This city is changing. New residents and new money are flooding in, causing some to celebrate and others to mourn. Joshua Long, a former Austin resident and scholar, wrote Weird City: A Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, TX to discuss these municipal changes and document the grass roots movements dedicated to preserving the local customs and flavor. Long will be in-store this Saturday (7/17) at 3PM and was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog via email from his current residence in Switzerland.
How did Austin’s “weird” culture start, and why does it thrive here? I began the second chapter of my book with this exact question. If Austin is weird, when did it start? Most of the Austinites I interviewed mentioned that the people and the music are the main reason that Austin has become (and remained) so weird. But like any city, Austin’s cultural complexity is the product of numerous influences over time. Everything from the University to the state legislature to the geographic location of Austin plays a role in the evolution of its idiosyncratic eccentricity. The rise of redneck rock and the 1970s cosmic cowboy scene certainly played a role in Austin’s laidback grooviness, but it didn’t stop there. As other scholars have noted, Austin’s music, arts, and cultural scenes have never really lagged; they have only continued to evolve. There is a kind of a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy of nonconformity now in the city. Austin is certainly changing, but an active and vocal citizenry is devoted to keeping Austin unique and true to its weird roots.
Of course, all of this assumes that Austin is weird. There is no shortage of people who will tell you that Austin is not weird, or at least not weird anymore. Several of the people I interviewed suffered from the very common Austin disease, “you shoulda been here when…”. You know, when the beer was colder and the springs still had salamanders in them and the Armadillo was still open. Most of these people were right, and had some really good stories to tell. Others, however, had arrived about four or five years ago and were already mourning the loss of the city’s weirdness. In my estimation, the city is still weird, the people are still cool, and soul is still worth saving.
Who originated the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ slogan and how did it catch on? I go into a lot of detail about this in my book. The short answer is that it started quite organically with a few simple acts by Red Wassenich and his wife Karen Pavelka. It was a whimsical beginning to a fast-spreading idea. Red didn’t want to make money. He didn’t want to be famous. He was just worried that the city he loved was becoming over-commercialized, over-materialistic, and less “weird.” So, Red started printing out bumper stickers that said “Keep Austin Weird,” and it really took off from there. All in all, Red and Karen just wanted to remind Austinites that some of the best qualities of their fair city were quickly disappearing. “Keep Austin Weird” reminded people that they should actively do something to maintain the city’s unique cultural qualities. The slogan was used in all sorts of ways to protect Austin’s landscape. BookPeople and Waterloo benefited from the slogan and bolstered its popularity. I write at length about BookPeople’s role in keeping it weird. By the way, yours really is a great story, and anyone associated with BookPeople and Waterloo should be very happy with the part they played in Austin’s history.
Later on, a local design company began printing the slogan on t-shirts, caps, shot glasses, etc. They eventually filed for the copyright, and Red, being the laid back dude that he is, didn’t want to spend the time or the money to fight it. The rest is all academic, as they say, and there are certainly a few chapters left to be written in the history of “Keep Austin Weird.”
What are the benefits of “shopping local”? Originally, “Keep Austin Weird” was not intended as a specific movement to support local businesses. But as Red mentioned to me in an interview, it is a perfectly logical application of the slogan. In many cities all over the country, supporting local business has become the main aim of the campaign. Louisville, Portland, Santa Cruz, Boulder, and many others use the slogan to help support local iconic businesses. I prefer the grassroots, organic sort of weirdness that “Keep Austin Weird” was intended to perpetuate, but supporting local business is also important. I am not saying I’ve never shopped at a Wal-Mart. The occasional big box store or restaurant chain isn’t a bad thing, but when you have a cookie-cutter landscape of Pottery Barns, REIs, and Best Buys, cities stop looking like individual places and instead start looking like landscapes of American mass consumerism. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no anti-capitalist. But sometimes I get a bit worried that many Americans have chosen to sacrifice the diversity of their cultural landscape for the sake of cheap shiny convenience.
When does the economic revitalization of an area become gentrification? Is there a difference between the two? Is one possible without the other? This is probably the most difficult question you could have asked me. Gentrification can look very different depending on where you are from, who you are, or even what side of the street you live on. Cities and neighborhoods throughout the U.S. have attempted different strategies to help alleviate the rent hike that almost always accompanies revitalization. The only real success stories have stemmed from unified neighborhood action meant to protect renters and at-risk groups. The problem in Texas (and a few other states as well) is that when the cost of living and average homes prices rise as rapidly as they have, even property owners feel the pressure. I talked to long-term residents who own homes, and their property taxes were closing in on how much their mortgage was back in the 1980s.
So, it is possible to have revitalization without the other? Well, I suppose that really depends on the situation and the actors involved. When I left Austin two years ago, the city was planning measures to ensure the livability of certain neighborhoods, but I have not been able to keep up with everything since moving to Ticino. I suppose I will learn quite a bit as soon as I get back to Austin here in a couple of days.
How would you define irresponsible development, and what’s the solution? The definition of irresponsible development completely depends on the actors involved, their goals in the development project, and the individuals and communities that are affected by their actions. In other words, like the previous gentrification/revitalization question, much depends on who you ask. I do feel very strongly about the solution, however. The citizens of Austin convinced me that it is less a solution and more like preventive medicine. As I told Wells Dunbar in an interview with the Chronicle, Austin’s rebellious, anti-growth mentality has been an interesting double-sided sword. On one hand, the vocal, resistant, “Keep Austin Weird” crowd has been a real thorn in the side of city policy makers. Some see this as an obstacle to effective planning. But there is something to say for the people who feel so strongly about the Austin cultural landscape that they bring it to the attention of as many people as possible. The ghost of “Old Austin” past is the cold sweat that frequently wakes city council members from an otherwise peaceful sleep. But I’d like to think that when the oh-so-vocal “keep it weird” camp picks a battle with the pro-development side, the attention from the conflict tends to make government a little more transparent. By being involved, informed, and vocal, Austinites make everything a little more democratic. Simply put, the best way to solve irresponsible development is to prevent it by keeping the city population well informed and strongly committed to a truly livable, sustainable community.