The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

The Open City

Nota bene: The following paragraphs describe “open cities,” as compared to “closed cities.” I developed this distinction based on a comparative analysis of a number of cities.  Austin is an “open city,” whereas Milwaukee is a “closed city.”  This excerpt comes from a larger article on the topic that is the opening essay to a book of essays on cities. One of the analytical advantages of undertaking comparative urban analyses is that one can get a sense of the key differences between cities, and why some seem open and others seem closed. See also Anthony M. Orum, City-Building in America (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).  

[Excerpt from “The Open and Closed City,” Chapter 1 in Anthony M. Orum, Essays on Cities: Power, Space and Habitat.]

The Open City

Open cities are places where people have opportunities to move ahead and to make a difference in the worlds that concern them.  Open cities, it seems, are cities ripe with new futures and, in the nature of our world, those futures are likely to be economic ones.  Open cities, because of their very vitality, are likely to become magnets for people simply because of the very energy of the city itself.

This sense of energy, of vitality, of tomorrows rather than yesterdays, is why so many major metropolitan areas, like New York City and Los Angeles, for example, are open cities.  They have public spaces and foster public dialogue; they are socially diverse; and they possess energy and vitality because of the many and different opportunities they offer to residents.  They are cities that, in my view, inspire frontiers of the imagination, cities where people may be engaged in the knowledge economy and where such opportunities offer the chance to make new discoveries or to create new forms of knowledge.  Open cities, in effect, are not only places where people can be free but also where they can push the barriers and boundaries of what already exists and what we already know.  

This, I believe, is a key facet of the culture of an open city.  It offers new opportunities to people and it will become a magnet especially for young people who are eager to leave their mark on the world.  There is a reason that the great metropolis is an open place, and that is because it provides a variety of opportunities for people to do or to make or to enjoy things.  The open city is anything but dull; indeed it is the very opposite of a boring place.  It is a city that sparks the imagination.  It is a city likely exemplified by a place like Berlin in the 1920s.  It is a city perhaps like the one imagined by the sociologist Georg Simmel when he wrote his seminal analysis of modernity and the metropolis.

Now one must wonder: How does this frontier of the imagination actually become a piece of the urban character, or culture, of a place?  Is this energy and vitality simply a piece of the economic engine of the city, or is it instead part of the deeper culture of the open city?  Is it really just work that imbues the open city with its vitality or is there something more, something deeply cultural and historic, that imbues the city with its character?  Is it really just a matter of importing a creative class and then letting that class – whatever it might be – unleash its energies?  My answer to this last question, of course, is simple: No.  Here again let me use important and familiar examples to illustrate my argument.

My research into the history of Austin, which includes countless interviews and oral histories, led me to realize that something like a frontier existed for the people living there.  It was metaphorically represented in part by the actual spaces of the place itself – wide-open vistas, plenty of land, views that could stretched as far as the eye (and imagination) could see.  Lyndon Johnson once framed it thusly:

There is something different about this country from any other part of the nation.  The climate is generally pleasant, the sun is generally bright, the air always seems to be clean, and the water is pure.  The moons are a little fuller here, the stars are a little brighter, and I don’t know how to describe the feeling other than, I guess, we all search at times for serenity, and it’s serene here.  And there’s something about this section that brings new life, and new hope, and really a balanced and better viewpoint after you’ve been here a few days. [Lyndon Baines Johnson/Orum, Power, Money & The People, 1]

This sense of the land and the space seemed to imbue many people in Austin with a certain spirit. They did not feel confined or closeted by the buildings and assemblages of the city itself.  There was so little built environment, in fact, that the area seemed to offer a challenge to many of the people who would make a difference in the city.  It was not a frontier, I must emphasize, as defined by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner as a kind of line or boundary in the sand separating “civilized America” from the uncharted America.  Rather, there was a primitive and natural simplicity so that people felt they could make a difference in the construction of the place itself.  It gave rise to a characteristic pioneer American spirit, one that made people feel they had the capacity to make a real difference in shaping the character of the city itself.  

