OUR CAPITAL — The monthly Festival of Peace, Love and Flowers is set for next week. Or maybe it’s the Walk for Esperanto. No, Austin is hosting the monthly Festival for Flowers, Love and Peace, not to be confused with the first party. OK, maybe not, but this town is truly a hotbed of festivals, demonstrations and, lately, serial bombings. It seems that every weekend they are gathering on Congress Avenue to celebrate or protest something.
Just recently they held the annual South By Southwest Conference and Festivals, or SXSW, which started out in 1987 as a small showplace for local musical groups (the town calls itself “the live music capital of the world” so as not to compete with Nashville as the recording capital) to perform before talent scouts. Then they added film premiers, tech stuff, literature, even politics. (When President Barack Obama came to SWSX, he began his speech with: “First of all it’s just good to be back in Austin. I love Austin, Texas. I do.” He went to Franklin’s Barbeque where he ordered eight pounds of brisket, sausage and turkey to go.)
The 10-day event became so big – up to 400,000 total — that the town tried to cut down on shows, stalls and, hopefully, attendance, probably the only such festival to do so. After a great outcry, the town relented. This year CNN, Fox Sports and The New York Times not only covered SXSW, but hosted parties. The economic impact of SXSW was $325 million in 2016. In comparison, Super Bowl LI brought a $347 million economic impact to the Houston economy, but remember SXSW is an annual event.
And to think, Austin almost lost its role as our capital. President Sam Houston liked the capital being in Houston, a town that bore his name, but when his arch-enemy, Mirabeau B. Lamar, became president, Lamar moved the capital here, to what was then a mud village called Waterloo. (Houston called it “the most unfortunate site on earth for a seat of government.”) When Houston again became president (they had term limits), he began moving the government back to Houston, and sent soldiers and ox carts to return the republic’s archives to Houston. Armed Austinites stopped the wagon train outside of town, the archives were returned, while Houston and the rest of the government stayed in the Bayou City. In 1845 the capital was again moved to Austin, and building flourished, but this was still the frontier. Two of the workmen were scalped by Indians. In 1850 Texas voters named this town as the capital. Aren’t you glad the town isn’t called Waterloo? Journalists the world over would have fun with that.
Back when I was a student at UT, no sane person went to East 6th Street at night. It was perhaps the worst part of town. Today, or tonight, the place is packed with strollers, drinkers, occasional stabbings and a night life version of Bourbon Street. An interesting walk is, during the day, check the front of the old two-story buildings with their neon and glitz. Then go around to the alley and note the backsides – native stone walls, some pretty mason work, and all the utilities strung on the outside because they didn’t have Comcast when the stores went up in the 1850s.
I have noticed that the Austin TV stations have much better local news shows than Houston’s, with very little coverage of shootings, apartment fires and car wrecks. Maybe they don’t have as many. But the media front looks cloudy. The town’s newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, which is quite good, has been sold to New York-based publishing firm GateHouse Media for $47.5 million.
GateHouse has a reputation for cutting staffs, lowering costs and increasing profits.
One reason Obama said he loved returning to Austin is that it is an island of blue in a state that is overwhelmingly red. But then, the town has always been a contrarian. In February 1861 Austin and Travis County residents voted against secession 704 to 450. Its long-time U.S. representative is Lloyd Doggett, a liberal-to-centrist Democrat. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature has been trying for years to gerrymander Doggett out of office. They can’t, so they have packed all of central Texas’ Democrats into his district which runs from north of Austin to south of San Antonio in a long, thin line. If Doggett drove down I-35 with both car doors open, he would kill most of his constituents.
This gives Travis County one of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the entire nation. It puts Travis County in five – yes, five – Congressional districts, with four Republicans, each diluting the Dems vote by nipping off part of liberal Austin and merging it into overwhelmingly GOP areas. So we have districts that basically run from Austin to Houston and Austin to Mexico. In March 2017, a panel of federal judges ruled that the 35th district was illegally drawn with “discriminatory intent.” In August 2017 there was another ruling that the district is unconstitutional. But we have the upcoming 2020 census which should give the state two or more new representatives, and thus is going to greatly change Texas’ Congressional districts.
This brings us to T-shirts such as: “Thanks for visiting Austin, just don’t stay (I hear Dallas is great.)” The town and its surrounding areas now hold 2.1 million people. Does that include the 50,000 UT students? In any event, Austin is booming, much to the annoyance of the old-timers (pre-2000). The last census in 2010 counted 740,390 people within the city. It’s now put at 963,116, making it the 11th largest city in the country.
“Keep Austin Weird” is the unofficial slogan. For instance, the Columbus, Ohio, soccer team, the Crew, wants to move here. But every time a park is picked to build a stadium, the locals protest. I think that’s where they hold the weekly Festival of Cool Things and the Austin Fair for Pot, Tattoos and Kael.
Ashby is visiting at email@example.com