Vive la Résistance
Joshua Long talks about Austin's evolution of weird, from organic to institutionalized
In the late 1990s, after I had been in Austin a few years, I was traveling down South Lamar in a friend's car. I looked out the window and saw a scraggly, shirtless dude riding his bicycle standing completely upright on the seat. I knew I was an Austinite then because my reaction was not awe, but simply a shrug. "This town sure is weird," I thought.
An ethnographic researcher might call that forming a sense of place. Joshua Long's newly released book, Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas (University of Texas Press), is a study of how people become attached to Austin, the forces driving local change, and the backlash change creates. We spoke with Long via e-mail from Switzerland, "the most unweird place I have ever lived," where he currently teaches.
Austin Chronicle: I have to applaud the rigorous academic framework you approach the topic with, because otherwise it could've turned into a collection of anecdotes. As it began as a thesis, were you concerned about the academic trappings when it turned into a book?
Joshua Long: When I started out, it was not my intention to turn the dissertation into a book. Many dissertations are written in disciplinary jargon and later chopped into journal articles, but that just didn't fit this project. Austin is a well-educated and informed city, but Austinites don't want to be talked down to. If I spewed a bunch of erudite tripe from atop the ivory tower, they'd call me on it. Austin is a place that requires a narrative description.
AC: You make the point that Austin's definitely weird –the vignettes regarding toilet yard art, Nik the Goat, and Leslie Cochran testify to that –but also that Austin faces many of the same challenges as other cities around the country, namely addressing growth while maintaining a sense of place.
JL: Yeah, there is definitely something different about Austin, but that doesn't mean that it is the only city dealing with growing pains and homogenization. This may explain why there are so many other "Keep ______ Weird" slogans out there. Boulder, Portland, Santa Cruz, Louisville, Asheville, and dozens of other cities are begging residents to keep it weird. ... The occasional big box store or restaurant chain isn't a bad thing, but when you have a cookie-cutter landscape of Pottery Barns, REIs, and Olive Gardens, cities stop looking like individual places and instead start looking like landscapes of American mass consumerism. ...
All of this, of course, goes beyond landscape homogenization. There are serious social costs associated with rapid growth and downtown revitalization. Many of my interviewees didn't have time to worry about saving a dive bar or an iconic restaurant. They were far more concerned with the cost of their rent and their property taxes, and as you know, this hits some communities harder than others. There are also serious environmental costs associated with rapid growth that need to be taken into consideration, but I fear I am starting to sound preachy ....
AC: How do you personally feel the city's doing with regard to keeping Austin weird? It almost seems any formalized stance to preserve "iconic" locales –the controversial and subsequently abandoned loan to Las Manitas, for instance –runs the risk of institutionalizing and co-opting what made the place special in the first place.
JL: I have family that live and work in the Austin area, so I go back as often as possible. I notice little things that make me worry about the loss of weird. There seems to be more self-conscious hipsters fine-tuning their espresso orders and fewer unconscious slackers pooling money for backyard Christmas lights. The occasional "Keep Austin Weird" bumper sticker attached to the Lexus in the parking lot of the Bee Caves Barnes & Noble concerns me. And it is starting to seem like every other story I read about Austin has something to do with a Barton Springs closure due to wastewater, construction runoff, or bescumbering morons with wrenches. Despite all that, there is still something very special about Austin and I can't help but think that I would like to get back there someday. The thing is, if that happens, I might just be further contributing to the problem. I mean, I'll be one of those newcomers driving up your rent, cutting you off in traffic, and stealing your table at Jo's or Spiderhouse. If I do ever return to Austin, I promise I won't live in a McMansion or pee in Barton Springs. Deal?