The Fight Over Keeping Austin Weird

Is the hippest city in Texas selling out its oddball charm?

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Rick Kern / Getty Images

The Keep Austin Weird Festival, June 22, 2013, in Austin

One chorizo-and-egg breakfast taco: $2.25. An entrance ticket to Barton Springs Pool: $3. Keeping Austin Weird: priceless. The notion that weirdness is the essential spark to life in Austin is at the heart of the “Keep Austin weird” mantra that has been emblazoned on tie-dyed T-shirts and bumper stickers, adopted by eccentric and creative Austinites, and co-opted by local businesses small and large. It has become shorthand for all that is hip in the city. But as Austin booms, there’s a growing debate over whether its weirdness is being institutionalized and subverted in the process.

In 1967, state government and the University of Texas were the city’s major employers, but when IBM opened a facility that year, it set in motion a high-tech boom that has seen Austin’s population grow eightfold to nearly 2 million today. Motorola and Texas Instruments followed IBM. Then came public-private research consortiums MCC and Sematech, which were soon joined by Dell, Apple, Samsung and many more. By 2000, the population stood at 650,000. That was the year Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich coined the phrase “Keep Austin weird.” He declined to copyright his catchy mantra, but others did. And while they sell T-shirts and coffee mugs, his website features odd city sights and bemoans “Austin’s descent into rampant commercialism and overdevelopment.”

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Is Austin becoming a kind of a theme park of weirdness? Standing in a crowd in front of Guero’s Taco Bar on South Congress Avenue, the center of the once faded, now hip “SoCo” neighborhood just south of downtown, a visitor to Austin was recently overheard talking excitedly on her cell phone — “I just can’t believe I am really in Austin!” — like she had just arrived at Disney World, not an industrious American city.

Some 19.7 million visitors go to Austin annually, according to the city’s convention and visitors bureau, drawn by the city’s music and foodie scenes, plus a packed calendar of events that celebrate the Austin spirit; the Keep Austin Weird Festival and 5K run, now in its 10th year, is a highlight of the late-June calendar. For naysayers, some of the more recent additions to the calendar, like the Weird festival, are parvenus, hitching a ride on a popular image of Austin and supported by corporate sponsors, a contrast to the days when Austin celebrations were free and funky.

“You should have been here back in (fill in the year)” is a popular admonition among sentimental old-timers. People who were in the city in the ’70s wax nostalgic about the days when Guero’s was a feed store, SoCo was home to prostitutes, and the truly weird festival was Spamarama, an April Fool’s Day event started in 1976 that featured an artistic Spam-carving contest and an athletic event called the Spam Toss. Those who lived in the Texas capital in the ’80s fondly remember Las Manitas, the now closed downtown café where Austin politicos of all stripes, including Karl Rove, had to walk past pro-Sandinista posters to order their tacos. And Austinites who came of age in the ’90s reminisce about their “Slacker” days, a reference to the 1991 Richard Linklater classic that captured the city’s odd vibe.

But looking back has little appeal to Austin architect Sinclair Black. He joined the faculty at the University of Texas in 1967 and won accolades for his advocacy for livable, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, an approach that was dubbed New Urbanism in the 1980s. For more than 40 years, Black has been offering his vision of a vibrant Austin. The city converted its run-down downtown warehouse district into a neighborhood of boutiques, cafés and condos. Black’s office is in an old warehouse next to a tapas bar and a lively jazz venue. Other visions, like Black’s longtime dream of submerging the crowded, busy interstate highway that bisects downtown in an urban, wooded park have yet to come to fruition — though the city council recently took up the proposal.

“If you’re interested in Austin being really cool, stick around,” says Black. “Austin is full of old, overly educated, pseudosophisticated people who have been here too long.” He has dubbed them CAVEs — Citizens Against Virtually Everything — adding that some Austinites are “stuck in their cults.” Bring up lost icons like famed music venue the Armadillo World Headquarters (where the bathroom floors boasted an inch or two of liquid during crowded concerts), and he recoils: “They had the roughest parking lot I’ve ever seen; you could lose a Volkswagen in the potholes.”

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Last year, the naysayers winced as Formula One racing arrived in Austin with the opening of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, 15 miles southeast of the city near the small rural community of Elroy. “Many opponents said that this is kind of the wrong image — frivolous emissions, carbon and other pollutants into the air just for amusement purposes — for a city that wants to be seen as the most sustainable city in the United States,” Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of consumer-advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, told Reuters.

No matter. Formula One brought 300,000 fans to town, sending hotel rates into the stratosphere. Homegrown events like South by Southwest, the world-renowned music and tech festival, attract over a quarter of a million visitors every spring. But it isn’t just fans of speed and sound that go to Austin; the city is still a draw for young, eager creative types. Austin is “blowing and going,” says Jim Gaines of Texas A&M University’s Real Estate Center, as newcomers attracted by the city’s vibrant image move in. That growth is expected to continue. In 2010, the metropolitan area was home to 1.7 million, Gaines says, and is expected to reach 5.3 million by 2050, eclipsing San Antonio as the state’s third largest metro area after Houston and Dallas.

One local business that has ridden the growth boom is Amy’s Ice Cream. Amy Simmons arrived in Austin in 1984 and opened her first ice cream store near the university. Her goal, Simmons says, is to see Amy’s become a beloved 100-year-old Austin company 80 years from now. Along the way, she is reinvesting in two Austin resources: small, unique real estate properties and a creative population. In response to skyrocketing commercial rental rates, Simmons has refurbished vintage locations and rented them exclusively to local businesses. She’s also helped some of her employees start their own projects. “They may have tattoos, piercings, but they are breathtakingly intelligent about business, not in a traditional MBA kind of way,” she says.

One concern for Simmons is the city’s affordability. As urban real estate rates jump, more Austinites are seeking out affordable housing in old suburban neighborhoods. To someone moving from Boston or Silicon Valley, housing is a bargain, Dr. Gaines says. The median home price in May in the greater Austin area was $231,315. But prices within the actual city are much higher. What Gaines calls “workforce housing” is an issue for teachers, policemen, firemen, who simply can’t afford to live where they work, Gaines says. Sensing their desire for a piece of Austin, some of the homegrown businesses that have flourished in the city, like Amy’s, have opened branches in the burbs. Suburbanites can still get a natural beef burger and a dog biscuit for the family pet at P. Terry’s, or enjoy a margarita and fajitas at Chuy’s, where the lava lamps and Elvis decor have made the move from downtown.

Within the city limits, the fusion of Old Austin and New Austin continues. Last month, a flock of food trailers had to leave a vacant lot on South Congress to make way for a hotel, prompting one gypsy restaurateur to erect a blackboard sign: “Goodbye awesome food. Hello overpriced hotel.” And at what was once the edge of town, the Broken Spoke, a fabled, 60-year-old ramshackle honky-tonk, won new life from the developers of a 20,000-sq.-ft., 385-unit apartment development, complete with bocce court and yoga studio. The Spoke now sits surrounded on three sides by a maze of concrete beams and construction crews. There was some concern last week when the beloved dirt parking lot looked like it was about to be paved, but developer Transwestern told local media it was simply installing sidewalks to be in compliance with federal disability laws. Nothing will change at the Spoke, the longtime owner of the joint assured Austinites — not the chicken-fried steak, not the rickety floor, not the cold beer. But because of the smaller lot, there will be one new feature at the dilapidated saloon: valet parking. Now that’s weird.

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