Austin on My Mind

A Texan UrinalI always feel a little existential when I’m in non-coastal cities and towns in the US. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just the foreignness of not having an ocean that dominates part of the horizon? Or maybe its the highways which often bisect the towns? I felt the same way in Lake Tahoe years ago. Coincidentally, I quoted Merton there as well.

This is my first visit to Austin. To me, it feels kind of like the Calgary of the south. Or perhaps Calgary is the Austin of the north. Until we found the few boisterous blocks of 6th Street where all the action is, I was struck by how empty downtown Austin seemed. Two nights in a row we dined in half-empty restaurants in the centre of town. What do these establishments do when SXSW isn’t in town?

I haven’t had a lot of time to look around, but local two heritage buildings were highlights. The first is the Driskill Hotel, originally built in 1886. It’s in the Romanesque style, and reminded me a little of the Empress Hotel in Victoria. We had desert there. In what seems like a very southern tradition, the Driskill holds an annual pie bake-off, and the winning pie gets on the desert menu for the subsequent year.

This afternoon I saw the premier of Splinterheads, a charming if run-of-the-mill comedy at the historic Paramount Theater. It’s a gorgeous little theater built in 1915 (here are some photos), with a capacity of about 1300. It’s the prettiest cinema (I gather it’s also a live venue) that I’ve seen in years–it’s really a pity we don’t have more of these left on the west coast.

I don’t really feel like I’ve had the Texas experience yet. I’ve seen very few cowboy boots and hats (aside from those worn ironically by SXSW attendees), and haven’t heard much of that twangy accent which I expected. That, I gather, may be due to Austin’s status as the city that’s unlike the rest of the state. We’re spending a couple of nights outside of the city later in the week, so that experience may seem more genuine.

On an unrelated note, things have been quieter than usual around here because I, uh, broke the back end of this website. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that my reach exceeded my grasp, and chaos ensued. Big thanks to local Vancouver SEO expert Kerry Morrison for digging around under the hood and straightening things out again.

UPDATE: Here are a few photos from our time in Texas:

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=67348

15 comments

  1. hmm, based on heresay from friends who travel to the US regularly the current emptiness of restaurants and town centres has a lot to do with the economy.

  2. It’s a pretty sad statement when you visit a city with historic cites and pretty cinemas, but you post a picture of a urinal.

    P.S. While “ya’ll” is an option, “y’all” is the more common spelling arrangement.

    1. I didn’t really bring my camera–that shot (and a couple of others) came from my lame iPhone’s camera. I tried to snap a couple of photos in the Paramount, but it was way too dark.

      When people say “y’all” without irony, I still find it hard not to giggle.

  3. As a former Austin resident I can report that the downtown area provides a somewhat misleading representation of the city. I was also there for sxsw, and when my friends would pick me up downtown they would invariably ask “where’s the convention center?” About a mile north or south of downtown are vibrant areas occupied by hippies, artists, nerds, cowboys and the more than 50,000 students who call Austin home. Moreover, the city is filled with little neighborhood joints, mom and pop groceries, glitzy new Whole Foods emporiums, etc etc. The deserted downtown business district, especially the area around the convention center, just doesn’t capture what Austin is about. I moved to Austin 12 years ago on a scorching August day and was convinced that I had just settled in some sort of southwestern dystopia. Over time, however, I started to find the neat little neighborhood ecosytems, the outdoor places with legendary margaritas, the country-esque bars on the outskirts of town, the glitzy new suburbs for the Dellionaires, and surprisingly resilent old hippy communities. Austin is anything but empty, but it is also surprisingly slow to avail its charms (sixth street is not among them–no one I know would ever go there on their leisure time. It’s for tourists). If you’re in town a bit longer, rent a car and ask the locals for some tips on restaurants and clubs.

    1. Yeah, I wondered about that. I haven’t spent much time in Calgary, but that may be another way in which they’re similar.

  4. Kerry is pure awesomesauceness. He also helped me fix a CSS issue.

    On the other hand, I confess to using “y’all” and I’m Mexican. Oops.

  5. I’ve felt that same existentialism in large flat cities. I think a little of it is disorientation, because some of it goes away when I know a place better, or when there are landmarks such as mountains or ocean. But I think the other half of it is the expansiveness, the idea that you could go any direction and still be in a place that extends again in all directions. You have to choose a direction, yet you do not know how to choose because they’re all the same to you who is disoriented.

    My parents moved to Austin after I moved out, and so I’ve gotten to know it in bits and pieces when I go to visit–enough to know my way around now. Totally agree with the Austinite’s comment about downtown, and I would add that since it’s a government center, it’s even more deserted off hours.

    My favorite game when I go to visit is seeing how long until I hear “all y’all.” Last time it was in the airport 10 minutes after getting off the plane. Otherwise, you won’t get much of a stereotypical Texas experience in Austin (nothing like the time I went to Ft Worth and saw a wedding party where the men got out of pickup trucks in tuxes and tails with blue jeans, boots and hats–the jeans were brand new and well-pressed).

    If you’re headed out west to Fredericksburg for your getaway, they play up the German heritage more than the cowboy lifestyle. There’s a bunch of little towns around that were settled by majorities of European immigrants, German, Czech, etc. But the hill country is nice out there, and Enchanted Rock state park is worth the detour. If you can, come back via Llano and Burnet, they’re more of the courthouse and mainstreet Texas towns.

    If you’re headed out east, the flat ranchland is less scenic but more typical of Texas. Taylor, Elgin, and Bastrop are the nice, typical towns out that way. Or down south are San Marcos and New Braunfels, but those are close to the freeway. Whereever you go, try to get off the main roads and onto the backroads.

  6. I would add San Antonio to Andy K’s list. Much more of a Latino town and very different than the anglo north (which more or less starts at Austin). If you’re staying around Austin, might want to hit a place called Hamilton Pool on the way back from Fredericksburg. It’s cenote-like pool filled by a waterfall–very beautiful.

  7. Damnit, I wrote up the whole description of what i’d done, submitted it then the site went bork…all g one.

    Will rewrite shortly.

  8. Ok lets try this again.

    Here’s what I did, should have been more scientific about it, but was frustrated at the end.

    First, I not only nuked all the plugins from the install, but I also used the url string, copied from my own site to deactivate the plugins as well.

    Second I pulled out all the themes and replaced the basic ones with fresh versions from a clean install of WP.

    Lastly and it may sound iffy, but I found a number of threads talking of issues popping up if your config.php file has any extra spaces in it either before or after the code…should be nothing but at that point I was desperate.

    Did all three things in one fell swoop then navigated to WP admin screen and voila…site was back up.

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