My Blue Heaven
Outsiders have always bashed Austin for its liberal politics, but my beloved city takes pride in being different from the rest of the state. Smarter too. And more arrogant.
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READING A NEWSPAPER ACCOUNT of former Austin mayor Bruce Todd’s near-fatal bicycle crash reminded me why I wanted to come here in the first place. Austin is different from the rest of Texas. You may have noticed this in the November election, when 253 of the state’s 254 counties approved Proposition 2, a constitutional amendment that outlawed what was already illegal: gay marriage. The lone holdout was Travis County, whose county seat is Austin. The city doesn’t merely tolerate but actually treasures the offbeat, the adventurous, the fractured, and the weird. In other words, it’s the sort of place where a 55-year-old former mayor would think that a neat thing to do the Sunday after Thanksgiving was take a marathon bike ride in the country. Ironically, Todd’s life was saved because he wore a helmet, a cause he had championed as mayor despite the libertarian streak that runs through the city’s residents.
Outsiders hate Austin, of course, and with good reason. We’re smarter and more talented than they are, not to mention more arrogant. For most of the state’s history, Austin has been the center of creative, cultural, intellectual, and political life. Folks love referring to us as the People’s Republic of Austin, suggesting that we are the true totalitarians in this state. Bashing Austin is great sport at the Legislature as well. In 2001, perhaps in an effort to prove that small minds are capable of big blunders, Austin’s beloved Barton Springs was moved into the district of San Antonio senator Jeff Wentworth. “Sometimes I feel like we’re Romans surrounded by Goths beating on the gates,” Larry Wright, one of dozens of talented writers who make their home in Austin, told me recently. “But inside, civilization survives.”
With a couple of brief exceptions, Austin has been my home since 1968, when I left the Philadelphia Inquirer and closed out a ten-year newspaper career. My plan was to return to Texas and finish my first novel, The Hundred-Yard War, and Austin seemed like the perfect place to do it. I’d been introduced to its stimulations during three semesters at the University of Texas in the early fifties, before a tour of duty with the Army. I had dreamed of returning, of living the life that Billy Lee Brammer wrote about in The Gay Place, sitting under the trees of Scholz Garten, listening to renditions of Texas history and explanations of its skewered politics from the liberals, lobbyists, and university professors who dwelled there, of drinking the wine of youth and talking about the glory of the written word and whether Faulkner’s sentences were too long or Hemingway’s too short and what we intended to do about it. I was friends with Brammer and Bud Shrake, another celebrated Austin novelist, who had finished writing But Not for Love a few years earlier when we had shared an apartment in Dallas. The founding fathers of Texas letters, Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek, had all passed away by that time: Brammer, Shrake, and I, along with a few other non-Austin Texans like Larry McMurtry and John Graves, fancied ourselves their natural heirs.
At roughly that same time, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson moved to town, and Austin’s music scene was born. Artists like Gordon Fowler and Julie Speed were soon making Austin their home. Dell Computer opened for business and started to grow like crazy, and Sematech put us on the high-tech map. Whole Foods Market blossomed about that same time. Maybe it was just luck that all these creative types picked Austin. Or maybe there’s something in the water. As a friend has noted, if Willie hadn’t been forced out of Nashville and if dope hadn’t been so cheap in Austin, and if Michael Dell hadn’t dropped out of UT and started selling computers from his dorm room, and if Whole Foods founder John Mackey hadn’t believed he could make a buck selling sprouts and granola bars, who knows where we’d be today?
When you think about our current crop of Texas heroes, you think about those three individuals, along with Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, and filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. What do they have in common? All of them are rebels, and they all live in Austin.
People have always argued about what makes a city great, and in recent years, debate has centered on Richard Florida, whose most recent book, The Flight of the Creative Class, came out last spring. Florida believes that creative people seek out places that are tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity. Communities that attract and keep creative people thrive, and those that don’t fail. He puts Austin near the top of his list of the most creative cities in America, just behind San Francisco and ahead of San Diego, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York. The only other Texas cities on the list are Houston (number 7) and Dallas (number 10). According to a recent study by Central Connecticut State University, Austin is far and away the most well-read city in Texas and number 3 in the nation in Internet literacy.
