City Guide: Austin
by Wes Eichenwald December 2008
With a booming tech industry and an appreciation for new ideas, Austin welcomes an influx of outsiders—but the city doesn’t plan to let go of its traditions.
An old friend recently visited me in Austin to spend a day sightseeing. She hadn’t been back to the city since she was a teenager—some 50 years earlier—when she and her family used to visit her grandmother, who lived downtown in a cozy house near the corner of Fifth and Lamar.
She remembered that her grandma lived near the Treaty Oak, a famous tree that’s been around for 500 years. In 1989, a disturbed individual attempted to poison the tree with a large dose of herbicide. More than half the old oak died, but local people rallied to save it, and it still stands next to a 1930s-era commemorative plaque. That’s more than can be said for Grandma’s house: Only modern condominiums house residents at Fifth and Lamar now, near construction cranes, the spires of just completed business towers and equally fresh mixed-use developments.
The new Austin is rising as you read this—cultural centers, concert halls and the inevitable upscale hotels and restaurants galore. The municipal government is working with developers toward their shared goal of attracting up to 20,000 people to live downtown, compared with the current estimate of about 5,500.
Much like New York City’s appeal, Austin’s charm lies to a large extent in its reputation among outsiders as a place of migration. In other words, people come here because people come here. They see a city that welcomes individuality and creativity—in Austin, being an entrepreneur or owning a quirky small business doesn’t mean you’re an odd duck (at least not excessively so); it means you’ve gained entry into the Keep Austin Weird club, a name based on the city’s semiofficial slogan.
In addition, Austin has a long history of housing the headquarters of companies and major corporations, from Tracor in the ’50s, IBM and Texas Instruments in the ’60s and Dell in the ’80s to the high-tech giants Freescale, Apple, Samsung, AMD and more today. So yes, you’re here to take care of business—but it never hurts to sample the local culture, especially when you find yourself in the crosscurrents that make up this unique city in the middle of Texas.
When I first visited in 1986, tumbleweed didn’t exactly blow down the middle of South Congress Avenue, but an artsy version of the Wild West still remained. The Continental Club, Allens cowboy-boot emporium, and a number of gaudy costume and antiques shops shared the avenue with gun stores and seedy motels. These days, South Congress is the midst of a full hipster renaissance: Allens Boots and the Continental Club are still there, along with the odd thrift store, but so are upscale markets, youth-oriented boutiques, galleries and Italian bistros.
One cliché about long-time Austinites says that they’re always lamenting the way things used to be—the small-town vibe, the freedom to live a somewhat off-center life in a place where people’s minds are open and you can always find a parking spot downtown (the latter hasn’t been true for years, but at least parking garages are still relatively cheap). In the six-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen huge multilevel highways and toll roads arising from open fields, extending far into the suburbs. Every March, the town becomes a magnet for music, film and Web professionals who invade for the two-week-long South by Southwest festival. In recent years, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has also become a huge draw, in spite of maddening crowds and occasionally iffy weather.
As an Austinite who migrated from elsewhere—and as the father of small children—I delight in the city’s everyday character. The summers are too hot for my taste (and that of most other locals, too), and I don’t like the way there always seems to be either an ongoing drought or floods from constant rain. But in terms of adventure, foodie delights, outdoor fun, economic vitality and creativity, Austin has few peers among midsize American cities.
One measure of a city’s vitality can be deduced from the amount of new stuff coming in. Austin is changing, whether or not the long-timers like it. For every Treaty Oak, there’s a new W Hotel on the rise. For every block of elegant 19th-century homes, there’s a developer-driven district, where young professionals live in condos above boutiques, shops, terminally trendy cafés and wine bars.
Austin has a clutch of new cultural venues and arts centers that are either freshly built or undergoing major refurbishment. After a decade of planning, construction, fundraising and more fundraising, the ultramodern Long Center for the Performing Arts opened in the spring of 2008 on the south bank of Lady Bird Lake. The Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas (UT) Performing Arts Center is slated to reopen in January 2009 after an 18-month, nearly $15 million facelift. The Austin Music Hall doubled in size after renovations last year. The city-owned Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), which opened in 2007, is an ambitious complex focusing on Latino arts and cultural education. The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art on UT’s campus is the city’s new showcase museum complex: Its second building, housing a lecture hall, auditorium, café and bookstore, is due to open around the time you read this.
Austin has no problem selling itself to visitors. If anything, it has the opposite predicament, since its image of a freewheeling, hard-partying town where music spills out onto every block is hard to live up to. The few blocks of Sixth Street that serve as the designated rowdy partying center are usually visited only while passing through, unless out-of-town guests are eager to see an especially compelling band that’s in town.
Still, there is so much more to Austin than rowdy partying. In the end, it’s a city where normal folks very much like you and your friends live, work and occasionally let off steam. For me, downtown is about biting into huge beef ribs at the tin-roofed Iron Works Barbecue, overlooking a creek by the huge box of the Convention Center, and enjoying the gold-standard chicken-fried steak offered for lunch at the Shoreline Grill, a genteel room where well-mannered ladies and gentlemen wine and dine while admiring the view over Lady Bird Lake and the Congress Avenue Bridge. Under this bridge, as the sun’s last twilight rays fade, the famed nightly flight of 1.5 million Mexican freetail bats commences in warmer months.
Spending time in Austin is also about paying a visit to Antone’s, the storied club on Fifth where 95-year-old blues pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins still occasionally holds forth on the ivories. Finally, it’s about noticing which old café or school remains in the shadow of the new glass-and-steel towers rising in the new downtown. Maybe Grandma’s house isn’t around anymore, but you still get the sense in Austin that the city is not—trust me—quite like anywhere else.
WES EICHENWALD is a freelance writer in Austin.