As youthful creative classes battle with self-styled elder and neo-hippies for Austin’s malleable cultural soul, the old town fabric is scraped to make way for the new.
Progressives are pitted against preservationists who holler, “Keep Austin Weird!” The ubiquitous rallying cry for individualism, initially conceived in 2000 and (ironically) trademarked and merchandised to encourage support for local business, has since been co-opted by the local anti-establishment which declaims that “the people” of Austin are good and everyone else is bad, especially corporate America, real estate developers, business-friendly politicians, and out-of-towners who would remake Austin in their own not-so-weird image.
Wikipedia defines “nostalgia” as “a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
Weird suggests that such associations would be compromised or altogether cease if Austin’s funkiness expires, but this is where it starts to sound like this is coming from a cranky old guy. Such concern is unwarranted. Life’s moments always happen somewhere, anywhere, in the urban fabric, new or old, weird or not.Buildings never stop aging. They don’t take care of themselves. They need regular maintenance, a string of responsible owners, money. Without that, funky coolness becomes decrepitude after a handful of 100-year-floods and 100 degree summers, but even after mere every day wear-and-tear.
Architectural theorists have talked of the inherent “democracy” in American building traditions founded on the wood stud, hammer and nail. Anyone can pick up these humble items and build. But craft, quality, longevity, and taste, all hallmarks of good architecture, are apparently optional.Sadly, much of Austin’s building stock comes from this tradition of mediocrity. Physically, they do not pass muster on modern standards of quality in sustainable construction methods and green materials, energy efficiency, flexibility, fire and life safety (never mind aesthetics). But since they are part of the de facto local building history, they receive undue reverence.
The truth is that many of Austin’s older buildings can’t compare to those in Chicago, New York, London, Paris as they weren’t built with the same level of ambition. Any virtue in Austin’s spaces comes not from inherent qualities but from the resourcefulness of their users. It’s their history of use that begets nostalgia.
So why not bring Weird Austin up-to-date? Well, who should pay for it? The current owners? The City of Austin? The public? The folks who own the weird trademark? Who should foot the bill for maintaining a particular kind of aesthetic, scale and use at odds with current standards of structure, code, safety, accessibility, economic viability and environmental impact? Are weird merchants willing to divert merchandising dollars into preserving weird structures “as-is”? Are weird-friendly city council members willing to levy a public weird Tax?
American cities have done a poor job in their own upkeep. They depend on private investment dollars to improve sites and justifiably upgrade surrounding infrastructure, such as storm sewers, water quality, power and transportation grids. Thus progress creeps along when private investors come a-knocking, but at least somewhat faster with private rather than public dollars.
Austin’s citizens should continue to be vocal and keep developers honest, but also understand that the improvement of Austin’s physical spaces depends on private development. It’s always sad when the Les Amis and Liberty Lunches of the world recede into the past, but if weird wants to avoid devolving into an irrelevant aesthetic movement, it needs to sort out urban quaintness from urban blight.
The green building movement in Austin, in many ways a rival to weird, has managed to absorb developers and a talented generation of local architects into their cause for sustainable spaces. As a result, the future of Austin’s building stock looks brighter than it’s ever been, and a new nostalgia can begin to emerge within a responsible, well-constructed, and beautiful urban fabric.