The Republic of Hip: An Ode to Austin
By E. Max Bonem, Esq.
Austin, TX (City Limits -790,390, Metro – 1,716,291) is many things. It’s the “Live Music Capital of the World.” It’s the largest city in America (14th) without a professional sports team (however, many would argue that the Longhorns football team could be considered a professional franchise all on it’s own (hook ‘em y’allz!)). It’s a complete anomaly in the Republic of Texas in that it celebrates all things kooky, off-center, liberal, hip (more on that later), and arts-related. It is a mecca for foodies, music snobs, outdoor enthusiasts, hippies, and hipsters alike and the city continues to rapidly expand as longtime residents and locals plead for the halting of development and new arrivals. You can see stickers/graffiti all over the place, pledging local allegiance with such messages as, “Keep Austin Weird,” “Don’t Move Here,” and (my personal favorite and one that is a legitimate concern as the city continues to grow at an exponential rate) “Don’t Dallas My Austin.”
I, of course, have an odd relationship with these aforementioned mantras because, although I support and completely agree with the thinking on display in these messages, I did exactly what the hopefuls who conjured up these thoughts originally are warning against: I moved here for no other reason besides thinking that it would be awesome to live here (Spoiler Alert: It is). However, as Austin continues to grow and expand, how does a city maintain the weird, funky cool that has inspired so many people to move here (side note: Obviously a HUGE number of people move here to attend UT and Austin is also the state capital, however, you would be amazed at how many people move here from outside of Texas. Since moving from Cincinnati last September, I’ve met/made friends with folks from: California, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, the Carolinas, Missouri, Maryland, New York, Louisiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania (albeit unfortunately), and, of course, Ohio.)?
Well, before we come to a completely sound and viable answer to the previous question, let’s look at what makes Austin Austin in the first place. First and foremost is the music (Note: This is going to be an INCREDIBLY abridged history of Austin’s Music Scene. I suggest reading more about this though, it’s pretty fascinating stuff).
Austin is the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world” and, although the city’s soul might not be as musically inclined as say New Orleans or Nashville, you can hear music being played almost anywhere you go in town. No matter what day of the week or time of day, you can find people playing music in restaurants, cafes, bars, on street corners, in parks, and even in the freakin’ airport (and, weirdly, it’s actually not bad). However, in order to understand the importance of music in Austin, we need to understand how the music scene became so essentially Austin.
Back in the 20s and 30s, Austin became a stop for musicians touring through the south between Houston and Dallas (aka the “chitlin circuit”) and, in turn, it began to attract predominantly black blues musicians to the east side of town (which is where the majority of Austin’s hipster population, along with Austin’s Hispanic community, now resides). In addition, even before the arrival of blues musicians from neighboring states, Austin had a reputation for being a bit, let’s say, “rough and tumble” if you will (aka it was a stop en-route to the western frontier, equipped with many saloons and a whole slew of promiscuous options for the paying cowboy).
The music scene continued to grow and during the 40s and 50s, a large number of country musicians began playing all over Austin at venues that had once served the large Bavarian immigrant community as beer halls (see the continuity here?). However, it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that Austin started gaining the reputation as THE music city that we are accustomed to today and it really took off under the tutelage of two (vastly different) icons of American music: Stevie Ray Vaughn & Willie Nelson, each of whom has had their own statue erected for them (Willie is regarded as a hero, symbol, and the voice of Austin – that should really give you an idea of who lives here).
In more recent times, Austin has been called home to a number of well-known acts, including Daniel Johnston, Spoon, Ben Kweller, Okkervil River, Explosions In the Sky, Bob Schneider, Patty Griffin (who also persuaded Robert Plant to take up residence in our fair town), and the soon-to-be-star Gary Clark Jr. In addition, there are more music venues here than you can fathom and a whole variety of music festivals (including the craziness known as SXSW and Lollapalooza – South aka Austin City Limits).
