The Texan capital has always prided itself on a reputation for being weird. A global pandemic put that to the test. Lance Richardson shares what makes Austin such a magical place.
I moved to Texas by accident, by which I mean I got married and then my husband accepted a job in Austin. I’d never imagined living in the Lone Star State and I was primed to hate those bombastic Texans with their fancy silver belt buckles and inexhaustible wells of self-confidence. But then we arrived. It was summer, scorching and bright. Our new house was near Lady Bird Lake, a dam disguised as a sinuous river running through the city centre. I remember the exact moment I revised my preconceived hostility. One evening, in our first week, we rented stand-up paddleboards and joined a monthly party on the lake called the Moonlight Serenade. A hundred other people in kayaks and canoes floated in the water behind a Latino band that was playing on a barge. There were fireflies in the trees along the shore and the Austin skyline glittered. We drank and laughed with strangers — none of whom were wearing belt buckles — and I decided it might be good to hang around for a while.
Over the past two years, Austin has won me head over heels. Part of it is the landscape: a city masquerading as a small town, with nature trails and glorious oaks surrounded by juniper bushes. Part of it is the culture, which is, as the locals point out, pretty dang weird. Austin is home to the Alamo Drafthouse, where one can drink Martinis and eat hamburgers while watching midnight screenings of D-grade horror movies. It’s a city where a particular flock of bats is so beloved that residents gather with fold-up seats to watch them fly out from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge – the “Bat Bridge” – every evening at dusk. Close by you’ll find Donn’s Depot, a honky-tonk built out of abandoned railroad carriages. Just down the road is another honky-tonk, the Mean-Eyed Cat Bar, that’s dedicated to Johnny Cash. Across from that is El Arroyo, a Mexican restaurant with a legendary roadside sign that offers inspirational messages to drivers as they exit the expressway. One time the sign read: “Farts are the ghosts of food we ate.”
Austin may be justly famed for the spectacular South by Southwest expo but it’s the other stuff that charmed me and why Austinites adore their goofy city. They wear their adoration like some people wear pyjamas to the supermarket, not caring what anybody else thinks. Almost every time I go running around Lady Bird Lake, I pass a man in bathers who’s set up an amp and microphone on the shore. He seems to pass much of the time here, half-naked, singing Sinatra classics. I’ve never seen a tip jar. He sings because he needs to sing – and because Austin listens.
Things got particularly weird here during the height of the pandemic. True, things got weird everywhere but it was different in Austin. Apparently, word spread fast that the place was kind of amazing so people from all over the United States packed their suitcases and moved to the “City of the Violet Crown”, as writer O. Henry once dubbed it in honour of the vivid sunsets. At a time when offices were empty and industries were teetering on the edge of collapse, Austin became the number one destination for commercial real estate investment. Silicon Valley moved to “Silicon Hills”, as The New York Times reported. So many new faces arrived, including Elon Musk, that a housing construction area near my home changed its starting price in the span of a few weeks: properties went from “from $1.2 million” to “from $1.9 million”.
My hairdresser was unimpressed with the influx. Justin came to Austin from rural East Texas years ago and he likes the place because it feels like a haven of countercultural expression. The new arrivals are “demanding”, he told me during a recent cut. “They come in and expect to be served immediately.” What he was really saying is that they expect Austin to be like every other major city, not yet understanding that the tempo of life here is embodied by local folk hero Willie Nelson – casual, scruffy and a little bit stoned.
Maybe the new arrivals will learn to slow down their lives or perhaps Austin will be forced to speed up a bit. With its shifting demographic, the inflow of tech dollars and creatives being nudged further towards the fringe, it occurs to me that Austin is a good representation of the current state of America. This goes for its politics as well. Unlike more conservative cities like nearby San Antonio, Austin is unmistakably liberal. But because it’s the Texas state capital, the political tug of war sometimes plays out in the streets. I’ve witnessed a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Austin police headquarters. I’ve also observed a “Stop the Steal” pro-Trump rally at the Texas Capitol building. To visit Austin is to see the full spectrum of a complicated, deeply divided country. Austin is America writ small.
Of course, it’s also possible, as a visitor, to ignore all that and stick to the breakfast tacos (excellent!) that are sold virtually everywhere or the bingo games at the Little Longhorn Saloon, in which a chicken is placed on a giant bingo card and poops on the numbers until somebody wins. It’s possible, too, to stick to the Moonlight Serenade. The floating fiesta stopped during the early days of the pandemic but now, I’m delighted to write, it’s back, with a smattering of faces hidden by masks. The singular Austin spirit remains as buoyant as ever.