Every Era Gets The Magical Elsewhere It Deserves.
Recently there was an article in the Huffington Post by David Landsel, about how Austin is way overrated, and Houston is a lot better. I wasn’t even slightly surprised when I read this article. I don’t think the article has much truth or insight to it, it’s just blowback from the fact that the locus of our collective Americian fantasy of the “magical elsewhere” happens to be currently located in Austin, Texas.
Every era gets the magical elsewhere it deserves. The magical elsewhere is the spot where you don’t have to work overly hard and dreams come true. It’s the land of milk and honey and the promise of romance and paradise and a certain loosening of the older strict moral codes.
Fast forward to 1950s, and the collective dream of a magical elsewhere for many snow-covered, bundled up Americans living in the rust belt and in the colder spots on the Atlantic Seaboard was located in the easy living, flesh-baring surf-paradise of California. Cue the convertibles and the bikini-clad girls of the Beach Boys songs. Think Beach Blanket Bingo, Gidget, Beverly Hillbillies, and the pastel fantasy of the sun drenched California scenes of Mad Men.
Nowadays, the collective fantasy of paradise on earth, at least in America, is Austin, Texas. Here the BBQ is amazing (at least if you are in line at 9 a.m.) the music never ends (at least during SXSW) there is no snow to shovel (the city shuts down if more than three weather forecasters whisper the word ice), and you can make all the money you will ever need from pleasurable creative endeavors. Then you can kick back, enjoy the good life and complain –after a few months–about how much worse things have gotten since you started getting your snail mail here in paradise.
But all of these collective fantasies are just fantasies. Here in the current world capital of fantasy living, it’s important to know that people have been coming to Central Texas for a really long time to live out their dreams, right here on a fault line. It was only a matter of time until the culture at large caught on, and many many many many publications started listing Austin as the “Best City” for many, many, many things.
Austin is one of the few cities in the world where two geographic plates come together in a city center. If you stand at 6th and Lamar–and you don’t get run over by someone at that busy intersection –you can look eastward toward flatness and lush soil. If you look westward, there are hills. In the hills the soil is too thin to graze livestock, but nowadays McMansions have firmly taken root there.
It’s the magic emanating out from the fault line that has long drawn the lotus-eaters to the city and its what keeps the storytellers here. Austin has been a gathering spot of the ferment on the edge of the culture for a mighty long time. At the turn of the last century, writer O’Henry made his home here. Later the city embraced native son John Henry Faulk who managed to fight the blacklisting of Americans during the Red Scare. We had storytellers Walter Prescott Webb, J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek who spent time hanging out at the city’s sacred gathering spot of Barton Springs.
In the 60s and 70s the conservative element in the city was so strong that Austin scenesters did jail time for being found in the company of Mary Jane. Yet the city was alive with musical experimentation from Janis Joplin to Willie Nelson Nelson. That era that comes to life in the film Dirt Road to Psychedelia.
These days the cosmic cowboy music scene has morphed into Austin music that now goes everywhere. So has the technology,some of which was incubated at the University of Texas at Austin. People from nearly everywhere want a piece of what we have here.
The reason why we have what we have because of the magic oozing out of the fault line, straight from the bottom of the earth. If you’ve ever given a tree a nice solid kiss and had her leaves shake in response, you’ve touched the magic. If you’ve ever asked the oracle at Barton Springs to give you a sign what you should do with your life, you’ve touched the magic. If you’ve ever danced in the first solid rain at the end of a drought, you’ve touched the magic. If you’ve gone though your friend’s checkout line, been shown his new tattoo, then ever sat outside of Wheatsville Coop and eaten popcorn tofu out of the box with your fingers, you’ve gotten close to feelin’ up the magic.
So while David Landsel wouldn’t recognize magic if the goddess bothered to bite him in the ass, we suspect he’s just bitter because you have to open yourself to the charms of Austin before she opens herself to you. (Bet that’s the reason he didn’t like Asheville, either!)
I agree Houston can be dandy. She’s got a lot going for her, like a Lesbian mayor and and her own poet laureate. She has outstanding amenities like a fab Malaysian restaurants and direct flights to Tokyo.
What Landsel misses is that while Houston is a great town for consuming art -–it has far better opera, ballet and museums than Austin does–it’s not a great place for DIY artists to actually make art.
With apologies to Bun B, it’s not the kind of place where fun gets invented, it’s the place that fun gets exported to. As Landsel noted, Houston is where Uchi opened a branch, and where at least one of the live music clubs is a branch of the Austin mothership. Austinites don’t begrudge the Houstonians having a little fun. We can’t blmae these Austin businesses for opening moneymaking outposts in H-Town. People who work for oil companies have got to spend their money somewhere.
So yes, Landsel, thanks for sending people to our city’s satellite branch down the road. That’s a nice easy place for them to start. When they are ready to mainline the life-force that keeps the universe together, they can come see us here in the ATX. We’ll be out swimming in the moonlight, doing some yoga, eating our greasy hamburgers at our greasy spoons, playing the occasional naked bongo drum and exporting our music and musicians straight from the ATX to all over the damn world.
Landsel, Austin isn’t uptight, she just didn’t want to get it on with you.
Next time you come to town, Landsel, we suggest that you try being nice to Austin and treating her like a lady. Take a canoe out to Lady Bird Lake and tell her you are sorry. Bring some bread for the ducks, as you have amends to make. Take a tour of the capitol and apologize to Lady Liberty for what you said. Stop being so angry and bitter, dude, and open yourself up to the possibilities of the city that a big chuck of the world has fallen in love with.
Then, maybe, just maybe, Austin will reveal her charms for you. No promises.