On Austin (March 13, 2003)

Seeing as it’s the final week of SXSW (South by Southwest), a large music/film/interactive computergeek seminar/festival that sees Austin taken over by hordes of creative out-of-towners from across the US and elsewhere, I suppose it’s as good a time as any to focus the spotlight on my adopted part of Texas. Outsiders are often surprised when they get to GWB’s former stomping grounds and see that it’s actually a livable, tolerant, relatively laid-back and liberal-ish college town kind of place (unless they’ve seen the film Slacker, which exaggerated the vibe but not by much).

Outside the city limits, it’s another matter. Go outside Austin and you’re visiting the ‘real’ Texas, places like Dripping Springs (where they’re filming the new Alamo flick), Llano and Johnson City; the Hill Country has a kind of spare, fierce beauty (especially this time of year, when bluebonnets dot the hills — God, I sound like an airline travel magazine) and good barbecue is never too far away; then again, neither are Bush/Cheney supporters. Take it or leave it.

The capital of Texas is one of those places where long-time natives bemoan recent growth (since the late `80s), suburban sprawl, and say “you should have been here 10/15/20 years ago.” Ever thus. Austin still has a better-than-average mix of law-and-order and DIY individualism that results in a pleasant state of controlled chaos. Like Seattle in some ways, it’s a locus for creative activity. People are still doing (and going out to see) interesting things here, even though the cost of living is no longer what you would call cheap, unless you’re from a place like New York, Boston or Honolulu). It is quite a bit cheaper to own than to rent, since the housing market is going begging due to the tech bust. It’s still cheaper to live in Indiana. Bubbas coexist alongside hip refugees from both coasts, and hip native sons and daughters; gun and pawn shops are everywhere, but so are coffeehouses and clubs of all sorts. Get used to it or go elsewhere.

In 2003, Austin’s individuality (expressed in such places as Book People, a great independent bookstore downtown that’s Texas’s largest bookstore to boot; some of the country’s best used-record stores; and a still-thriving homegrown music scene that deserves its national reputation; not to mention one of the last real Democratic power bases in the state) is being threatened by national chains and the prolonged economic malaise. Still, DIY Austin lives, if in a modified form. Book People does a good business selling T-shirts with the logo `Keep Austin Weird.’ Interesting brains like Bruce Sterling’s call it home. I still agree with the saying, “If Texas were an ocean, Austin would be the only island.”

Even though parking is a bitch these days and some legendary clubs are mere memories now, and it’s a pain when UT home football games snarl downtown traffic for miles, I still like the place just as much as I did when I first set eyes on it during a vacation back in `86.

Regional differences are what make the world interesting, so what I’m trying to say is: I’m for `em.

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