A handsome, dreadlocked young man sitting behind a table of organic tomatoes appears to be to sculpting one of the ruby-red fruits with his paring knife as if performing origami. He is shielded from the sun by a tent next to a vendor hawking olive oil with the sounds of Amy Winehouse drifting from a portable stereo. Overhearing one of the customers of this particular farmer’s market, he looks wide-eyed and exclaims, “Wow man, I didn’t know Winehouse died.”
This is not in California, but springtime off Burnett Road in Austin, Texas. No cowboys in sight, people arrive to this particular site -- one of the many farmers’ markets that dot the city -- on bicycles and in hybrids to fill their cloth bags with fresh, local produce. Progressive-minded Austinites embrace their uniqueness just as fiercely as the rest of the state does the cowboy myth, guns and religion. After all, the city’s unofficial motto, “Keep Austin Weird,” can be seen in graffiti, and on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
The capital of Texas has grown to a city of almost 800,000 residents, and double that in the metro region. But the city’s booming economy has not diluted the influence of students who attend the area’s many institutions of higher learning, including the University of Texas, the large gay community, musicians (its official motto is “The Live Music Capital of the World”), tech geeks (Dell is headquartered here and Apple has a facility), and government workers. This mix of diverse citizenry is why Travis County (Austin is the county seat) votes reliably blue, surrounded by a sea of red in the heart of the Lone Star State. Barack Obama won the county handily with 64 percent of the vote in 2008.
Austin bohemian culture lives alongside the growing presence of corporate America. The city’s highly educated workforce – it ranks 25th among U.S. cities with college-degreed residents - is a draw for major technology companies. Just this past March, Apple announced an expansion of its Austin campus, worth $304 million and creating 3,600 jobs. Dell Computers, started by University of Texas dropout Michael Dell, is headquartered in the city and employs 14,000 people, the second-largest employer in the region after state government. The grocery giant Whole Foods also sprung up here in 1980 with only 19 employees. Its modern headquarters are located near downtown, and the company is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Live Music Capital of the World
But corporate America aside, the city’s claim to fame is its music scene, long seen as an incubator for emerging bands. Austin boasts more than 200 live music venues, many in Downtown’s Sixth Street and Warehouse District, playing everything from blue grass to indie rock. The area also has many restaurants and bars, a couple owned by the likes of Sandra Bullock and Lance Armstrong. Bess Bistro is a restaurant founded by Bullock on Sixth Street; Armstrong is an investor in Six Lounge located in the Warehouse District, where he can sometimes be spotted.
Also, annual music festivals crowd the calendar. The famed Austin City Limits music festival has been eclipsed in recent years by the increasing popularity of the South by Southwest Musical Festival (SXSW). SXSW drew almost 50,000 attendees this year and worldwide media coverage. But it’s not just the yet-to-be-famous who played the city. Janis Joplin, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn are some of the famous musicians who have sung at Austin’s various music venues.
For all that Austin has going for it, everything is not quite as bright as, say, a “yellow rose of Texas.” Lack of a good public transportation system, the searing summer heat coupled with years of drought, and high property taxes mar the city’s reputation. And home prices are high by Texas standards. Desirable neighborhoods such as tony Tarrytown just west of downtown and funky Hyde Park north of the University of Texas campus are too expensive for many working families.
And then there are those who decry the growth, sensing Austin’s small, college-town feel slipping away. Urban sprawl has also come to the city, as many of the jobs and affordable homes are north of the city. In 2011, the Daily Beast named the stretch of Interstate 35 from suburban Round Rock to Austin, one of only two major freeways serving the city, as the sixth worst commute in America, joining the bigger cities of Los Angeles and Washington DC on the list. Explosive growth and a limited rail line account for much of the blame.
But what makes Austin unique is that it is in Texas. There still can be seen elements of state pride around town, as many items for sale are branded “Texan,” from barbeque to bumper stickers. Even in a local hipster gift shop on the trendy “SoCo strip” (South of Congress Avenue), a T-shirt reading “Anywhere But California” is for sale alongside Obama paraphernalia. Texas bravado still lives on, albeit with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, even in this progressive enclave.
Mark Bizzell, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, resides in Los Angeles and is enrolled in the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. A veteran of global public relations agencies, Mark earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin.
Photos: ATMX, Jason Persse, Flickr