If you haven’t been to Austin, you probably have the wrong impression of Texas’ capital city. If you imagine it as a hipster mecca and foodie paradise, you have the definition right, but the picture in your head needs some adjustment. And, if you’re basing your opinion of the city on that of the larger state, you’re right… and wrong.
Austinites express a typical, boisterous Texan pride. The nearby University of Texas (Home of the Longhorns!) enjoys a wealth of local support and affection. Country music has a solid foothold in the city, and people want to tell you about their gun. That’s where the similarities to every other Texan city stop. Obama bumper stickers are common. Plastic bags were recently outlawed. Standing starkly apart from the obviously conservative region around it, Austin stands as a fiercely progressive urban oasis.
I visited recently, timing my arrival with SXSW, the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals which has been gaining popularity as a showcase for new technology and music. While I would love to talk about Austin’s reputation as a node of technology and related job growth, the interactive portion of the festival stayed behind closed doors around the city, passage through which was limited to those bearing $600+ badges. Though my companions and I explored much of the city, ducking into parties with free booze, as well as a good number of the local bars, the much-talked-about entreprenerds were either hiding or busy with the conference.
Wherever they were, the visiting technophiles and the conference surrounding them left its mark on the city.
Search the internet for SXSW a few weeks before the conference and you will find a host of articles—what to do during the festival, how to eat like a local, how not to be a douchebag during SXSW. The bars, restaurants, and venues are Austin’s jewels, laid out for visitors in an impressive array. I had been to the city three months prior and touted the attractions to a friend whom I dragged along for the conference. What we found instead was a remarkably unwelcoming populace, jealously resenting every bite, sip, and inch of space we took in the streets.
I’m not kidding; my girlfriend and native guide was engaged numerous times by other locals in conversations which derided SXSW, every visitor—present company excluded, of course—and especially the badges that were supposedly getting conference-goers into local venues ahead of the people who’d been using them every day the rest of the year. They wished we would all go home. They hated the traffic, which was admittedly terrible the few times it caught us. There was no parking, prices were high, and some venues and restaurants were being shut down entirely to people without a badge.
This led to what I am going to describe as a spirited conversation between myself, my guide, and many of the folks we met. “What was with all the hate?” I asked them. The answers meandered or dissembled much of the time, but a few good points stuck with me. The people working in the city have to fight just to get to their jobs. They’re turned away from their favorite spots in favor of strangers. More importantly, visitors with the money to afford higher rent show up, take a look around the crowd of crazy moustaches, extravagent beards, and highly individual wardrobe choices; they eat great food, enjoy the sounds of Austin, reported to be the music capital of the country, and generally have a bitchin time; they decide to move in.
People are beginning to move outside the city, where prices are reasonable and crime is lower. Whether this is due to SXSW or more affluent outsiders moving in, the locals attribute this problem to an American invasion.
Rent is going up in Austin, according to the locals. The places they can afford to live are increasingly becoming burdened by drugs and violence. The house I stayed in for the week was clean and quiet, but apparently the city’s crack dealers were only a few blocks away. People are beginning to move outside the city, where prices are reasonable and crime is lower. Whether this is due to SXSW or more affluent outsiders moving in, the locals attribute this problem to an American invasion.
While I was assured that the lack of hospitality and welcome was largely due to these concerns, I couldn’t help but notice a certain condescension. The way the locals talk about visitors during SXSW, you wouldn’t imagine the conference-goers know much about music, pronunciation, or the merits of playing in traffic.
If I hadn’t been to visit previously, I’d have walked away offended, taking back an impression of Austinites as smug and xenophobic. Insular isn’t a bad way to describe them, and the guy with the neck tattoo bragging about the 55mph speeding ticket he got on a double-decker bike strained my eyes’ ability to roll. Advertisements for hangover parties with free food and drinks for locals only, and especially a local venue that checks IDs and turns away anyone from out of state, still rub me the wrong way.
I’m a big fan of Austin though. Outside of the week of SXSW, the locals have been very friendly. Even during the conference, servers at every establishment were prompt and kind. If there is an invasion occurring, I have to say that the natives can be very enjoyable in times of peace.
