Saturday, March 19, 2005
1st Annual CNU New England Conference!
Hope to see you there!!
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Austin City Limits: Part 2
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!
Friday, March 04, 2005
Austin City Limits: Part 1
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....