Two weekends ago I was running errands that took me from my home in Oak Hill in SW Austin, to my bank in South Austin, then to drop my daughter off at KidsActing in East Austin off East MLK. Then up to preview a house in North Austin, then up to Round Rock to see if the make-ready was complete on one of our new listings, then out to NW Austin near Spicewood Springs Rd and Hwy 183 to check on another house. After that I headed south, down Hwy 183 back to my office on Mopac to pick up mail, then to check on a lease listing near Zilker Park before I stopped for a late afternoon lunch at Green Mesquite on Barton Springs Rd.
I noted throughout the day of driving around that, for the most part, there is not anything aesthetically “special”, unique or visibly distinguishable about Austin. At least not along the main arteries I drove. In fact, much of Austin, viewed from the main travel arteries – especially the IH35 and 183 corridors – is, frankly, ugly.
Except for the drive through Zilker Park, and the generally large number of trees adorning Austin, I could have been driving around any city in the USA, if visual observation of commercial establishments and roadways were to be the only criteria.
So what makes Austin special? What makes Austin “Austin”? Increasingly, I believe, as “Austin” has grown to become the “Austin Metro Area”, it’s harder to differentiate the stuff we encounter on a daily basis from that which might be encountered on a daily basis in, say, Cleveland, Phoenix or Houston. The real Austin has become a sub-category of the greater Austin area.
Or perhaps, after living here almost 25 years, I’m so accustomed to what makes Austin special that it’s not readily apparent to me anymore and I’d need to go live somewhere else for a while and come back to really appreciate it. Maybe I take it for granted, except for certain areas.
A few years ago I got lost in Houston and I pulled into an outdoor mall off a busy boulevard to look at a map. There, in that parking lot, I observed the exact same grouping of stores found on Brodie Lane in South Austin. As I scanned across the stores, there was Pet Smart, Barnes and Noble, CompUSA (now extinct), Old Navy, OfficeMax, World Market, a Chinese restaurant, etc. This could have been Anytown USA. So too can most such strip mall locations in Austin, from strictly an observational standpoint of what you actually see in front of you, where you shop, and what you do in the course of a normal day.
So what makes Austin “Austin”? In other words, what do we have going on that is rare, or hard to find elsewhere, both for residents and visitors? What tales would a visitor have to tell after a 3 day visit? Where would she have gone and what would she have experienced that would generate tales of wonder for friends back home? Certainly not staying a weekend with a friend in Round Rock, visiting the outlet malls and eating out at a Chilis, then catching a movie, right? That’s not an “Austin” visit.
Nor is a true Austin visit flying in, staying at the La Quinta near the airport, renting a car and driving to Circle C, Steiner Ranch, Avery Ranch, and other popular Austin subdivisions in the suburbs, grabbing meals at fastfood places, and dinner at Chilis. Subdivisions and 90% of the eateries in Austin can be found anywhere in the U.S. So buying a DR Horton in Austin in a Subdivision close to a Pet Smart, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Old Navy, OfficeMax, World Market, and a Chinese restaurant doesn’t mean you’ve arrived in Austin, or that you even “live” here, if we define “Austin living” as experiencing the uniqueness of Austin, not just having an Austin mailing address.
So what makes Austin “Austin“?
Well, I think there are some things we can talk about, though I also think a typical person can live here and never experience any of them if they don’t get out and do it on purpose.
I could post here the answer to my own question by submitting a long bullet-point list of cool places that make Austin special and unique, such as Barton Springs Pool, the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Town Lake, etc. or of awesome events that happen here, such as Austin City Limits Music Festival (and the TV show), South by Southwest Film Festival, etc., or of the varied lifestyle amenities available to us, and many other things. I could post links to the numerous “Top 10” lists of “great places to live” and the accompanying articles. But how many of us avail ourselves of these “bullet-point” things on a daily basis? I think a lot of us don’t. Not daily at least.
And isn’t it really just the “vibe” of Austin in general that represents the true, core draw? The “vibe” being the culmination of all the aforementioned attributes, plus something less tangible or identifiable. The “feel” of Austin and it’s people. And from exactly where in Austin does this vibe emanate?
Where, specifically and geographically, is the epicenter of Austin’s allure?
