Spirits of Place: Austin, TX

Peppermint Peach tree, Austin, TX

This blog post is a little stream-of-consciousness . . . but then Austin can be like that.

As far as world cities go, it hasn’t been around very long. Although the Comanche and the Tonkawa hunted and camped along its creeks and river for hundreds of years, and the Spanish set up early missions in the area, it was not until the 1830s that Anglo settlers started building the first permanent village at the foot of the Hill Country.  It began as Waterloo; by the time the fledgling Republic of Texas was done with it, it was named for Stephen F. Austin, “the Father of Texas.”

I find amusement in the fact that the entire new government of Texas arrived from Houston en masse in the fall of 1839 – they all showed up in oxcarts.  By the following January the population exploded (to 856) and within two generations the good people of Texas were worried about locating the University of Texas there, because it was entirely too close to all those politicians, and that was bad for their sons’ morals.

Many folk call it the Heart of Texas, and if you look at a map, that’s about where it is located.  O. Henry called it the City of the Violet Crown – although that may have been tongue-in-cheek.

Yes, we do have a beautiful example of the phenomenon called the Belt of Venus visible each night from our hills, but the Athens of the South?  In the 1880s?  Athens we were not.  Still, we do have a sense of humor – each year we have an O. Henry Pun-Off, and it’s a fiercely fought battle, my friends!

When I first found out about Austin, it was maybe 250,000 people, a curious crowd of college town, state capital (but only every other year – we don’t want our politicians to think they’re full time, now…) and hippie hideout.  Old time yellow dog Democrats were cheek by jowl with flower children, and Hippie Hollow was both an institution and something to whisper about, because those hippies were nudists!  People would come from as far away as Dallas and Houston just to browse the dozens of small bookstores there.  It was where I learned to hike miles at a time, and where I learned ballroom dancing at a nonprofit club.

But Austin has a way of showing up on lists of “the 25 greatest places to live that you never heard of” because it has everything the writers of those lists need.  It has greenery within reach, whether walking trails or state parks, ancient sea beds or waterfalls collapsing into limestone caves – it’s within driving distance of both the Gulf of Mexico, which until recently was an awesome place to spend a weekend (and will be again) and also the New Mexico mountains, the closest ski resorts in winter.  It has the largest urban spring-fed swimming pool in the country, and also the largest well-fed pool.

It is not only a political town, or a town of old money and deep roots, it’s a town that is the proud possessor of the University of  Texas, which really is a world class institution.  And what does a college town crossed with a state capital and seasoned with good weather become?

It becomes the perfect pot of chili – and oh, my friends, we’re not talking just meat and chilies.  We’re talking the Third Coast, with a small Silicon Valley and Hollywood just around the corner.  We’re talking the Live Music Capital of the World.  Pick a style, and chances are good you can find it in Austin.  Country, Rock, Jazz, and Blues, Latino, micro-ethnic, orchestral – and the price varies from $$$ to free, and some nights it’s the same group.

How many other cities in the Deep South boast a musical and theater scene where practically every week a non-perishable item of food can get you into a production?  There’s an art opening every couple of days, a free lecture over there, a foreign film festival in that building, and don’t forget about the crews rowing down Town Lake, or the museums, or the triathlons and 5Ks from October to May (with Midnight runs on blue moons in June) – and we have a colony of over 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats living under the Congress Street Bridge!  Can you say stimulating?

We have multi-star restaurants, an excellent macrobiotic vegan restaurant, at least eight 24-hour restaurants that are not national chains, a couple dozen of the top fifty BBQ places in the WORLD within an hour’s drive —  (Gotta gasp for breath, here.)

Oh, wait…this sounds too good, doesn’t it?  How can I scare you off…well, turns out that with climate change we’re going be a humid, subtropical place.  Temps of over 100F. are becoming normal in the height of summer – we hit 112F./44C. back in 2000.  And we’ve bounced to as low as 17F. in winter, which is no fun in houses built for heat.  Ah, the job market is tight – and people hate to leave, so we are stacked up like cord wood down here, folks, renting out bedrooms to friends so they can hang on just a little longer until the job market comes back.

Yes, everything you have heard about the nutty people down here is true!  All of it!  Well…almost all of it.  I can still have one of those “The ways are many… The Light is one!” bumper stickers without getting it ripped off my car.  We have a lot of Flying Spaghetti Monster car emblems, too.  We fight a lot of battles down here, I admit it – but at least we’re still talking to each other, unlike a lot of the country.  And believe it or not, more people write and contribute to blogs from Austin than from ANY other major metropolitan area.

Why do I still live here?  Quite honestly, it’s the people.  They are fascinating, wonderful people, always doing, sharing, thinking about the future and how we can make it better.  And the variety was a wonder to a Midwestern transplant who stopped over in white bread Dallas/Ft. Worth for about a decade.

One of the first things I did when we hit Austin was go to the local university credit union.  I walked in and took my place in a long, snaking line, and…just listened.  I realized that I was hearing at least six languages other than English.  And I started to grin, because the only other place where I had experienced this phenomenon was walking into Disney World in Florida.

The long and short of it is, the Texas Tourist Bureau is correct – Texas is a foreign country, but Texan is close enough to English that you can feel right at home.  It’s a lot of things, and occasionally drives me nuts – but Austin is never, ever boring.  Its motto is “Keep Austin Weird.”  And I hope to be assisting in that project for a long time to come.  (Even if there are now 750,000 of us dancing our way through the crowds.  It doesn’t matter if you’re square dancing, Two-Stepping, Cha-cha-cha-ing, or doing a blues slide.  Just keep on dancing – in fact, there’s probably a dance going on right now in the next block….)

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Spirits of Place: Austin, TX — 4 Comments

  1. I see Kathi did a good job of scaring people off by mentioning summer heat. And it’s true that August sucks in Austin — really sucks as in “I’ve got to get out of town before I collapse from heat exhaustion just going out to get the mail.” But after growing up near Houston and living in Washington, DC, for many years, I’d say Austin has very moderate humidity most of the time (except when the remains of a hurricane come through town). Still, when you get above 100, the old saying about “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” becomes meaningless. Above 100, it’s the heat.

    However, in her effort to discourage you from moving here — and there are already way too many people here, judging by the ever-growing city limits and the congestion on the highway — she neglected to tell you about February. February is gorgeous in Austin. Yeah, we might get a bad freeze now and then, but I’ve been back here since January of 2008 and so far I’ve seen a total of maybe 3 weeks of winter, very little of it in February. And given that February sucks so majorly in so many parts of the country, I gotta say, I really look forward to it every year here.

    Oops. I’ve undone Kathi’s good work on discouraging population growth. Let me tell you about cedar trees. Even if you never had an allergy before in your life, you’re probably allergic to cedar. And it blooms in the winter (well, in what passes for winter here). Very annoying. Stay where you are.