In my most recent excursion, I stopped by the Blackheart, a spacious bar with an open stage out back. The acoustics weren’t great with the wind up, but my friends and I listened to Quiet Company among others, including a dead-ringer for Zach Galifianakis , while enjoying the local-favorite cheap beer, Lone Star, in great quantities. Later, we moseyed over to Viceland, a temporary setup for Vice magazine’s free booze parties, to a Neon Indian DJ set that rocked the shady, grungy venue and matching crowd.
I can’t skip over Vice without talking about Austin’s graffiti. The city’s walls are sprinkled here and there with street art. Surprisingly, most of the art is quite good, and often relays a worthy message. I was unable to stop by the “I love you so much” tag touted by the city, but I did manage to spot a new Pac Man graphic on a bridge sporting the slogan “Never Give Up,” perhaps in reference to a similar work which had been painted over. The art form thrives in Austin, proven both by the Baylor Street Art Wall—actually several walls covered in beautiful graffiti and drawing a crowd of artists and admirers—and popular street artist Shepard Fairey’s visit during the conference to install a new, towering wall piece.
My fiercest recommendation of Austin comes from an entirely different kind of satisfaction: the food. Walk a few blocks east or west of 35 in Austin without passing delicious food served from a converted trailer. I dare you.
Over the week, we had planned to attend several parties, thrown by various sponsors and featuring a mixture of local and big-name bands. Prior to our trip, we had been told the these parties were all RSVP, and joined a digital crowd signing up with name and emails. In practice, our names were never checked, and lines to get in were uniformly prohibitive. After a few hours waiting in various lines just to be told the venue would be one-in-one-out with a sizable crowd between us and the door, my group took to flitting from bar to bar, drinking long enough to get the flavor of each band’s music, but sadly not long enough for me to compile a list of names to impress you with. Nevertheless, Austin delivers an all-you-can-eat buffet of live music.
My fiercest recommendation of Austin comes from an entirely different kind of satisfaction: the food. Walk a few blocks east or west of 35 in Austin without passing delicious food served from a converted trailer. I dare you. I sampled a few of these mobile restaurants, though sadly not the deep-fried Monte Cristo from that I’d been starving for from the Hey!… You Gonna Eat or What? food truck. Beyond the trailers, I experienced total satisfaction in every sit-down establishment. Eight of my top ten meals of all time were baked, fried, or boiled right in Austin.
We sampled delicious burgers at Hopdoddy on the east side, including my chilli con carne and frito burger and my friend’s barbeque cheddar so rare I’m pretty sure it would be illegal here in New England. Later in the week we stopped by the Salt Lick for barbequed brisket, pork ribs, sausage, and turkey of nearly unparalleled quality. I say nearly because my previous journey had taken me past the famous Franklin Barbeque which serves brisket prepared with nearly religious care. Salt, pepper, and slow heat are the secret to the best brisket that has ever crossed my teeth.
My favorite meal from this visit was a half-club with a bread bowl full of broccoli cheddar soup infused with Texas’ own Shiner Bock beer. Better than it sounds, if that’s even possible. I’d tell you where but… maybe I caught a bit of the Austin bug from the locals.
I shouldn’t forget bars. My group embarked on a great tour of Austin’s finest, including the Elephant Room, one of the best jazz clubs in the country, and historic Magie Mae’s for drinks on the balcony while we watched with malicious anticipation a drunken game of group jump rope on “The Dirty,” Austin’s Sixth Street. We recovered at Jackalope with Bloody Marys or free Lone Star while something hilarious called Tokyo Gore Police played on the screens. We crowded into bars like the Aquarium and Shakespeare’s to search fruitlessly for seating. My friend claims to have even sneaked past the wall of” badges only” for free drinks and great music at the The Stage on Sixth.
Hipster mecca? Yes, and the locals wish the pilgrimage was something more like the Oregon Trail. Foodie paradise? Better than you would expect, more than fairly priced, and occasionally served out of a trailer. And Texan? Hell yes, but not like you’ve ever seen it before. As a travel destination, Austin offers everything but a beach. But pack your badge, or better yet, wait a few months before or after SXSW.