Ok. It’s official, y’all. I have now actually seen Austin downright proper-like. Indeed, I went for a long-ish walk tonight, to check out my new home town. Now, I can begin to answer some of the questions that you’ve been asking.
Am I going to blog every time I go for a walk? Hell no!
Someone asked if I was a “Blogger” after the last post. Ha!!! I think I’m averaging about a post every year lately, so two in such quick succession is downright WEIRD! (Here’s the first one if you missed it: Holy Crap, I Live in Texas Now!) Then again, this is Austin, where they want to…
.. so, I’ll just do my part — double-bloggin’ like a fool! Just don’t hold your breath for number 3. I don’t want to out-weird this fine city, even if it is in Texas.
Oh wait, I guess there’s a way to go before that happens…
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen only a small slice of this place, so the impressions of tonight are going to be slanted towards just what I’ve seen on my first walk. That said, I thought it’d be nice to capture some of what stood out to me, while those feelings are fresh and untainted by actual reality — the gut feelings of a newcomer before the ‘a-ha’ moment. Later, I think it will be fun to look back on these first impressions, and see how they’ve shifted.
First off, is my overwhelming impression that this here is a ‘car town.‘
Maybe it was the route I took (main streets), or the time I traveled ( 6:30pm – 10:30pm ), but there were literally almost NO pedestrians! In fact, there were often even no sidewalks. It was as if it’d be a crazy waste of lawn space to accomodate someone on foot! Well, OK, that’s a little harsh. And, I AM talking mainly about South Austin, a specific area, where my walk began, that must once have actually been ‘the country’ a whole three miles outside of downtown — far enough away that it must have seemed that it’d never be connected! Ha ha.
I actually find ‘no sidewalks’ kind of charming. It really does feel like you’re off the grid, somewhere much farther out from the big city than you are. (Note to the reader: where I grew up, and most of the places I’ve lived, there are full-sized, uniform, flat sidewalks on both sides of the street until you’re WAY OUT of town… aka ‘the country.’)
And, I lied.
There are SOME sidewalks, and when they pop up they are awesome! It is as if ‘The Sidewalk’ is a special ‘opt-in’ option for homeowners in these parts, to do with as they please. The sidewalks here are meandering, completely non-uniform and highly creative. People here seem to express themselves in concrete when they ‘opt-in’ to building a sidewalk.
If it isn’t a 2 foot stone single-track with stairs and benches, its an 8 foot wide sloping and curving wander, or a pole, to keep things interesting — and then, abruptly, sooner than not — a sudden dead end. Here, the sidewalk was just too much trouble for the homeowner, so its back into traffic with you! The creative sidewalkery shamelessly proclaims “Forget the invalids and the blind! If they can’t enjoy my front yard’s decorative arboreum tour, they deserve to fall into the mud!” Navigating all this is a downright entertaining obstacle course, especially at night. Dad-burnit! I’ll be horn-swoggled if it ain’t a new sport! Pedestrian Free Riding — a test of balance and skill on the roadside! Penalty for failure? Death by car! Do you dare accept the challenge of Austin’s finest sidewalk architects???
As for any kind of company out tonight on two feet…
Well, I’d have felt downright lonely if there weren’t 4 lanes of traffic rushing by most of the time. Given how pleasant the walk was, something must give. Is there something I’m missing here? Why does no one walk??? The side streets are beautiful, empty, wide and lined with low flat trees, with the odd giant elm stretching high above. Idyllic, really. I already look forward to their shade; to strolling along them under the stars on a hot summer’s eve.
I’m just guessing here. Is the the heat of summer is so scarring that it has eradicated any sane local’s notion of walking? Why expose yourself to that when there’s the cool blast of air conditioning in the car? And then, maybe, this innate need for safety and comfort simply carries on throughout the whole year — a pattern ingrained? For all I know, this particularly nice walking weather is but a short-lived cool spell in a searing hot land.
Americans aren’t lazy, are they???
Oh yeah… Comfort. It is a concept with a dedicated device — the air conditioner. I’ve heard of those… I even had one once, I think. Its that cold thing that happens to be broken in my car. I never needed it in Oregon, preferring the wind in my hair. Here, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might want to get that fixed. Soon.
