Comparing Austin to Miami
It rose to fame in the 90’s with the movie Slacker, and soon became known as a center of liberalism, culture and bohemia in the middle of a conservative state. It began topping the “best of” lists in almost every category imaginable: “2nd Best Place to Live for Moviemakers” by Moviemaker Magazine in 2005; #2 in “Best Cities for Walking” by Prevention Magazine (2007); third “Best Wireless City” by livescience.com (2005); #11 in the “Best Places for Singles Looking to Mingle” category by Forbes.com. Men’s Journal rated it as #2 among “America’s Most Heart Healthy Cities” in 2006. Kiplinger named it the 4th best of “Places to Live, Work and Play”. In the early 2000’s, the city adopted the slogan “Keep Austin Weird”, establishing itself as a culture of indie, anti-corporate expression in which individualism and eccentricity could thrive like no other. On paper, it offered some lessons that Miami could learn from: friendliness and neighborliness could co-exist with artistic flair; People could find a quirky sense of community in venues such as coffeehouses, live music clubs and outdoor festivals and recreation. If there were an award for civic smugness, Austin would no doubt be ranked at number 2, just behind Portland, Oregon. Were all these accolades accurate, or was this all simply the subterfuge of some talented publicists?
The town’s image suggested a stark departure from my recollections of Texas, which I’d previously discerned to be a vastly conservative place somewhat deficient in innovation and imagination, where skin-tight jeans, oversized belt-buckles, boots and cowboy hats were deemed fashion chic, and American flags large enough to cover entire buildings waved alongside equally-sized banners of Texas in front of SUV dealerships and cookie cutter strip malls. Endless feeder roads bordered the expansive freeways, while poorly planned chain businesses nestled against them. Sex was an evil thing requiring a great deal of governmental regulation; God, guts and guns were viewed as the sources of American freedom, and Baptist doctrine was accorded a station not dissimilar to papal infallibility.
Somehow, according to the press, all of these so-called Christian family values allegedly ceased to be at the Travis County line, the inside of which was a safety zone for free-thinking mutants.
Indeed, if the rumors were to be believed, Austin was a veritable utopia of non-conformist livability which compelled every able-bodied, free-thinking human to flock to as soon as humanly possible. Therefore, I marked it down as a must see on my Spring 2009 road trip, along with my hometown of New Orleans and San Diego, CA.
The approach to Austin via the 183 is less than inspirational. You’ll pass a couple of small towns along the way. There are a few gentle hills, deserty shrubs trying to pass themselves off as trees, lots of corrugated steel buildings, propane shops (the kind you might find Hank Hill working at), lavish churches, downtrodden trailer parks, junk yards with rusted out parts…Consequently, when you finally get to Austin and see the immaculate, modern downtown buildings looming out behind the graceful swan-laden Town Lake (actually a segment of the Colorado River), a feeling of lazy summers in the cattails pervades your consciousness and you feel as though you’ve arrived. Grackles and squirrels frolic along the banks and you get the idea that you’ll get along there just as easily.
The city stirs you with its casual, uncomplicated feel, but nonetheless belies its image as the bastion of southern counterculture. Coming from Miami, the tranquility will make you feel like you’ve just landed in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, but that’s still a far cry from the Haight-Ashbury edginess you’re led to expect.
First, it’s not particularly walkable. The wide streets are a little daunting for carefree strolling outside downtown; on smaller residential streets, sidewalks are a bit of an afterthought, sporadic at best. There are walking paths and greenbelts aplenty, though they’re frequently teeming with spirited runners, dog-walkers, and kamikaze cyclists—eco-friendly to be sure, but so much so that it becomes a bit of an impediment in the quest for a peaceful commune with nature. It’s not a very easy city for the uninitiated to navigate. Streets change names repeatedly, and typically curve at whim and turn into other thoroughfares.
Secondly, it’s not particularly weird. Coming from New Orleans, where eccentricity is endemic, things felt entirely tame and….wholesome. Granted, there were tattoos, piercings, and a lot of funky kitsch along the streets to the South, but long sideburns and a propensity for collecting junk don’t in themselves make you an oddball in contemporary culture.
