, like intergalactic travels and earthlings taking over Mars by planting cherry tree gardens on it. So, the idea of time capsules was greatly popular. For example, in the USSR youths left bombastic epistles from the people of the past to the people of the future, imagining the world where communism would defeat capitalism.
The idea of time capsules has persevered over time. NASA spacecrafts carry messages to aliens, and, while it might be not deciphered by the intended audience, there is a human public for which the idea of sending works of art and literature to other planets inspires dreams and hopes (Redd, 2014). This is also a “time capsule” of sorts, the message sent with an idea that it might be read while the sender has long been dead. Why do human beings have this urge to send missives into the void, like throwing green bottles into the ocean? Why do we hope for the reader? The absurdity of it is only comparable to the attempt to decode the causes of a catastrophe by distributing its wreckage on the floor, as was done with the debris of the collapsed shuttles Columbia and Challenger. By so doing, the researchers hoped to comprehend, what led to the destruction of the shuttles (Rickert 2013). When there is no hope, manifestly absurd methods are just as good as any other, or perhaps they’re even better. The delineations of the shuttles, in turn, bring to mind delineations of a murdered body, the forensic practice of drawing a silhouette with chalk that evidently has not only practical but also symbolic applications. Perhaps we could read it as an attempt to resurrect a broken shuttle / body, if not materially, then affectively; it is an attempt to make it fit its deserted frame, and for us, to come to terms with the reality.
Likewise, writing is supposed to fit the frame, to be readable. It is supposed to conform to the practices of transmitting information, and perhaps it is not that absurd, in all anthropomorphism, to suggest that a nonhuman civilization might also develop such practices. The felicitous conditions are many: the civilization from the other planet should perceive objects in the same range of electromagnetic spectrum; they should have eyes or something like that; they should be solid and not liquid or gas. Somehow they are supposed to be inclined to interpret and decipher the flat surface covered with the seaweeds of our letters. Furthermore, they should be able and willing to jump out of whatever state of what we might call “mind” they are in and jump into the state of mind in which the very concept of the word, or the letter, or the sign, is possible. In other words, they should perform an ultimate translation. The fact that such an improbable pile-up of circumstances won over humanity to the extent that it did does not look that absurd after all. As the saying goes, no one cares what a horse has to say as long as it speaks. How negligible is the kernel of truth of whatever we have to suggest about the world? We might know how scarce of a chance it is that our letter could be read, but we write it and send it anyway.
On the other hand, we might write just because we write. Did cavepeople draw the deer and the hunter on the slope of the mountain because they tried to witch the prey to be caught, or did they reflect upon the happened events? Both? Neither? Could not a painting be just a painting without a positivist meaning? Indeed, the sending of a written message signifies the full understanding that it would not ever be read. It is difficult to imagine not the spacecraft carrying the message on board, but the spacecraft that does not bear any message, or that is not a message in itself. Analogously, an individual author is rarely full of illusions that her scribbling would be read exactly as she had intended them, which, in glory of her “cruel optimism” (Berlant, 2011), not only doesn’t prevent her from writing, but makes her write all the more passionately.
For, sometimes cavepeople paint a deer gnawing a bone of a subject that still has some meat on it; the capsules of a bank’s proud encyclicals are read in due time; the interstellar creatures organize a laboratory for decoding a message, starting with an analysis of the positions of the keys on the dashboard because, after all, they have many centuries to figure out what we never intended to convey; and it also happens that one human being reads a letter written by another human being. That, too, takes place.
Once, after exiting a bar to drive my friends somewhere else, as we were going through the noisy, excited crowd on the stairs before the entrance to a concert hall—the loud music throwing itself out on the street, pouring in thuds—I felt for a moment like I was a part of Austin.
I grew up in Moscow, so Austin simultaneously amazes me as an American city and surprises me with its rustic ways. The Austin public—as I imagine an ethnographer would remark not in her main work but in her revealing diaries—is not very sophisticated. It is an exploding community but it is still such a village, such a sunny, dusty province. A village where there are no cows crossing streets and stopping traffic, no roosters waking you up (or almost no roosters; we love organic stuff here, you know).
And then there is this climate thing. For all my loving skepticism of Austin, the city has transformed me and spoiled me: thus, I can now barely tolerate cold. I have adapted to heat: developed gills, grew a long tail, this kind of stuff. “April is the cruellest month,” as T.S. Eliot attests, and this is true in any place but Austin. Here it is always the end of April, except for the April itself and the six subsequent months, which constitute the summer in these exotic lands. When I had just lived through the end of my first snowless, light, warm winter, I—still very attached to my Russian friends, who enjoyed the blisses and feats of unreliable spring that barely begins by this time—wrote: “It turns out my worst enemy was my own winter coat. Half a year, all those years, I had been struggling with it. First time in my whole life I am spared its annoying presence.” Ever since then, all my years have been winterless, except for the occasional winter of a pleasure-seeker, an excursionist, a vain, idle traveler, for whom the famine and blood, the tigers and asphyxiating white snakes of wintry winter are amusements, attractions, entertainment.
