Don’t Worry, Austin is Still Weird: Part I
I landed late morning at Austin Bergstrom International Airport where I was picked up by my long-time friend and native Austinite Rob Bowman. Being an architect and structural engineer, Rob immediately “got it” when I said I’d love to see areas of the city beyond downtown that had interesting buildings and facades. We compared notes and, after his strong suggestion, agreed that East Austin would be a perfect place to start. We stopped briefly in Austin’s more famous South Congress commercial area, fed ourselves with some Texas beef and headed on our way to the other side of town.
East Austin, which starts immediately east of Interstate 35 just past downtown, stands in stark contrast to the bar-centric and tourist-oriented 6th St where first-time visitors are often directed to go. It’s filled with bungalows and single-story businesses that range from old-time holdouts to gentrification-accelerating hipster cafes (that I admittedly fall for myself). Though some residents lament that the area is changing too quickly and I’m in no position to disagree, my fresh eyes saw nothing but a welcoming and true-to-itself neighborhood that must be walked to be felt.
I fell in love with East Austin almost immediately, I think more because of what it isn’t than what it is. If anything, it’s the sort of neighborhood that can’t be subject to blanket statements. It’s not universally well-manicured; you’ll find the occasional piece of trash on the sidewalk, some of the buildings are boarded up and vacant lots with grass reaching out from cracks in the asphalt remain scattered throughout the area. In other areas homes will be picture-perfect. It’s a healthy mix. You’ll find rusty trucks and worn-down signs standing proud next to minimalist eco-friendly container homes and millennial-targeting co-working spaces filled with startups. This story arc is in no way unique to East Austin and can be found across many of America’s cities, from Bushwick in Brooklyn to RiNo in Denver and refurbished warehouses in Downtown LA. What’s different about East Austin, however, is that it doesn’t seem to reject its past.
Austin has long been known as a liberal and hippie-friendly enclave surrounded by the more conservative parts of the state. This led me (and doubtless many others) to assume that Austin would feel like its own sovereign entity in the way that the Panama Canal Zone was once a US controlled territory surrounded by thick Panamanian jungle. I arrived to find that this dualistic take is far from accurate:
is still in Texas.
The Texan way of life and all that comes with it are not forgotten nor rejected here as I wrongly presumed might be the case. No no, far from it. And in East Austin in particular I really felt this. Yes, you have hipsters like myself (I actually identify as a post-hipster yuppie aspirant with a crusty-hippie-phased past and unshakeable Southern Californian accent that makes progress in life difficult) eating stuff that hipsters eat (fun fact: if you take a $2 avocado, smash it, and then spread it on .50 cent toast, it instantly quadruples in value and becomes a unique millennial delicacy known as “avocado toast”). You will find cafes that smell more like patchouli than mesquite. Yet from what I gathered, the same people who want free wi-fi want slow-cooked barbecue. The same people you find listening to lo-fi cafe jazz in the morning will be at The Continental Club that night listening to local country.
It felt to me that Austin was yelling from its rolling hills the lyrics of an old Waylon Jennings song:
“You’ll never take the Texas out of me”
Here, in East Austin, it seems that Waylon is right. Crawfish boils and Tex-Mex hole-in-the-walls abound. Dive bars and musty venues from its historic past carry on unabated. The Victory Grill, a legendary cafe and venue that played a significant in the rise of blues when Austin was segregated still remains and proudly hosts local music (B.B. King, Bobby Bland and other blues gods played here when it was part of the famed Chitlin’ circuit). And in nearly every bar and restaurant, you’ll find not just beers, but the local delicacy: Topo Chico. A carbonated water from Monterrey, Mexico, the stuff is held in the same esteem as alcohol here and I made sure not to question it (I tried one and loved it).
I tend to resent city comparisons, but at the expense of being a raging hypocrite I’m going to entertain one of them from recent memory. Several months ago I wrote an article about Santa Ana, California, arguing that its loving embrace of street art and Chicano culture in public murals has allowed it to showcase its storied history while providing voice and venue for the expression of its younger residents. East Austin embodies that same ethos but with a Texan spin, perhaps not all surprising given that both towns were at one point part of Spain and later Mexico. The comparisons aren’t perfect, however. Unlike many other areas experiencing rapid growth, people were, dare I say it, actually nice to each other. Coming from New York and LA, the Texan way of neighborly kindness and a polite wave was more than refreshing.
And though comparable in some of the respects above,
the spirit of the Lone Star State remained.
Like all of Texas,
East Austin has to be seen to be known.
Map East Austin and more of the city in StreetCred’s MapAustin competition and you could win nearly $8,000 worth of Bitcoin!