There is Leslie Cochran, of course, the (apparently) homeless, crossdressing cowboy and occasional mayoral candidate. He’s weird enough. His affinity for g-strings, fishnets and cowboy hats makes him stick out on downtown streets, but South Beach can match Leslie with a bevy of other homeless transvestites and throw in a trannie caped crusader as well.
(above) Leslie Cochran, cross-dressing cowboy. This is as weird as it gets in Austin.
Thirdly, it’s not particularly passionate, an essential ingredient of any artistic Valhalla. There’s a fine line between mellowness and outright sedation, and things often feel like they’re on the verge of crossing over here. The parks aren’t full of amorous couples writhing in the moonlight; they’re the abode of PC families, children and Disney doggies with high-pro glows, kayakers and visitors to Barton Spring, Zilker Park’s scenic watering hole. It’s apparent that Austin is much more a place to hang out than to hook up. Hooking up is the stuff of frat boys and sorority girls on Sixth Street downtown during the nighttime hours, where you’ll find the obligatory beer bars and t-shirt shops; it doesn’t exactly wow you with its sensuality or originality the way Miami and New Orleans do. The rest of Austin is a more social place, friendly enough if you’re a college student or long-haired regular at the local bars and coffee shops, but a bit alienating if you’re on your own and don’t fit seamlessly into the established demographics.
Hippie Hollow is the closest thing you’ll find to decadence in Travis County. A nudist state park located about 30 minutes out of town, it offers a myriad of rocky perches alongside the emerald green waters of Lake Travis for an admission cost of $10 per person. However, the hand of Texas repression has a firm hold there: prominent signage throughout the area warns against the “display of children under 18 with adults (?)” and rangers lecture first-timers against engaging in any lewd conduct among the scrub oaks as they’re handing you your change. The topic of bumping uglies in the bushes isn’t something you really want to discuss with the female ranger/parking attendant, and anyone who isn’t able to grasp on their own that such activities are illegal probably isn’t mentally competent enough to be held accountable for violating them, anyway. Even so, it is a wonderful way to experience the hill country, though, and is still worth a visit.
(above) An aerial view of Texas’ only legal clothing optional park, Hippie Hollow.
CIVILITY, YES, BUT NO LOVE FEST
The local coffee houses are popular hang-outs. People congregate alone or in groups, but there doesn’t seem to be much if any crossover chatter. Those who come alone prefer the company of their laptops and cell phones, while those in groups are focused on their own conversations.
Lastly, when local nightlife involves $13 glasses of wine and Pottery Barn decor, there’s trouble. There are two types of cancers that can infect a city: one is poverty, and the other is yuppie gentrification, which transforms our neighborhoods into overly-sanitized boutiques in which only those with expense accounts can afford a regular helping of their offerings. In New Orleans, poverty and violence are the main threats to the city’s way of life, while yuppie gentrification fails to ever make much headway. Thank the 200 years of dirt for that! However, in Austin, the yuppie cancer is creeping in with alarming alacrity. Case in point: a visit to Vino Vino (4119 Guadalupe St) in Hyde Park. I went there one evening during my stay in Austin, expecting an affordable college bar, given its proximity to UT, but instead found an uppity club with over-priced fare and bartenders who gabbed more with each other than the clientele. The jazz music provided by local musicians Ephraim Owens on trumpet and Kevin Lovejoy on piano was mesmerizing, but the $75 bill for 3 glasses of wine and a couple of appetizers took away my buzz.
Don’t get me wrong. Austin is a pleasant place to live. If you’re a student, or have a nice job, you can have a nice existence in a relatively compact area close to the great natural beauty of the Texas hill country. It’s just that, much to Al Gore’s consternation, you’ll be spending most of your time there in your car.
WHERE TO STAY
(above) The Hi-Austin Hostel is the only game in town for backpacker accommodations.
My first indication that there might be trouble in paradise was when I began researching hotels before the trip: a hippy haven should offer lots of funky, inexpensive digs, right? Not so in Austin. The city offered only one hostel, Hi-Austin, located appealing enough on the shores of Town Lake, southeast of downtown. It’s a quiet place offering spectacular views of the water, with an atmosphere more like a library than the Animal House feel you get in some hostels. They offer free wifi, computers, lockers and 8-bed dorms for $22 a night. Beyond that, chain motels abutting the freeways were the only option for the budget-conscious, not quite the embodiment of the anticorporate aesthetics the publicity mills suggested.
