Austin: Still Weird After All These Years

The capital of down-home cool (and Texas) is growing up fast. But everything that makes it great--the food, the music, the people--is being threatened by high rents, traffic, and the likes of Baja Fresh. Can Austin keep the misfit spirit alive?

To call it an ordinary Friday would be only a slight exaggeration. The parking lot next to the Hotel San José is jammed with hot rod gearheads and tattooed girls enjoying their first--okay, second--beers of the day as rush hour commuters rubberneck the custom cars parked on both sides of South Congress Avenue. Among the rebuilt rides are guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan's lime-gold '63 Buick Riviera and a purple '57 Cadillac that is the pride and joy of Continental Club impresario Steve Wertheimer. Inside the Continental, which was born the same year as its current owner's Caddy, the Blues Specialists ("over 200 years of combined blues-playing experience") lug their instruments onto the red-velvet stage for happy hour, after which honky-tonkers Dale Watson and Jesse Dayton will play the hotel parking lot, followed by rockabilly bombshell Marti Brom and yodeler Wayne "the Train" Hancock back at the club. At 2 a.m., many revelers will move to Magnolia Café South, where a short stack of bigger-than-your-head gingerbread pancakes gives all that tequila and Shiner Bock beer a cozy place to spend the night.

This particular bustle comes as part of the third Annual Lonestar Rod & Kustom Round Up, but the thing is, there's always something going on in Austin, which is not just the capital of Texas and self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, but a capital of American cool. A week prior to the car show, the town was commandeered by the four-night, 1,100-band South by Southwest music fest. Tomorrow, 15,000 men and women will run the Capitol 10K. Next weekend is Spamarama, the 26th annual celebration of processed pork. In between, it will be First Thursday once again: On the first Thursday of every month, there is the traditional art-gallery stroll, as well as a half-dozen bands playing various clubs, a drum circle, and the chance to play musical chairs with the local Roller Derby queens. Dancers from the Red Light Burlesque serve as crossing guards--traffic on South Congress can be brutal.

In fact, traffic is a nightmare everywhere. When I moved to Austin in 1990, after four years in Chicago and a year in New York City, it took five minutes to get to anyplace worth going, and you could find a parking space (for free!) within a block or two of any club. Austin was the scruffy college town of Richard Linklater's film Slacker--artsy, intellectual, and cheap, with a bit of cowboy culture on the side, a downtown full of empty buildings left over from the busted oil boom, and more hills and green space than anyone had a right to expect. For decades, Austin was where every misfit from Houston, Dallas, and Amarillo came to be themselves.

Imagine their surprise when Whit and Ashley from back home moved in next door, with their dot-com jobs, matching SUVs, and lust for P.F. Chang's. Austin in 2004 reflects Dubya, Michael Dell, and Lance Armstrong as much as Linklater, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Willie Nelson. It's more of a real city, but also more like other cities. You pay to park downtown (if you can even find an empty lot), and the two University of Texas-area cafés in Slacker have been supplanted by a Starbucks and a Diesel shop. "Keep Austin Weird" has become an unofficial slogan--as unofficial as a slogan can be, anyway, once the city council has shoehorned the phrase into an economic white paper (under "Cultural Vitality").

It's an unwritten rule that once you've paid rent in Austin for, oh, a month, you can start complaining about how much better everything was when you first got here. But even those who gripe about the city's evolution happily patronize restaurants, shops, and coffeehouses that wouldn't otherwise exist. No one ever leaves, and we're constantly reminded how good we have it by friends from out of town. "I should move here," is the typical refrain, usually uttered by someone from New York or L.A. over a plate of migas (eggs scrambled with salsa, corn tortillas, cheese, and, if you get 'em at El Sol y La Luna, chorizo) or breakfast tacos (my favorites are from Guero's: one stuffed with egg, potato, and cheese, another with refried beans and bacon). Then they marvel at how cheap the bill is. Local institution Tamale House still offers a two-item taco for 85¢, to the delight of broke students and unemployed musicians.

People come to Austin not so much to see the sights as to live the life--coat their arteries in Tex-Mex and barbecue, hear a bunch of bands, spend too much money at Waterloo Records, and maybe take a dip in Barton Springs. In a city with few traditional attractions, you can't beat the naturally fed swimmer's paradise--plus adjacent Zilker Park and the Town Lake hike-and-bike trail. In summer, late in the day, take the trail east along the south shore, past the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and you'll be right on time for the phenomenon that everybody simply calls "the bats." North America's largest colony of Mexican free-tailed fangers--1.5 million of 'em--lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge. If it's not quite sundown, pick up a Día de los Muertos figurine among the handcrafted Mexican and South American tchotchkes at Tesoros or stop in for a margarita at Manuel's, which also has half-price happy hour appetizers and some of the best mole in town. Then join the throng on, around, or underneath the bridge to see the black cloud swarm off into the night.

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