Saturday, March 12, 2005

 

Austin City Limits: Part 2

After exploring Austin by foot, I was excited to continue my exploration at a more rapid pace - via bicycle. Unfortunately, after being dropped off at one of Austin's finest bike shops, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet back at the Riata. With no public transportation available to ferry me back to the Riata sprawl-plex, I would not be able to rent a bike, nor would I be able to do much else, except repeat my pedestrian activities from the previous day. Though I was psyched to be on vacation I was temporarily unhappy that my mind was on vacation as well.

Since my "walk through the park" had been rudely interrupted by rain and darkness the day before, I decided to thoroughly check out Zilker Park. Doing so quickly reminded me why public spaces, such as parks, are so important - they are free! Like I mentioned in my last entry, Zilker Park is one of the best things that the City of Austin has given its citizens. I entered the park on the south side of the city and began walking along the multi-use path that follows along the Colorado River. When I looked to my left I was able to see baseball fields, people playing volleyball on sand courts, open fields, and a narrow gauge railroad track that circled around the perimeter of the south side of the park. Though I thought it would be great if this was a fully operational rail line that offered rides to tourtists - ala the Narrow Gauge Railroad in Portland, Maine - I never saw any evidence that supported my theory.

Despite the "cold" temperatures (55 degrees), in front and behind me were droves of people walking, biking, and running along the river. Unlike many "multi-use paths" that I have recreated upon, this particular one was actually wide enough to support all three activites at once. To my right were excellent views of the Austin skyline, people fishing alongside the river, and the University of Texas crew teams skimming briskly along the river. This particular scene reminded me strongly of the Charles River here in Boston.

When I made my way across a pedestrian bridge to the other side of the river I discovered more baseball fields, a continuation of the path, kayak rentals, and Austin's main public high school. The location of the school made me wish I had attended high school adjacent to such a great public amenity.

After stopping to sit on a park bench to read another chapter of Mumford's book, I remembered that I had forgotten to find a post office where I could send my financial aid application out to the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. With the due date approaching fast, I quickly left the park in search of a post office. I soon found a friendly stranger who pointed me in the right direction. Though I am fully aware of how most American towns and cities have severely bastardized the importance of their new civic buildings, I was fully expecting Austin's main post office to be housed in a historic and well-designed building, in a well sited location. Needless to say, I was thoroughly dissapointed by the vapid parking lot that surrounded the putrid box that is the downtown Austin post office. I was also dissapointed to discover that had I remembered my financial aid application 15 minutes earlier I might have been able to send it out, as the post office was closed! Bugger.

Sadly, I had to take my friend Laura's car the next day to the post office nearest her gated sprawl-plex, which was literally a three minute drive from her apartment. I wanted to walk, but like most of American suburbia, nothing is accesible via foot. To ensure its arrival I paid 15 dollars to overnight the application. The irony of paying that much to send a
FINANCIAL AID application made me smile. Making fun of ones self is an important skill, and I instantly felt a little better about driving three minutes to the post office, which was expectedly worse than the downtown annex that had brutally denied my attempt to send off the application frugally. Okay...enough of the post office tangent.

After visiting the post office I decided to explore the western end of the city. As I walked through the "Warehouse District" along 5th Street, I noticed several mixed-use housing complexes that were either under construction, or recently completed. If there is one thing that Austin is lacking, its housing in its urban core. In fact, I was hard pressed to find any neighborhoods of real urban density within a mile of the downtown. Maybe Austin-ites will rediscover the joy of actually being able to walk to all of the wonderful cultural amenities that make-up a good portion of their the downtown core. Moreover, with a new take on traditional southwest stucco architecture many of the rowhouses and condo complexes spoke the local architectural language and were built to the sidewalk, thus adding great life to what used to be an area of the city dotted by dilapidated warehouses. I liked what I was seeing there.

Since it was starting to get dark and I had not magically found $20 dollars in the park, I had to find a place of entertainment that cost absolutely no money. I took a chance and continued walking way west. Luckily I walked 5 or 6 more blocks and came to a very vibrant intersection that was home to not only the Corporate headquarters for Whole Foods (which includes the coolest Whole Foods that I have ever seen), but also Waterloo, Austin's best independent record store! This my friends, was a brilliant stroke of luck. However, I still couldn't figure out why a store such as Waterloo did not exist near the University of Texas on Guadelupe Street. Regardless, after a long day of walking I thoroughly enjoyed strapping on the headphones and sampling the local music scene at the stores FREE listening booths.

Though it is annoying to be in a wonderful music store without a wallet, I was grateful that I stumbled upon Waterloo in the first place because it kept me busy until Laura could pick me up. It also primed me for the wonderful evening of local live music and tasty libations. (Point of advice: When in Texas, do as the Texans do and drink Shiner Bock.)

Of the five days that I spent in Austin, the two that I have chronicled within this blog speak to some of the positive and negative aspects of the City. Overall, I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed Austin. It really is a nice city that has plenty of wonderful places to eat, drink, and explore. With its river park system, large student population, and wonderful night life, Austin even shares many of the things that make Boston such a great city, albeit in a completely different context. Nevertheless, it was nice to get out and leave the northeast, but it sure was nice to come home!

Comments:
I've lived in Austin for 20 years, and, in my opinion, your observations of the city are quite accurate. Austin has some great assets that are fairly close together -- UT, Town Lake & Zilker Park, the State Capitol, and the downtown club scene. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the assets aren't well integrated. Like some of the new highways that have been built here recently, many things in Austin just seem to end abruptly. There is no flow from one part to another.

For example, although UT is on the northern edge of downtown it seems like it is a light-year away from the city core. The Sixth Street entertainment area just ends. Although there are many clubs
within walking distance of this area, the downtown environment seems to lack features that invite one to explore further.

On the positive front, the city council does recognize that there is a problem with the downtown area. There are a number of initiatives in progress that may help the situation. It seems that besides encouraging a greater residential population, they're working on dividing downtown into districts, and each district will have a unique, easily grasped identity, e.g., a retail district, an arts district, etc. Design regulations will be put in place to encourage both inter- and intra-district pedestrianism.

I think Austin is learning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
 
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