Of course though it’s more than just the music that makes Austin what it is today. Remember, with all of this music being played here, there still must be dedicated music nerds/snobs that seek out even the most obscure of sub-genres that could be blowing up by next weekend. Outside of Portland, Seattle, and Brooklyn, Austin is one of the most hipster-centric cities in the country. The music scene, coupled with Austin’s affinity for quirkiness and strong support of the arts (along with the fact that it’s still relatively cheap to live here (i.e. I pay less for rent here than my parents did for me in college (Yes, you read that correctly (Judge me all you want (America!))))), has riddled the city with young people wearing what some would consider to be odd clothing and covering their bodies with tattoos (for real though, you see more people COVERED (not just a tattoo here or there,) in tattoos here than anywhere I’ve ever been), not to mention the bikes (more on that later).
However, hipsterdom has had both good and not-so-good effects on the city. For the most part, the hip youth are a peaceful species that enjoy riding pretty (albeit dangerous) bikes most places and seeking out obscure locations for delicious eats, often times after imbibing moderate quantities of local brews (did I mention that there are a TON of award winning breweries within and surrounding Austin? Yep, we got those too). Most of my favorite places to go out on the weekends are on the hip, east side of town and, slowly, but surely, you can see more and more people from all around the city exploring the newly happening side of town. Of course, as is the case with most areas of mass hipsterdom, the east side of Austin is considered by most to be the least safe part of town, but as more affluent young people continue to infiltrate/rehabilitate the area, rents will continue to increase and the communities that were there before will be forced to go elsewhere (alas, so is life).
For those of you who know me, you know that I have, from time to time, dabbled in some behaviors that many would associate with “being a hipster” (and the fact that I just put quotes around that statement probably just added to their argument), i.e. I have a beard, I’m very into music, I enjoy a good pair of cut-offs, and I’m sorta snobby about food (or, as Matt Jared would say, I’m definitely not a “Doritos person”). Well, since moving here almost nine months ago, those aspects of my personality have continued to increase. My beard is longer than it’s ever been (my Dad thinks I’m contemplating Hasidism (Oh Beard)), I now ride my mint green, single speed bike (read: NOT fixed wheel (those bastards are crazy (check back six months from now, if I’m riding fixed wheel, feel free to chastise me))) as much as humanly possible, and I’ve become fiercely opinionated about which food trucks/trailers are awesome (note: almost all that sell tacos fit this category (double note: there are a LOT of tacos here (triple note: this is a very good thing))).
Except for maybe one other guy in my office, who taught me the correct way to oil one’s desert boots and who happens to manage a band on the side, I’m regarded as the office “hipster,” what with my sweet new messenger bag, affinity for face growth, and lack of non-plaid button-down shirts (particularly those with a light blue hue). This does not offend me and, more than anything, I’m proud/happy to be working some place that allows me to put my individualism on display (even if I’m not allowed to wear shorts (even though our company founder once told me, “Dude, sweet jorts” (can they really expect me to wear jeans while riding to work once it starts hitting 90+ before 9 am?))), and the ladies (or at least one) seem to be taking a liking to my lumberjack meets aspiring member of Iron & Wine look (quick note – my current level of beardness is a few months in the making, however, when I take trips to the east side, I look like a rookie just being called up to the majors (Also, this exists)).
One thing that is certainly on display everywhere you look though, including (and especially) among the hippest of the hip, is how active of a city Austin has become. Almost everyone you meet in ATX subscribes to some sort of physical activity with a heightened level of dedication and with that comes a barrage of “enthusiasts” who are, shall we say, snobby (remember, Lance Armstrong is also another famous Austinite closely associated with the identity of the city). Whether it be cycling, running, triathlon-ing, or kayaking (little known fact about Austin: a “lake”/river splits the south side of town (where The Bro Journey resides) off from the rest of the city), you will quickly find a whole SLEW of “experts,” each of which has allegiances to particular stores and areas of the city to train/put their incredibly expensive gear on display (note – I do rock some pretty sweet running shorts and, if you happened to catch me in action around Town Lake, you’ll get a good look at some serious high-thigh (that’s now a thing)).