Austin has charmed me; sometimes, passing its illuminated skyline in the dark via this or that bridge, I sigh: “What a beautiful city! I wish I lived here.” And I sort of do, but there is this sense of never-belonging, known to aforehinted vagabonds and also to anthropologists in pithy helmets.
When friends of mine and I, therefore, went through the cheerful crowd on the stairs of the concert hall, for the first time I had the curious feeling of belonging to the city, and I felt compelled to examine this fleeting effect. I wanted to be a part of this reemerging crowd as I observed it in different places. I had never allowed myself to do so, or perhaps something in me did not allow it. I wanted to join yet I did not want to join.
Now all of a sudden I was in the middle of this proverbial crowd, in the immediate context with my anthropologist friends, whom I came to know and appreciate, who each had their own map of this endlessly bifurcating space: their secret urban spots, their favorite places, their rhythms and cycles, their places they would rather avoid. They visited concerts, gatherings, diligently had fun, and encountered disappointments.
They met someone who probably knew someone who knew someone in the very crowd brewing on the street. The noise of it. The clamor, the commotion, the mess of faces, phones blinking in the darkness, cigarettes being smoked, smiles flashing.
It was a very short moment, one of those moments that make being in the crowd so alluring and intimidating at the same time.
Then it was gone, broken, dissipated, deflated. I cannot say I was glad it was. I might have lingered for a longer moment in it. Still, it was gone.
Before it disappeared though, I reflected on what my friend once said about Austin, that adults move here to never mature, with this sole goal in mind. Austin is a Neverland of kinds.
Imagine music, blaring in a car, windows lowered. Some happy people in there, no doubt. Baseball hats, shiny aviator glasses, square jaws, flashy jewelry. I love you, Austin (you are terrible).
And again, driving through bright Austin streets – cafes with outside chairs and tables under narrow tents, display windows with red and blue and green dresses, flashing windows of skyscrapers, of square buildings – I am for some divine reason reminded of the never-ending summer in my grandmother’s house in Central Ukraine. We with our cousin fishing for small oududka fish—shiny shadows—which were only good for our cat Kitsyan, and, simultaneously, I recollected a special rarified mist only found in Podmoskovie (a region in Mosco), a post-industrial nightmare landscape, its mist dimming the ultraclean geometry of factories with pipes, straight lines of concrete fences, ninety-degree metal angles. Would I remember one day my August Austin with the same pang of nostalgic clarity? I probably would.
Out of all of Austin, I like East Austin the most. I think I’d live there if I had to choose now where to live in Austin. East Austin is separated by the I-35 interstate from the downtown and the area across which the University of Texas at Austin is generously spread. East Austin is one of the areas subjected to intense gentrification. Houses are demolished. New, enigmatic, post-hipster places—where clandestine life-forms acquire their striking shapes in shops that sell organic seeds of that or this ancient plant which, if ground on a hand mill, would improve your singing voice etc. – pop up here and there like mushrooms after the rain.
In East Austin, I experience nostalgia that I have no right to experience, no political or aesthetic justification to feel (on the political meaning of nostalgia and its dependence upon the positionality of the subject, see Rosaldo, 2003; Stewart, 1988; Choy, 2011.) Historically, East Austin is a neighborhood—or, rather, an agglomeration of neighborhoods—of people of color populations, but it has been gradually taken over by the ever-present progressive, ultraneoliberal, libertarian, predominately white formation.
East Austin harbors a number of places – cafes and all sorts of taco-eateries and bars – that graduate students (undergraduate students as well, I assume) visit on occasions. Not so much by anthropologists, I am told, as by economists (I wonder why). I like the area because looking at the skyscrapers, like on a gigantic wave of the unthinkable ocean surf, I am thrilled with eschatological premonitions and a sense of precarity about the emerging futures, and at the same time it takes a half-turn of my head to let my eyes rest on the almost-rural place.
My curiosity is a cruel curiosity. At this time, I feel acutely that I do not belong to Austin in either of its embodiments. I spend the summer of 2016 in Siberia for my ethnographic fieldwork; I wonder if during my time away I will think of Austin as my home, the home about which one cherishes the warmest feelings. I learned one property of home, which is also a condition of nostalgia: the home is never quite there. It has always been like that, and there is no reason for it to change now.
Vasilina Orlova is a poet, writer, and anthropologist. She was born in far eastern Russia in the village of Dunnay. She holds a PhD in philosophy from Lomonosov Moscow State University. Currently she is earning a PhD in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she works as a teaching assistant. Her interests include debris and ruination, trash, worn-out infrastructure and its effects, the mundane, violence, nostalgia, vertigo, the city, the figure of the flâneur, and hydroelectric plants.
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Choy, Tim. Experimental Futures: Ecologies of Comparison. An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011
Donahue, Emily; Brown, David. “Austin’s the Only Fast-Growing City in the Country Losing African-Americans.” Kut.Org. May 16, 2014 http://kut.org/post/austins-only-fast-growing-city-country-losing-african-americans [retrieved 4/26/2016]
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Stewart, Kathleen. “Nostalgia—A Polemic.” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 3, 1988, 227–241.