In early 2012, KUT—Austin’s National Public Radio affiliate—complied a meta-master list that rounded up just two months’ worth of Austin mentions in “best city” polls and rankings. They called it “The Top Ten Austin Top Ten Lists.” That was just seven years ago, but somebody who moved to Austin because an article dubbed it a “destination on the rise” or “poised for greatness” might already miss the 2012 version of the city. They might bemoan how the more than 150 people who move to Austin every day affect traffic or worry about condos replacing their favorite restaurant or bar.
“I’d tell them they moved here two years late,” says author, filmmaker, and radio host Joe Nick Patoski, who moved to Austin in 1973. “That’s sort of the joke around here. Whenever you got here, even if it was the sixties or seventies, somebody will tell you that you moved here two years after it was cool.”
Patoski’s new book, Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, and Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas, is an exhaustive attempt to explain how Austin transitioned from a town known for its university and the state legislature to a global city known for world-class music, film, food, and technology. Patoski’s short answer is this: a snowballing series of “cosmic accidents” driven by thinkers, artists, and free spirits has kept Austin consistently weird and made it a place other similarly minded “outsiders” would seek out. “Austin has always been where outsiders come to work out their ideas,” says Patoski, a Texas Monthly alumnus and the the author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.
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On our podcast, Patoski makes his case for Austin as Texas’s most consistently vital and livable city, details the city’s struggles with gentrification, and dives deep into how maverick entrepreneurs built everything from SXSW and Whole Foods to the bustling South Congress strip full of shops and restaurants that tend to make top-ten lists.
These are some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On how Austin transitioned from town to city
It’s happened against a lot of people’s wills and desires. We’re now a global city, whether you like it or not. And I argue it’s because of all these outsiders who came here to work out their ideas that they couldn’t work out wherever they came from. And that even includes people from Austin. But it’s about this place encouraging creativity. How does it inform the city we are today? What I try to line out in the book is kind of a prehistory and that there are three institutions that built old Austin—the university, the state capital, and the oldest continuously operating business, Scholz Garten. It’s a German establishment founded for the purposes of singing, drinking beer, and making music. And I think when you look at Austin and why it has appeal today, there is a certain inbred refinement, [a] refined pursuit and appreciation of pleasure that we just know how to drink beer and party and have a good time better than other places.
Austin’s not the only city dealing with gentrification, but Austin’s got a bigger problem just because it has this aura of cool and it retains this aura of cool, whether it’s deserved or not. And whether it’s cool or not, people are still moving to Austin today because they sense it’s cool, and wherever they came from doesn’t have that sense of cultural identity and coolness. No one moves to Houston or to Dallas because it’s cool. They’re moving for jobs, and once you’re making money, you might look for the cool corners of whatever the city is, but it doesn’t have that vibe.
On Austin music
I don’t think anyone does music venues better than Austin does in general. When you look at the range of venues we have and the emphasis on music—musicians today and music today, regardless of whatever their real economic situation is, they get respect here. And maybe it’s lip service, but I’m here to tell you, you’re a musician in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, or Fort Worth, you’re basically one notch up from being a gang member. You just get no respect. These places have always had music, and musicians have succeeded in spite of their station in life. Here was the first place, at least in this part of the country, where the musician was given respect. Even calling it the Live Music Capital of the World or whatever gives them the cultural standing musicians have deserved and haven’t gotten. And Austin was the first in this part of the country and maybe in the nation to do it in the modern era.
Looky-loo is a term that was coined by the art critic Dave Hickey from Fort Worth and his book, Air Guitar, which is one of my favorite books about criticism. And looky-loos are the people that come and look. They just look around and they really don’t contribute anything, but they do spend their money. So they’re tourists. They want to be on a scene and they want to suck up the scene, but they’re really not making the scene any better. Take South Congress, which in the seventies into the late eighties was a seedy strip . . . The hotelier Liz Lambert brought up the looky-loos because the first era of South Congress was all these independent businesses moving in and making this kind of dead part of town cool and hip. And then it builds upon itself. And Liz is as guilty as anyone for building the San Jose, a fabulous motel where all of a sudden it costs $200 a night when everything else on South Congress had been like $25 an hour. So she is kind of responsible for making it upscale. And it’s a money strip now. If you’ve got a lot of money, it’s a great place to go. It’s still got that funk. But Liz brought up the looky-loos and makes the point, accurately so, that she couldn’t survive without the looky-loos. They keep South Congress going. Their pilgrimages pay the bills.