Keeping it Weird in Austin, Texas

Aren’t the residents of the proudly hip city of Austin, Texas, just traditionalists at heart?

The rusted three-story hubcap- and bicycle-based Cathedral of Junk was created by Vince Hannemann, a South Austin guy who decided his backyard was as good a place as any to build a cathedral. (Darren Carroll)
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But even Austinites can’t hold onto the past forever. Austin’s ’90s technological boom, spearheaded by Michael Dell, founder of Dell computers, is what brought me to Austin the second time around. I moved to Austin with my then-husband when he got hired at the computer company. We promptly separated, and while my ex contemplated a move to the northern burbs, the kids and I settled in Austin’s largely African-American East Side, where the homes are modest, some so small they’d be garages in posh Hyde Park. You might even swear you were in Antigua or Trinidad: turquoise-blue and tangerine-orange bungalows predominate for a few blocks, centered around a community garden, guarded by towering eight-foot-high sunflowers. Black and Latino kids shimmy down the playground slides and pedal their bikes, knowing they’ve got family on every block, whether related to them or not. I immediately fell in love with edgy and bucolic East Austin, which has its own version of yard art: bottle trees, similar to those on the Gullah islands, and makeshift sculptures that seem half Yoruba-inspired, half homage to Parliament-Funkadelic.

Along with Austin’s new affluence came expansion of the monstrous I-35 and MoPac expressways that displaced many African-Americans. Yet East Austin black folk uphold traditions such as the Juneteeth Day parade, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

What makes Austin a cultural powerhouse are its Latino roots, Tex-Mex vibe and expressions of pachanga—synonymous with “fiesta” but to the tenth power, as exemplified by Pachanga Fest, the premier Austin Latino music festival. Latinos make up more than 35 percent of Austin’s population. Dagoberto Gilb, an Austin essayist and novelist, says that Austin had a ways to go in terms of integration when he arrived from Los Angeles and El Paso 15 years ago: “When I came here, it was like going to Sweden.”

But if there is any city in Texas that strives to bridge divides, it’s Austin. East Austin and South Austin have undergone a renaissance that is half gentrification, half sustainable communities, with a strong locavore movement, community gardens and a new Mexican American Cultural Center.

When my mom comes to town, we eat at Hoover’s, one of the few places you’ll find blacks and whites chowing down in equal numbers, or we’ll head to a Cajun restaurant called Nubian Queen Lola’s. Then there’s El Chilito, where you can get Mexican Coca-Cola, paletas de crema (creamsicles) and tacos. Texas has an abundance of taco joints, but where else but Austin would my mother—probably the only 60-plus African-American vegetarian in all of Kentucky—be able to get a soy chorizo breakfast taco?

My visiting professorship at UT ended a while ago, and I now teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Yet I still live in Austin, commuting 1,700 miles a week for the privilege. And that seems fitting. Austin links worlds, whether it’s vegans who chain-smoke, twenty-somethings in cutoffs and flip-flops who eat pork belly sliders and do the two-step, or octogenarians who ride Harleys down South Congress.

“I think the BBQ/vegan contradiction is the essence of Austin,” local novelist Sarah Bird tells me when I mention my mom’s soy chorizo habit. “We seem to have cherry-picked and claimed what we like about Texas—dream big/fail big, don’t judge, but do dance. Maybe,” says Bird, hitting upon what may well be the perfect metaphor for the city’s composite, amalgamous nature, “Austin is all about the soy chorizo.”

ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, is writing a novel about Buffalo Soldiers.


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