Sunday, November 12, 2006

Keep Austin Weird: Travels in Generic Americaland

By Nancy Jane Moore

The Renaissance Austin is a high class Marriott hotel centering on a ten-story atrium. It's virtually identical to other luxury hotels built in cities across the nation in expanded malls featuring the same upper middle class stores and eateries. While it's in Austin, Texas, it has nothing to do with the city that gave us the Texas-flavored counter culture best known through the Austin music scene.

In the lobby gift shop, I found something completely out of context: a tie-dyed t-shirt reading "Keep Austin Weird." The Renaissance, of course, is the antithesis of what makes Austin weird.

Marriott is in the process of trying to build another Austin hotel on Congress Street just north of the river -- one that will replace the locally owned restaurant Las Manitas and its affiliated preschool with another large, generic hotel. You can't get much less weird than that.

The Daily Texan wrote and editorialized about the Las Manitas fight. Having eaten breakfast at both the Renaissance and Las Manitas, I can tell you for a fact that the food at Las Manitas wins hands down. And it's cheaper, too.

I was in Austin with a group of my friends attending the World Fantasy Convention. After we left, one of my friends asked why I liked Austin so much, since it was so ugly. She had only seen miles of highway and the generic hotel and mall where the convention was held.

My reply: We weren't really in Austin. We were in generic Americaland. There are still parts of Austin that are pretty and weird. But there aren't as many as their used to be.

I rant about this phenomenon in Austin because I'm a native Texan and I lived in Austin for eleven years. The change is obvious and ugly to me. But you can find this same kind of change in any city in the U.S., except perhaps for the cities that are so economically depressed that they can neither keep up their old culture or attract development.

Here in the Washington, D.C. metro area, the long-overdue upgrade of Silver Spring has brought in large quantities of chain stores and restaurants. Fortunately, that's not all that's happened: The American Film Institute has spiffed up an old art deco theatre and is showing classic and art films there. A few good hole in the wall restaurants survive. But you can still see the creep of generic Americaland.

I'm not adamantly opposed to large chain businesses. While I often hear the rant about how Borders and Barnes and Noble (not to mention have run the locally owned bookstore out of business, I well remember the days when most areas of the US did not have a decent bookstore anywhere nearby. Those good locally owned bookstores were few and far between -- mostly located in downtown areas of big cities. If, like me, you lived in a small town outside the big city, your reading choices were pretty much limited to the twice-monthly bookmobile. Believe me, Borders gives you more options.

But as we build mall after mall, hotel after hotel, freeway after freeway, we are sacrificing the creative parts of our culture. Being a cook in a chain restaurant is not the same thing as being the chef in your own place. There's no room left to create your own dishes, to incorporate the local flavor. The same is true in any retail business.

So we get generic Americaland. And you need a car to get there: Parking and roads are a more important facet of modern development than the actual businesses and homes going in. The Renaissance is surrounded by a parking lot. Parking is free, whether you're staying in the hotel or just attending events there -- a real plus for those of us used to paying through the nose for parking here on the East Coast -- but that means that you have to dodge cars if you're trying to walk anywhere. Generic Americaland is not set up for walking.

If you're driving, you can only see the big signs -- especially if you're on a freeway. You'll pass right by the little bar where local musicians play for tips, the neighborhood restaurant renowned for its huevos rancheros, the tiny bookstore where local poets read.

You can travel to any major city in the US today and stay in the same hotels (spartan or luxury, depending on your budget), shop in the same stores (high end or big box), eat in the same restaurants (fast food to gourmet), even buy gifts for the folks back home from the same boutiques. Some of these places are really nice. Some are really practical. But they are divorced from the local character and they portend the loss of the local soul -- both the good and bad of it.

I don't know how we find the balance here. I may mourn the overwhelming incursion of generic Americaland in Austin, but I still remember that the opening of Red Lobster in Wichita Falls definitely improved the options for going out to dinner. Running your own bookstore is a nice romantic dream, but it's always been a difficult way to make a living. Managing a Borders is more likely to give you a solid paycheck and health insurance.

And rapid population growth -- which Austin has experienced -- means that whoever can throw up new homes and shopping the fastest controls development. That tends to be large companies, and they tend to build what worked elsewhere.

But the rugged beauty of the Texas Hill Country is not the same as lush forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains or awesome view of the Pacific off Highway 1 in California, and we don't want everything else to be the same when we travel from one to the other.

We need to fight the spread of generic Americaland, before there's nothing else left.


Gary Bachman said...

I lived in (south) Ausin in the 80s and often biked to work at Whole Earth Provision Company while I was in grad school. After graduation I continued to bike to my new job in the ER at Brackenridge. My girlfriend worked for KUT and was involved in the production of "Austin City Limits." Believe me I had the opportunity to see wierd Austin. And I loved it. Following family and professional opportunities I left in '86.

Recently I attended a conference at the Austin Rennisance. It was my first time back to Austin in some time and I couldn't help but recall that the very land where the hotel stood as a beacon of conspiculous consumption was the location where the city had annually celebrated "Earth Day.

Ahhhh progress. Just another perspective of wierdne run ammuck.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I didn't know Austin celebrated Earth Day out there. That is ironic. I remember it as cow pasture, but I left in the late 70s.
BTW, do you know anything about the stone house that is sitting out in a parking lot about a mile from the Renaissance? (I think the parking lot has something to do with a state government agency, but I could be wrong.)

gary said...

nevermind.... it's the Omni that was built on Barton Springs Road where we used to have Earth Day celebrations. The Renissance is way north and west. (and the otherside of what was my world. It is truly amazing how Austin has grown!) Onward through the phoog. Gary

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Ah, you prove my point: one big fancy chain hotel is interchangeable with another! That's the problem. I wish our convention had been at the Driskell, though it was probably way too pricey for science fiction fans.
Nice to have comments from another member of the Armadillo Tribe.