Taken alone, our concentration of creative types doesn’t explain why nearly 60 percent of us voted against Prop 2. Approximately one third of the voters in Dallas and Houston, our other two “creative” centers, thought that an amendment whose sole purpose was to divide people and put them in boxes deserved their scorn. (In Beaumont, one of the nation’s least creative towns, only 13 percent nixed Prop 2.) Residents of Austin see up close the goofiness and mendacity that are the daily fare at the Capitol and are quick to smell out gussied-up skunks like many of the proposals put forward last election. I pride myself on being fairly aware of what’s happening in state government. Nevertheless, I confess that I voted against all the propositions on the theory that anything that bunch of clowns proposes has to be bad.
So what is it that makes Austin so different from the rest of the state? Why, as some have said, is it the blueberry in the tomato soup? A short answer is the university. Every year 50,000 young people pour into town, most of them experiencing life for the first time and wide open to possibilities. Typically, university towns like Boulder, Madison, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley are zones of tolerance and diversity, friendly to new ideas and suspicious of ideology. Austin has outgrown the “university town” label but not the aura. Located at the edge of the Hill Country, it rests in one of the most beautiful pockets of Texas. The scenery and the city’s mystique as a hip music town with great nightlife, a thriving motion picture industry, and a booming high-tech employment center have attracted people from across the nation, bumping the metro population to about 1.4 million.
Not all the newcomers are liberals, of course, but all who come find the city warm and accepting. In his research, Florida found that the lifestyles of creative people go well beyond the standard quality-of-life amenities that most experts think are important. For example, lists of high-tech hot spots are almost identical to lists of cities with the highest concentrations of gays and bohemian types—artists, writers, performers. While Austin has a large gay population, there is no separate gay community here, nothing on the order of Montrose in Houston or Cedar Springs in Dallas. Gays have been assimilated into the population, almost without our realizing it was happening. People in Austin are as religious as anywhere else, but we don’t wear religion on our sleeves. Even George W. Bush refrained from proselytizing when he occupied the governor’s office. On the other hand, residents of Travis County have a fiercely conservative attitude toward individual rights: We mind our own business and hope others do the same. What other county would have put up with Hippie Hollow all these years?
Austinites tend to be more politically active than people in many other places, probably because of the large number of neighborhood associations, bureaucrats, and staff members of various progressive groups that make their headquarters here. “It’s very easy to get involved on the local political level,” says state representative Elliott Naishtat, who came to Texas from New York as a VISTA volunteer in 1966. “Austin has a strong tradition of citizen involvement, going back to LBJ’s War on Poverty.”
My own political awakening happened about that same time. Shortly after I moved here, I discovered a monthly celebration called First Friday. On the first Friday of every month, a group of writers, lawyers, liberal politicians, and intellectuals gathered at the home of Sam and Virginia Whitten, near the university, where they debated the issues of the day and drank large quantities of beer and wine. Sam was an esteemed professor in the department of library sciences at UT, and Virginia was the librarian of Eanes Elementary School, and debates featured luminaries like David and Ann Richards, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, and the eminent historian Standish Meacham, who headed the UT history department and was for a time dean of the college of liberal arts. After Sam and Virginia died, Molly changed the name to Last Friday and hosted it at her home in South Austin.
In one of his essays, Florida recalls walking across the campus of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught, and spotting a table of young recruiters wearing the blue T-shirts of Austin’s Trilogy Inc. One member of the group, slouched over on the grass, looked to be an obvious slacker: tank top; spiked, multicolored hair; full-body tattoos and multiple piercings. Florida discovered that the man was, in fact, a gifted Carnegie Mellon student who had just signed with Trilogy for the highest-paying deal of any graduating student in the history of his department. He was what techies call a “rock star,” heavily recruited by a number of corporations. Pittsburgh is hardly a cultural backwater, so no matter how terrific his prospects at Trilogy, why would this kid leave for a smaller city in the middle of Texas? Why would he go to a place with a small airport, no major-league sports teams, and no major symphony, ballet, or art museum comparable to Pittsburgh’s? “It’s in Austin,” the lad explained. The fifties best-seller, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, exposed the wardrobe, the ambition, and the mindless conformity of Americans of that era. Maybe the day will come when we’ll be ready for the sequel, The Nerd in the Tank Top.
We didn’t need Prop 2 to prove that, for all its flaws, Austin is the civilizing force of Texas. I agree with my friend Larry Wright, who argues that Austin is the last real Texas city, the one remaining spot where our state’s famous libertarian strain is alive and well. People here still believe that libertarianism means liberty, not guns or gay bashing. I predict that in 25 or 30 years, gay marriages will be fairly common, at which time historians reviewing the 2005 election will conclude that Austin was the mainstream while the rest of the state remained as archaic as the Old South during the time of slavery.