This frontier of the imagination truly seemed to inspire not merely single individuals, in the sense that individualism is so characteristic of America, but it was evident even in the collective collaborations among different people on behalf of major social projects.  The key one project in the history of Austin was the construction of dams along the Colorado River.  Here the challenge was to somehow constrain and to limit the forces of nature, especially the waters that would periodically flood Central Texas now and then, only to give way to periodic droughts as well.  The ebb-and-flow of nature’s forces really marked the region for a long period of time, until the federal government furnished funds to build dams, a project that brought Lyndon Baines Johnson to national prominence. Johnson’s success was in fact the culmination of fifty years of effort by a host of different individuals and organizations to build dams in central Texas. Without those dams, without the electricity they furnished, there would be no Austin, indeed, no booming metropolitan area in central Texas today.

Open cities, then, are cities where the landscape itself seems to be open, where people must deal with natural forces now and then, and where a kind of energy and pioneering spirit emerges.  The space becomes almost like a tabula rasa where people come to believe they can leave their own imprint on the landscape.   This energy can assume multiple outlets.  It can be transformed into work on behalf of the frontiers of knowledge, or even help to push forward cultural projects on behalf of a city.  And it has another element as well, one that contradicts all the productive and positive virtues of the frontiers of the imagination.  Such open cities inspire a kind of outlaw mentality, one in which people, because of the freedom they desire and enjoy, seek to exercise certain basic rights they feel that they possess – in particular, the right to carry guns.  Outlaws, in other words, can co-exist in open cities, however precariously, alongside very liberal politicians.  

Austin, again as an example, is a place where there are contradictory currents regarding the frontiers of the imagination.  On the one hand, there is a very strong and vocal progressive community, one built upon the foundations established by people like Emma Long.  And on the other hand, there are in and about the city a whole group of people who embrace the land and the openness of the landscape, drive big trucks, and routinely carry shotguns in those trucks.  Both sentiments connect with and seem to sustain the energy of openness felt in the city but in very different ways.

Three elements, then, characterize the open city: public space and the possibility of public dialogue actively encouraged by local officials and embraced by local residents; social diversity that mixes people of very different sorts and backgrounds together to become the engaged public; and an energy that springs from the character of the open city itself – an energy that breeds a sense of tomorrows rather than of yesterdays.  Open cities encourage thinking about the future; by contrast, closed cities encourage a nostalgic view of the past.  Ironically the very character of the open city is one that serves to wipe out concerns and memories of the past.  

There is at least one important corollary of the openness of a city: It is a place that is expanding and therefore  hence it encourages a view of the future.  It is a place that draws in people rather than repelling them.  It is a place that appears to thrive on all the new energies and growth it inspires.   

Now I also want here to add one critical caveat: Some cities have energy and vitality but are not fully open places at all in the way I have pictured described open cities.  The cities of China, like Beijing and Shanghai, are obviously cities with considerable energy.  They draw tourists by the hundreds of thousands; they are magnets for many new people to come and take advantage of the small economic opportunities.  But they are also closed cities in that the central and local governments of China have created them and constantly monitor all their activities for any signs of dissent and resistance by residents and their agents.  The Party is the source of their establishment but there are few, if any, opportunities for people to enjoy public space and to have genuine public forums to carry on a dialogue about how such places should run.  And those opportunities are now diminishing at lightning speed.  That is the nature of authoritarian regimes, even ones that are enormously successful.  They severely limit the ability of people to be free and to enjoy the pleasures of life as they wish.


Anthony Orum is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Illinois-Chicago.  He now lives, writes and does research in Austin, Texas.  He is the author, co-author and/or editor of many articles as well as several books.  They include: Black Students in Protest (1972); The Seeds of Politics (1972); Power, Money & The People: The Making of Modern Austin (1987;2002);A Case for the Case Study (1991); City-Building in America (1996); Introduction to Political Sociology (5th edition, 2010); Common Ground: Readings and Reflections on Public Space (2010); Introduction to Cities: How Place and Space Shape Human Experience (2nd edition 2018).  He was the Founding Editor of City & Community and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies to be published in April 2019. The Encyclopedia consists of five volumes to be published both in hardcover and online.  During 2007-2008 he served as a Fulbright Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.  While there he undertook ethnographic research on how people used public spaces in local parks.  That research resulted in two co-authored publications with young Chinese scholars and led to his current preoccupation with questions of public spaces and local democratic practices.  

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This entry was posted on November 21, 2020 by in Uncategorized.
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