Friday, March 04, 2005


Austin City Limits: Part 1

If I had any confusion as to where I was going (Texas), it was immediately cleared up as I sat in seat 20F from Boston to Houston. Next to me was a twenty something who was so engrossed in Bill O'Reilly's (O'Lie-ly) latest book that she barely even said "hi." Behind me sat another twenty something who verbally thanked God and Jesus Christ for every cloud, road, hill, body of water, field, and forest that was visible from takeoff to landing. He did this about every five minutes for the duration of the four hour flight. Luckily I had a cd player and a copy of Lewis Mumford's City in History to distract me from a situation that could not be any more stereotypical, or nauseating.

Yet despite the plane trip to Houston, which did nothing to alleviate my stereotypical view of the conservative/uber religious southerner, I was immediately comforted by landing in Austin. This is because as I stepped out of the the plane and onto the jetway I saw a sign that said, "Welcome to Austin, The Music Capital of the World." The sign served as an instant remedy to what could have developed into a bad case of the land-locked blues.

By most standards, Austin is a great city. It has some great human scaled historic architecture in its urban core, a beautiful university located just "up the hill" from downtown, an excellent park system along the Colorado River, beautiful weather, corporate headquarters for Whole Foods and Dell, and a thriving restaurant/bar scene that satisfies the higher needs of the "creative class." And did I mention the music?! The first two days that I was there I checked out all of the above by foot, except the beautiful weather (once again I "brought the New England weather with me.") What I found was not all that different from the glowing reports that I had previously heard and/or read. Nevertheless, like all cities Austin is a work in progress, and in my opinion that is a good thing.

My friend Laura's apartment, which is where I was staying, was not anywhere near the downtown. Much to my chagrin it was in the Riata, a gated community/office park complex 20 minutes north of Austin on the freeway. As we drove from the airport to her apartment, I remember thinking, "I thought she lived in Austin." What I realized was that the city limits are not all that limiting in Austin. This concept is foreign to me because if I were to leave a northeastern city of a similar population, like Boston, and head 20 minutes north on the expressway, I would be at least 5-6 towns away from the actual city. However, I realized that if Austin wasn't so expansive, all the tax generating suburban development that surrounds the small urban core would have effectively killed the downtown.

The first morning that I was in Austin I got a ride to Guadalupe Street, which serves as a primary commercial district for the University of Texas. To my delight, I found more local business here than corporate. No starbucks, no Gap, and no Tower Records. Rather, there was a plethora of local coffee shops, funky restaurants, an outdoor artists market, and several vintage clothing stores that were not overpriced! Oddly enough, I did not find one book or cd store. I'm not quite sure how that is possible, maybe I missed something. Regardless, this commericial district, which is literally across the street from the School of Architecture, was delightful and a great place to start off my day.

Wandering through the University of Texas campus I marvelled at the beautiful 1920's and 1930's Stucco architecture that dominates much of the campus. The view from the main building on campus (a very large clock tower) looking towards downtown was magnificent, and it terminated with a clear view of the Texas State Capital Building. Knowing that the City of Austin was primarily planned around the State House, the University, and the Colorado River, I decided to check out the other two.

Walking from the campus towards the state capital building, a pedestrian notices two things. First, Austin is not the greatest city for pedestrians. The streets are extremely wide, often three and four lanes, and the traffic lights are long. By the time I was permitted to cross most streets, I could only get 1/3 of the way across before the chirping walking man turned into a blinking hand. Second, the majority of the State Capital Complex is quite banal and unrewarding. Besides the beautiful state house, all the buildings feature the same non-descript office tower design. Moreover, each building has precisely no relationship to the street. In fact, most of the buildings were either surrounded by parking lots, or oddly proportioned greenspace. Fortunately, the shear magnitude and visual power of the original captial building takes the focus off what in any other setting might seem like a typical suburban office park. Though my photography would not do the building justice, one of these days I will figure out how to actually place pictures into this blog, and then you would be able to see what I mean.

After exploring the capital building complex I made my way downtown. Downtown Austin, like most U.S. cities, is a fractured conglomeration of large office towers and smaller historic buildings. The towers in Austin are nothing to write home about, except for the Frost Tower, which oddly enough looks like a cartoon icicle. On most streets the historic old shops, apartments, and theatres are have been randomly displaced by a scattering of modern office towers. Since many of the large towers are spread out, you do not get the effect of being in an urban canyon. On the positive side, this allows for much more light to penetrate the wide streets. On the negative side, the visual effect is jarring as many streetscapes seem very inconsistent. However, on Sixth Street one can find a continuous historic streetscape of two and three story buildings. Sixth Street is also home to the majority of bars and restaurants in the downtown area. Though the truly "hip" in Austin decry Sixth Street as being "too touristy," there are clubs, bars, restaurants, and theatres that meet anyone's taste - hipster or not. When recently showing a picture of Sixth Street to a friend, he commented "wow, those buildings look like old western saloons." I was happy to tell them that they were.

Before heading south towards the Colorado River, I stumbled upon a historic creek of sorts, which ran perpendicular to Austin's gridded street pattern. This enchanting creek was accompanied by a subterranean paved pathway that brought me under stone bridges and between and behind several buildings. Though the paved pathway along the creek was not in the best shape, its setting was amazing. I literally felt like I was the first to explore this old river bed, perhaps that is because I was the only human present.

After making my way back to "civilization," I headed towards the Colorado River. One of Austin's greatest assets is certainly its magnificent riverfront park system. Full of public art, bike and pedestrian paths, playing fields, gazebos, benches, bridges, and beautiful views, Zilker Park is impressive. Unfortunately, on the first day that I was there it began to rain, and it was starting to get dark. I quickly left the park sooner than I wanted to, and headed for cover. I found refuge in a funky little coffee shop named"Little City." This aptly named bistro was halfway between the river and the Statehouse, and it served as a place to rest before meeting my friend for dinner. Though much of downtown was dead at this time, I found company in a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and The City in History.

To be Continued....

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