We often hear California referred to quite disparagingly as “weird” by jealous outsiders. But there is at least one city in the U.S. that likes the idea of being weird — Austin, Texas.
Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” more than ten years ago to promote small businesses and eschew the rampant franchised commercialism of every other big city in America. You can find plenty of bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs and hats emblazoned with the slogan. There are even books about the campaign.
Is it working? The first time I went to Austin was in the 1980’s. I saw a river running through the middle of a relatively small homey city, with lush green space to spare, a balmy two-season climate, the University of Texas, the Texas State Capitol and home of the legendary TV program Austin City Limits. It was not the Texas I knew from the movies, and yet, I felt I could love the place.
Apparently other people felt the same. In 1980, the City of Austin’s population was 346,000 — similar to Long Beach’s 361,000 — but today Austin’s population exceeds 900,000.
This year, I saw a very different Austin. The city is filled with thriving high-tech companies, world class arts and cultural programs and a growing film industry presence — all supported by high-rise buildings and freeways everywhere. Every few miles you encounter a detour for a construction project. In short, traffic is horrendous.
Downtown, Austin has a reputation for being a very walkable and bike-able city. Like most “health conscious” cities, there are joggers everywhere.
For those adventurous enough to explore the city proper, here are a few things to make your visit memorable. The Texas State Capitol is a given, but while you’re downtown, go to The Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.
I also recommend scheduling your time downtown so you can watch the Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset. From spring through fall, an estimated 1.5 million Mexican Free-tailed bats make their home under the bridge.
At sunset, as if from a director’s cue, the bats all fly out and blanket the sky in their quest to consume local insects. Literally thousands of spectators roam the area every night to catch a glimpse of the little creatures.
I tried desperately to get a picture that captures the effect. Unfortunately, they move so fast, my camera only took pictures of a muted sky in a halo of city lights.
Visit the headquarters of Whole Foods Market. As you would expect, the store is truly Texas-sized and, since Austin is their hometown and corporate headquarters, they go overboard with customer service — or maybe it’s just another example of southern hospitality and politeness you find everywhere in Texas.
Enough typical tourist information — let’s get back to the weird. About 4.5 miles south of the Capitol you can see the Cathedral of Junk. This place is reminiscent of Watts Towers in Los Angeles and, like Watts Towers, it’s a private residence built by an individual.
My favorite of the weird is the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. About a mile west of the Capitol, on quiet residential Baylor Street, stands a huge, three-story graffiti wall. Local artists use the venue to spotlight their talents and also to raise money for charitable projects, such as the HOPE Farmers Market in Austin.
I don’t know if it’s the “weird” thing or something else, but Austin is doing something right.