Of course, anyone with a hankering for the quintessential Austin experience would no doubt want to hang their hat at the Austin Motel (1220 S Congress Ave), a roadside inn whose phallic sign attracts alternative aficionados like moths to a flame. Unfortunately, however, the motel has become a little big for its britches: rates start at $80 a night and it seldom has available rooms.
Nearby, the thoroughly renovated Hotel San Jose (1316 S Congress Ave) will set you back about two hundred a night.
After that, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything short of luxury hotels, which, even on priceline.com, tend to cost upwards of $130 a night.
Likewise, life is a bit cookie-cutter for prospective residents as well. A quick perusal of craigslist rentals will reveal that the bulk of available housing in Austin is in large corporate complexes, with stringent qualification policies in order to keep out the riff-raff. While the rents are pretty inexpensive, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have a job that pays at least 3 times your rent and pass credit and criminal background checks, hardly a situation in which a starving artist would feel comfortable. The buildings are hawked by local go-getter realtors and agencies and private owner rentals are hard to find. In this regard, South Beach is a much easier place in which to find an apartment.
WHAT TO DO
(above) locals pack Barton Spring, Austin’s prime watering hole.
For recreation, explore the trails along Town Lake, and be sure to visit Zilker Park. You can swim in Barton Springs for a scant $3. You can also rent canoes and kayaks a short distance upstream at Zilker Boats for a rate of $10/hour, or $40 for the entire day. Barton Springs empties into Town Lake, so you can cover a good distance if you’re so inclined.
Local eating hotspots include Güeros (1412 S Congress Ave), Chuy’s (1728 Barton Springs Rd), and Maria’s Taco Express (2529 S Lamar Blvd). Notice the trend? Tex-Mex is the local tradition. The finest tacos for your money, however, can be found at Torchy’s Tacos, which is located in a culinary trailer park in South Austin at 2809 South 1st.
(above) The winner of my personal taco survey: Torchy’s Tacos, hands down!
For coffee, among the most popular options is the Bouldin Creek Coffee House (1501 S 1st St), in South Austin. Other locally-famous businesses include Flipnotics (1601 Barton Springs Rd) and Ruta Maya (3601 S. Congress Ave).
At sundown, locals and tourists alike flock to the Congress Avenue bridge, where, in the warmer months, you can catch scores of Mexican free-tailed bats in the midst of their evening flights.
Those with a literary bent will enjoy visiting the UT campus and also Book People on Lamar.
Take in a show at the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can kick back with your favorite brew and catch a flick.
South Congress has scores of eclectic antique and vintage clothing shops, and is a fun way to spend the afternoon. Further north, Guadalupe Street, also known as the Drag, is also a good place to check out, with its college-oriented cafes and retail stores.
Artistically speaking, Austin is a bit lacking in the gallery department, especially compared to cities like New Orleans. There is Art on 5th (1501 W. 5th St), Gallery SoCo (S. Congress, by appointment only), and Yard Dog Folk Art (1510 S. Congress Ave), but the most striking monument to creative expression is undoubtedly the Cathedral of Junk (4422 Lareina Dr), an interactive junkyard sculpture of towering proportions. It has to be seen to be believed.
(above) The Cathedral of Junk
THE BOTTOM LINE
Austin’s a fun enough college town, but should come with a disclaimer that all claims of weirdness and artistic creativity should be measured only against other cities in Texas. Places like New Orleans, Miami and San Francisco are clearly in another league in terms of innovativeness and sophistication. Austin’s greatest charm isn’t in its urban bohemian-ness and weirdness, so why market it that way? South Beach, for all its glitziness, actually delivers much better in these departments: there is more inexpensive lodging, walkability, sensual appeal, edgy urban art, world-class cuisine, architectural splendor, and diversity. Appreciate Austin for its friendly, live-and-let-live simplicity, relative compactness and reasonable cost-of-living and you’ll do fine.
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