Further downtown, the walk remained pleasant. Downtown is smallish, by Portland standards, and I think I walked the bulk of the length of it. For comparison’s sake, it felt about 1/3 the size of downtown Portland — compact and walkable. The architecture is newer, for sure… not modern per se, except for a few beautiful standout examples (the Federal Courthouse in particular — wow!), but also not old and historic feeling, like parts of Portland.
Per what seems to be the norm, downtown, four lanes of traffic continued to rush by me (at least on the two main thoroughfares 5th & 6th streets where I walked.) Strangely, there were also quiet, tree-lined, residential side streets of houses and trees — right downtown! Cool. One can almost feel this city still being born and growing up.
So, to try and sum up this ‘walkable yet driving’ duality about Austin, I’m going to pull a hybrid comparison out of thin air — Austin is the walkability of Portland meets the big-ass, pedestrian-unfriendly-road, driving mentality of Los Angeles.
But, alas, that comparison is simplistic and blunt. It doesn’t capture something truly splendid about Austin… its highly distinctive style! This place is beautiful, relaxed and uniquely itself. If I were to pick tonights standout, signature expression of Austin’s style, I’d pick NEON — exemplified especially on South Congress, but omnipresent as a theme throughout.
Hot diggety damn is there some fine neon here!
The signage around town is beautiful! It’s like the waving cowboy of the old Las Vegas strip done up and ambled on over to the rustic, nostalgic yesteryear of old Route 66, and brought the whole shebang over to Austin. The giant, glowing electric neon kitch most often beckons you in to music and some serious down home cookin’! It is wonderful, especially for a lighting-design nerd like me. My favorite of the evening — Magnolia Cafe’s “Sorry, we’re OPEN.” Ha ha.
Tied for first: Lucy’s sexy animating legs, oh, and her fried chicken. Perhaps that’s what the Vegas cowboy was lookin’ fer?
Another favorite slogan (so suited to the out-in-the-country-ness of South Austin): “So close, and yet so FAR OUT!” on the Austin Hotel sign, looking unabashedly like a giant cock.
Awesome stuff! At the moment I’m inspired to add another project to my plate: a photography tour of the finest neon in Austin. Will I do it? Nope. Has someone else already done it? Yes!!! (See here for more stunning: Austin In Neon) Something I am inspired to seriously consider as a design challenge, especially since lighting is something I love, is to capture the old nostalgic look in modern lighting fixtures (think LEDS instead of NEON). Or, maybe I should take that trip back to yesteryear and learn me some glass-blowing?
There is more to the scenery, of course, than sidewalks, roads and neon signs. One thing that is immediately apparent is that Austin does its outdoor chilling-out spaces downright PROPER! Wow, I can not tell you how many gorgeous, welcoming outdoor dining and drinking patios I walked by tonight. From all they way out in the country of South Austin, to right downtown, are hundreds of shady patios, and funky little nooks full of happy people — many of them with a band keeping things lively.
I. Love. This.
I’m going to have to watch that I don’t get me a beer-belly from all of the outdoor chilling I’m planning to do here! Even now, in the ‘winter,’ the warm glow of firepits and fairy lights in the trees seems to effectively neutralize the ‘frigid’ 55 degree arctic blasts of Austin (ha ha Wisconsin!), keeping the outdoors a comfy option, year-round. In the summer, I can only guess that the firepits are extinquished, and supplanted by shady trees and ice cold margaritas. Mmmm… Nummy! Austin, it is on.
So, as my first impression draws to a close, what is my conclusion? I’ve got a good feeling about Austin. Its got enough hustle and bustle to feel ‘big,’ and yet enough empty space to feel small and homey. It is charming and stylish at the same time. Although it is the fastest growing city in America, it seems to me to have plenty of space to grow yet, hopefully without losing its essential nature.
I’d say, “Get your asses out here folks, and join me on a wonderful patio, with a cold drink, under a glowing, kitchy neon sign!!!”
All the best,
PS. I haven’t mentioned the people, since I haven’t met any just yet. I’m adding the following graphic because apparently I’m on some sort of hipster tour in the cities I’ve chosen to live in. In truth, hipsters don’t bother me — kids are always trying to be cool, and frankly, I don’t need to keep up with ’em. In any case, I wore running shoes and pants tonight, making me forever uncool! Try it sometime… its an all-natural, organic, vegan, Hipster repellant, strong enough to repel even a selfie on a fixie! Wait. Is that why I haven’t met anyone yet???