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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28 comments
JerryRenshaw
JerryRenshaw

I was there from 86 to 10 -- I saw it go from a really easy place to live to a damn difficult place, with THE worst traffic in the state. Sorry y'all, the horse is out of the barn on this. 

jmdaniel
jmdaniel

You need to do a little fact checking on the populations of the various cities in Texas. San Antonio is second, and Dallas is third.

I've been in Austin for 10 years now, and more and more, it resembles Houston, where I spent most of the 90s. Yuck.

soitisgirl
soitisgirl

I'm being priced out of Austin, going further and further south trying to stay in the city limits. drive around our city and it's full of contradiction cranes and demolished lots. condos, condos, condos everywhere, and not a local buyer in site. and record unemployment? I have degrees and experience but I, and many other friends, can't find jobs. much easier to "hire" UT interns. and when 125 people moving here, we are priced out of homes and job opportunities. one of my fave neighborhoods had had it's "character" destroyed by folks building million dollar homes on a street that used to have a neighborhood feel. can't keep Austin Weird when we're being outnumbered by the influx of people that just doesn't get it. it's sad, really. I'm not against progress, but I am against the loss of character and what made this town what it was and no longer can be.

JohnKing1
JohnKing1

Please stop referring to South Congress as SoCo. That  is hipster [not a compliment], it is presumptious [ South Congress is just fine thank you], and it is lazy.

Also, it is soooooooo Los Angeles/NYC. That is not a compliment.


SheeplePower
SheeplePower

Austin is indeed a unique town. As in everyone is living this "unique" lifestyle...the exact same way. I once observed a friend visiting from out-of-town neatly fold and pack 3 different colored "Keep Austin Weird" t-shirts before flying back out east. That was WAY weird. Yeah pretty much everything that makes Austin unique is quickly fading. Barton Springs is too crowded, rents are sky-rocketing and protesting is trendy. You hardly ever hear of bands coming out of Austin in the numbers they used to because it's now too expensive here for a starving artist. And local media is trying oh so hard to keep it going because they too cash in on the "weird" concept. I actually kind of feel like the oddball because I don't have a sleeve tattoo, so I stick out, lol.

JLM73TX
JLM73TX

The ATX has been unique and will continue to be unique for the rest of time.  It is an East Coast city right in the middle of Texas with an eclectic collection of folks, opportunity and spirit.  It is also a foodie town.

Moved here in the 1970s, renovated/restored the Littlefield Building, Norwood Tower, Colorado Building, Sampson Building.  Austin just keeps getting better.

It is the biggest little city in Texas.

You obviously have no clue since you did not mention Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Reed Park, Texas Monthly, the lege or Las Manitas.  We have a "W" but everyone thinks it has something to do with Dubya.

And, really, Dallas is damn nice, ya'll.

GalacticCannibal
GalacticCannibal

Austin is being turned into a HRCJ (High Rise Concrete Jungle). And in the not too distant future it will be a Have and Have-not city. With far more Have-not's . That is the American way or the American nightmare.

PDXHP
PDXHP

Hipsters and opportunists will ruin Austin if you don't watch it.

rojawi
rojawi

I'm an Austin native, recently moved away after many years.  Affordability for people with middle-income jobs is a big problem.

MichaelGrant
MichaelGrant

Ahem. That would be "Amy's Ice Creams", plural. Long may she live. :-)

SuperDave
SuperDave

I have had the luck and pleasure to be associated with 2 companies that have significant interests in the Austin area. I gush about it so much my wife decried we will vacation there, and we did! And she was not disappointed. A great vibrant city. I can see the struggle of keeping that small city "weirdness" all while growing. A fantastic foodie and music town!

guysmash
guysmash

The most significant change to Austin's identity is due to the lack of activism. Late 60's to 70's and mid 80's saw activists thrive, protect the water shed, 60% voter turnout, etc. Now the young adults here are so empty they're response to activist calls is "someone else is fighting that fight for me". Not so. All the young, liberal minds are slowly being replaced with rich republican business types. The Chamber of Commerce is the biggest activist in the city now. So all you empty headed trendys that moved to Austin, watch as your city becomes increasingly unaffordable, increasingly hard to get around, and totally unoriginal. Yes, someone else is watching the hen house-all the foxes. If you don't know who Richard Suttle is you have no idea what's going on in this town.

murna
murna

"Keep Austin Weird" was hardly coopted by small businesses -- the Austin Small Business Alliance is the organization that started it!