Since so many folks are physically active around town, Austin has become a city known for it’s citizens health and well-being (even though Texas has been ranked as high as second on the Fattest States in America List). On the flip sides though, Austin is DEFINITELY a party town and, although I won’t go into details about the city’s drinking scene (debates over which part of town you choose to consume booze in can become quite heated and have even been known to result in drunken texting-based arguments on the merit of your territorial allegiances, occurring between the hours of 11pm and 2am, usually on Fridays and Saturdays), I can say that there are many options, many of which are accompanied by my favorite aspect of Austin culture: the Food Truck Scene.
For those of you who don’t know, outside of Los Angeles, a city that boasts hundreds and HUNDREDS of food trucks and trailers, Austin is known as one of the most truck/trailer friendly towns in America and the variety of tasty bits that one can acquire from such places is absolutely incredible. Some examples of eats that I’ve personally experienced from a truck or trailer include, but are certainly not limited to, tacos, fried rice, pizza, donuts, ice cream, burritos, quesadillas, burgers, fried chicken, beet fries, brussel sprouts, 485582 preparations of pork belly (not that I’m complaining), beef tongue, ox tail, BBQ (more on that to come), and biscuits and gravy. In fact, one of the city’s most talked about local celebs is none other than recent Top Chef winner and head chef at Uchiko: Paul Qui. Paul is a popular guy and is the poster boy for the Austin foodie scene as he grew up here, attended culinary school here, and rose through the ranks to become Tyson Cole’s (owner/chef of Uchi & Uchiko (two of Austin’s most renowned and talked-about restaurants)) right hand man. In addition, Paul co-owns/runs a trio of food trucks (which happen to be my personal favorite), East Side Kings.
Along with a plethora of pseudo-mobile eateries (did I mention that most worthwhile bars in Austin have a food truck on-site? Yes, it is awesome), Austin provides incredible tex-mex, mind-numbingly good BBQ (Franklin’shas been referred to as home to the best brisket on Earth (yes, that’s a claimable accolade) and it’s so good that Austin-enthusiast/food truck guru Anthony Bourdain even waited in line for almost two hours (just like everyone else) just to get a taste), and a restaurant called Bacon (I don’t think further explanation is needed for that one).
Assuming you’ve stuck with me this far, you might be asking yourself why I’m essentially writing a giant advertisement for Austin directed at the young & hip traveler, but a few things have arose in the past week that have gotten me thinking a lot about my place in this city.
First, as many people do when they have a birthday (particularly at our age), I reflected on the past year and where I was at this point in 2011 (I was actually on vacation in Israel for my 23rd birthday, but I was struggling to find my place in Chicago and, for the most part, had already been checked out for a few months). It’s strange for me to think about what I thought Austin would be like, in comparison to what it’s turned out to be, but, oddly enough, Austin is almost exactly what I imagined it to be as a city, culture, and functioning machine. Besides the music, food, and environment, Austin has allowed me to grow into the person that I want to be and each of my quirky interests and obsessions isn’t just accepted here – they’re supported and celebrated.
Second, a close friend of mine is switching jobs and he posed a question to me asking if I’d ever thought about just uprooting and moving to a new city on a whim – job/planless. After a moment’s pause, he retracted the question after realizing he was speaking to a guy who had done that twice in the past 18 months. Sure, my post-collegiate route has been a bit indirect and I’ve certainly had a few detours, but each of those mistakes led me to where I am now.
So for any of you out there who want to start over and move somewhere new, I’d say do it – you’re (most likely) young (especially if you’re reading a blog called “The Bro Journey”) and this is the time to take some risks, get out of your comfort zone, and be bold and, among the many things that this city is, I’d say Austin is definitely a pretty rad place to call home. Just don’t move here, especially if you’re from Dallas.