If I had to pick a specific geographic area, it would be South Austin 78704. The true, authentic Austin vibe emanates, in my opinion, from the 78704 zipcode. For non-locals, the ’04 zip is the area of South Austin just south of downtown. It boasts the SoCo (South Congress District), Restaurant Row on Barton Springs Rd. Zilker Park, Barton Springs pool, the once cheap “laid back bohemian” but now chic/mixed neighborhoods of Travis Heights, Bouldin, Zilker, and Barton Hills to name a few. It’s northern boundary is Town Lake and the Congress Bridge, beneath which lies the home of our infamous bat population. It’s the home of Auditorium Shores, where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous artists have provided such great outdoor concerts along the south shore of Town Lake and framed by the backdrop of the downtown Austin skyline. I could go on. The ’04 zip is chock full of the essence of Austin.
I love 78704. I haven’t once since leaving it in 1996 driven through it without wanting to live there again. I want to be able to walk to restaurants as we did when we lived off S. Congress in Travis Heights from 1991 to 1996, before the birth of our second child (at home with a midwife on Newning St.) prompted us to migrate further south to a “normal” house instead of our “no A/C, no garbage disposal, no dishwasher 1890s Travis Heights pad”, down to Cherry Creek and ultimately out to Oak Hill.
We’ve since morphed over that 13 year time span into dull, boring suburbanites with teenagers! We drive our kids to volleyball and acting and music lessons in a minivan. We have granite counters. We don’t party. I own a suit and have short hair. Sylvia started wearing makeup a few years back. We’re Realtors for crying out loud. I listen to talk radio and the Bloomberg Financial News station on my XM Radio instead of Rock and Roll. We attended a swanky party at the Long Center last night, all dressed up, with other dressed up people, but left at 10:30PM, just as the band started, because we were both tired and ready to go to sleep. We are so far removed from who and what we were as poor 78704 bohemian South Austinites that it’s almost sad.
But we’ve never fallen out of love with Travis Heights and the 78704 zipcode in general. And as empty-nestdome has moved into the category of “near term”, less than 6 years away, we wonder if the call of the ’04 is still valid. Is that where our lifestyle dna compass points? Is it where our true original nature says we belong?
Or is perhaps the call of the ’04 just a siren song leading to self-indulgent, impractical overpriced living to satisfy a nostalgic memory that lingers, and a desire to revert to who we remember being before school-aged kids and money.
Do greying, aging baby boomers in our (soon to be) 50’s really need to be walking to Magnolia Cafe, reminiscing to each other, “remember when we use to push Shelly here in the stroller to eat?” “Remember when you were pregnant and threw up out the (old beat up) Volvo window in the parking lot at El Mercado?” “Remember when we use to swim every morning at Barton Springs pool”?
Do we really need to once again be walking and biking distance to the hike and bike trails and Town Lake? Would we even do those things very often, or would we stay inside our over priced home on the computer and phone, and venture out only to get in the car to go sell another house?
Or the big question – will we still be cool (if we ever were) or will we simply be joining the crowd of people along SoCo that I sometimes deride as “trying to be cool on purpose”. Sitting in the hot sun, drinking a hot coffee alone at a picnic table, breathing S. Congress car fumes while wearing Birkenstocks and cargo shorts and pecking away on a Macbook Pro between sips, and accepting the occasional whiff of a stinky homeless person asking for change. And occassionally looking up to see if anyone notices how cool they are.
I don’t know. Despite the changes I’ve seen in the ’04 over the past 25 years, and my feeling that it’s at least partially a “manufactured” or phoney “hip”, compared to the gritty downtrodden ’04 we remember from the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s, it is still the “real” authentic Austin to me, and always will be.
Next time around though I think I’d like to be in the Zilker neighborhood, off Kinney Ave or Robert E. Lee, walking distance to Barton Springs Pool and Restaurant Row and the Alamo Draft House, and so much more. That would afford a great combination of lifestyle amenities and choices. Just not sure if paying $300 per square foot to feel cool and walk to eateries and a pool is a smart financial choice heading into retirement years.
Now, as I mention to Sylvia what I’m writing about, she protests and says “what about Crestview, Tarry Town, Clarksville, French Place and Hyde Park”? Those are the “real” Austin too!
My response: Those are mere neighborhoods. 78704 embodies the entirety of everything that makes the real “Austin” what it is. In fact, the ’04 could itself be a vacation destination.
I could write a 7 day itinerary that would bring someone to Austin, straight to the San Jose Hotel on S. Congress, and never leave the 78704 zip code, yet still go home having spent each day packed with different and awesome activities. When friends back home ask “how was Austin?”, the response would be “Austin was incredible, fantastic! Live music every night, hiking, swimming, theater, great restaurants, interesting people. We never ran out of stuff to do!”.
And that would just be from a week in the ’04 zip. In what other Austin zip code could such an itinerary be written? I think none. I rest my case.