AustinRockland
AustinRockland

I escaped from the Rust Belt and moved to Austin for work in 1981.  This city only gets better.

MichaelKitces
MichaelKitces

I continue to enjoy visiting Austin when possible; the city certainly maintains its "weird" charm to me.

My family in Austin just shared this video with me from a local "Body Shop" there (i.e., gym) and it seems to be pretty quintessential Austin to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Hp36FsNSa0&sns=fb

Certainly makes me want to live there sometimes!

AustinTexas1961
AustinTexas1961

I came here to Austin in August 1981 to attend the University of Texas.  Since then, our city has seen busts and growths.  At the present time, we are experiencing a signficant growth in population.  Approximately 150 people move into Austin every day. There is a lot to like about our city.   We have a wide variety of foods.  There is the local music scene.  Our park system is impressive.  Many in our community revel in being the local opposition to our conservative state government (i.e. Rick Perry).  Just so you know, our traffic is a nightmare.  Despite that, our city is seeing the effects of so many new people in our area.   Long cherished businesses are being bulldozed to make way for new luxury housing.  Many Austinites' rents are going skyhigh, causing many problems in the process.  Yes, Austin is known for its slogan "Keep Austin Weird."  A local entrepreneur has crafted a new motto:  "Welcome to Austin.  Please Don't Move Here.  (I hear Dallas is great.)"  It may be witty to some and offensive to others.  However,  it does express the mixed feelings many Austinites have about our population boom. 

7870faubourg
7870faubourg

Austin has changed more between 2007 and 2013 than it did between 1987 and 2007. Developers and profiteers have the upper hand and gone is the low cost of living that allowed creativity to flourish. There are still vestiges of the old Austin, but mostly the Powers That Be are more interested in tourist and development dollars than quality of life and the reporter's Disney World quip was sadly apt.

WillardShmekel
WillardShmekel

Austin has become just another vanilla metropolis, with horrible traffic surrounded by bedroom communities. The massive influx of pseudo-sophisticated non-native Texans has doomed this once-unique city.

Mambocat
Mambocat

The delighted person overheard telling a friend she couldn't believe she was really in Austin may be a brand-new resident, delighted at FINALLY being out of her close-minded, restrictive, unimaginative suburb or small town.  Yes, we all miss the heyday of the "authentic" Austin, but Austin is still Austin deep down inside, and a refuge for people who seek escape from whichever overly prudish and creativity-squashing culture they were raised in.   


THECoolRanch
THECoolRanch

"Keep Austin Weird" is a ripoff of "Keep Missoula Weird" which has been on bumper stickers for 25+ years.

Portland is ripping it off too.

"...debate over whether its weirdness is being institutionalized and subverted.."

Where's the debate?  Hipster blight is almost as bad as the Tea Party.


Best recognize hipster dbags... when EVERYONE has a grizzly-bear beard or cheesy silent-film villain handlebar moustache then it ain't really that WEIRD is it?



GeneT.Haggard
GeneT.Haggard

Duh.  Really?  2013, ATX sold out?  No..........................   .

LiaLiaBoBia
LiaLiaBoBia

@WillardShmekel I couldn't have said it any better myself. I've lived in Austin proper almost all of my life, and the changes this city has gone through are largely not for the better when the people who actually work here can barely afford to live here. Everything that made Austin truly unique and fabulous is no more; in a way, it is like a highly sanitized theme park, complete with long, long lines. Only there's really nothing to see here, folks! Move on. 

AustinTexas1961
AustinTexas1961

Missoula (?) is among a number of cities which pioneered the use of "Keep _____ weird."  Still, Austin has been able to market the slogan more effectively than most others. 

RobertJackson1
RobertJackson1

@LiaLiaBoBia @WillardShmekelBoth of you are free to move at anytime. Good luck with that. My work takes me back and forth across the US and to many countries. Austin is great and the only better places are in the EU IMHO so the more of you loser mentality types who leave the better. Ciao. 

THECoolRanch
THECoolRanch

@AustinTexas1961 


Missoula Montana

Quite similar to Austin in many ways.. liberal, college-town, oasis of culture in a red state, different economy than most of state, etc.