an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Everyday, thousands of Austinites roam our city’s sidewalk-less streets, creep along its concrete highways, and ramble through the corridors of its universities and start-ups with one question burning in their brains: “Is Austin Still Weird?”
It may surprise some folks to discover that although this anxious ontological question seems as fundamental to our city’s character as burnt orange and grackles, nobody asked it until the year 2000, a mere 16 years ago. It was in that year that a little-known librarian at Austin Community College called up a local radio station, and told the host he was pledging money as part of his effort to “keep Austin weird”–to date, this is the first known use of this now-famous demand.
Red Wassenich is the name of that librarian, whose linguistic progeny now serves as a key symbol of a rapidly gentrifying city’s existential angst. He is also the author of Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town, and its forthcoming sequel, Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the (Still) Odd Side of Town, both of which are verbal and photographic catalogues of some of Austin’s most unique sites and features. Mr. Wassenich has generously shared with us a passage from the sequel.
Writing and compiling this book, he says, has helped him to have faith in the endurance of Austin as a place where people can be “fundamentally themselves, and be weird if they want to.” In this passage, he recounts the story of how his spontaneous utterance became, somewhat to his distress, the brand of Austin.
Keeping Austin Weird: A Guide to the (Still) Odd Side of Town
Keep Austin Weird was born in the spring of 2000, so it has entered its troubled teen years: confused, torn between trying to fit in and trying to find its own identity. Is it still weird? Is it OK to be changing? What’s all this strange growth?
The phrase originally fell out of my mouth while calling in a donation to KOOP radio, during my favorite segment, “The Lounge Show,” which plays smooth crooners and plenty of other oddball music—if you haven’t heard Bing Crosby’s “Hey, Jude” you haven’t lived. (Happily, it’s still on 10-noon on Saturdays.) When asked why I was donating to the show, I said, “It helps keep Austin Weird.” A tiny cartoon light bulb ignited.
I mentioned the phrase to my wife, Karen Pavelka, who thought to get bumper stickers, and I set up the website (keepaustinwierd.com). We began a glacial grassroots campaign, handing out the bumper stickers to those we thought worthy.
It slowly gained traction after a couple of years and it really caught lightning in a bottle when BookPeople and Waterloo Records used the phrase—with “Support Local Business” tacked on—as part of protesting a proposed city $2.1 million incentive for a mega Borders Books to build right across the street, a development that almost assuredly would have led to the death of both local, iconic businesses. They handed out free bumper stickers with the phrase and their logos. As of this writing they have given away over 200,000. The city of Austin wisely backed out of their incentive offer and the two local businesses are doing well (and Borders went belly up in 2011).
Another source of the phrase’s fame grew out my (unsuccessful) fighting Outhouse Design when they filed for trademark for use on shirts and hats. The kerfuffle was covered in the Austin American-Statesman and the New York Times.
Most people likely think of the phrase as primarily a marketing phrase, which hadn’t crossed my mind when creating it. I certainly endorse the buy-local movement and I’m proud it helped, but my perspective comes from a street-level fondness for goofy, anachronistic, unserious, unmaterialistic bohemianism. Also from my inflated ego.
According to the Austin Business Journal, in 2014, 36,196 “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts were sold just at the Austin airport. Since they go for about $25 a pop, the schmucks at Outhouse Design, who trademarked the phrase for shirts and hats, should be so proud of their creation…oh, uh….
So, the elephant in the condo: Is Austin still weird? Yes. But it is very threatened, primarily by the influx of money, which is generally a prophylactic against weirdness. The phrase grew out of these same forces that threatened the weirdness in 2000 when the phrase was born—a boom-town, go-go aura that was suffusing the slacker, eccentric smallish city. The same is happening again, now that the 2008 recession has faded. Rents rose fifty percent from 2004 to 2013. Austin has the highest cost of living in Texas; it used to have the lowest. According to a 2015 study, it is the most economically segregated large city in the United States. Restaurants serving foam of duck’s breath as an amuse-bouche flourish.
I have noticed a definite trend. Old timers here bemoan the end of Austin’s weirdness. Newcomers love it here and are struck by our town’s singular personality. David Heymann, University of Texas architecture professor and author of the novel My Beautiful City Austin, put it well: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here five years or 50 years, Austin has gotten worse. It doesn’t matter when you got here: That was its best point, the best you’ve ever seen it. It just keeps getting worse.” Hmmm, I was born here. So it has all been downhill for six decades.
According to the influential urban scholar Richard Florida, our emphasis on the arts, design, high tech, research, and education make us a top-level city. His book The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002 pegged Austin as being in the forefront, thus explaining its boomtown status among the hipoisie. This analysis led to a 2003 blue-ribbon widely read white paper (please note the patriotic theme I just invoked) on economic development from the Austin city government extolling the virtues of weirdness. The so-called “Keep Austin Weird” study seems to have led to more development than weirdness, but it could easily be worse. I reluctantly admit I’d rather live in an era of development than one of rot.
Red Wassenich is the author of Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town, as well as its sequel, Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the (Still) Odd Side of Town. He is also the author of Nothing Before Something: A Novel. Mr. Wassenich is the reference librarian at Austin Community College-Rio Grande Campus.