The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Creative Mass

The people who forged Austin's identity also helped fuel its growth

By Louis Black, November 30, 2007, Columns

I spent the day after Thanksgiving thinking. (I could predict all the dumb jokes that can be attached to that statement, but why deprive people of their simple pleasures?) I was mostly thinking about Austin. As both the Chronicle's online forums and "Postmarks" have amply demonstrated, many people are fed up, distressed, and/or unable to afford living in the city that Austin has become. The blame is cast in many directions: Among those blamed are developers, politicians, yuppies, the city manager's office, and city staff, as well as Californians and other recent arrivals.

When I moved to Austin, it was a laid-back, easygoing, bucolic (small) city where rents were cheap and the living was easy. I miss those days as much as anybody. It was also, however, a community where creative talents, if they hoped to make a decent living, had to move elsewhere. Many didn't; Austin at that time probably had more large and small cult musical artists than almost any other community. Still, moving to L.A., New York City, or Nashville was the best way for an artist to raise his or her income and standard of living.

All that has changed. Austin is no longer as easygoing and small a city as it once was but instead has become a sprawling metropolis spreading like kudzu over the Hill Country. Instead of being one of the least expensive cities in the country, as it was rated for so long, it is now one of the most expensive. The evidence of growth and change is everywhere, and it seems like on an almost-daily basis, old landmarks and cherished places are being lost.

The natural impulse in response to the situation, of course, is to blame. Whether it be the groups mentioned above, greed, or just insensitivity to the quality of life that has long defined this city, we know that the problem is the enemy, and the enemy is out there.

Yes, I'll end up quoting Pogo, but I won't start there. At least one of the major kinks in this good-guys-vs.-bad-guys scenario is the creative community. The bottom line is that Austin's creative community is enormous: Those involved work here and earn a decent, and sometimes much better than decent, living here. Certainly evolving technologies, enormous advances in media and communication, and the accompanying breakdown in industrial structure of much of the entertainment business contributed to changes in that community, but that is beside the point. The evolution of the arts and entertainment industry in Austin has been extraordinary, with filmmaking, gaming companies, music- and musician-related enterprises, writers, and a whole slew of other creative types not just emerging from or moving here but hiring other people to come here. The prosperity of much of that community should not be underestimated.

Certainly, artist-controlled, homegrown businesses are preferable to monolithic industry control. In music, as far as I can figure, Susan Walker was one of the very first to snap to what was going on. In establishing Tried & True Music, she has probably earned Jerry Jeff Walker not only much more than he would have made at a record company but saved him vast amounts of grief in the process. Many, many other local musicians have followed, establishing their own businesses, sometimes just marketing themselves, and sometimes handling other acts, as well.

When Richard Linklater stayed here after Slacker's success – and also stayed very involved in the Austin Film Society and thus the local film community – everything having to do with Texas filmmaking changed. The significant changes in technology, communications, and the industry made it easier to follow the path that Linklater pioneered, but it had to do as much with purpose and commitment as with tools.

Elizabeth Avellán and Robert Rodriguez, in creating Troublemaker Studios, not only signaled that Austin was a crucial center of American filmmaking but also established a model for homegrown regional filmmaking that measures up to, if not exceeds, Hollywood standards. Both of them have contributed enormously not to just the local scene but nationally, as well. Rodriguez's stature is obvious: He is a cinematic and technical genius who has had as much impact on the way films are made and the tools involved as he has on movies themselves. Avellán's contributions should never be underrated, however; as a businesswoman, active participant in the nonprofit and artistic communities, a creative talent, and one who understands, counsels, and nurtures filmmakers, her influence, though perhaps not as documented, is as significant.

So what is the point? (I'm not even touching the gaming community, nor writers nor innovators, in the above but just scraping the surface.) The American reality is that creative activities often are among the highest-paying types of employment. The growth and changes in Austin are not due to these villains – and although some have benefited handsomely, for the most part, their successes were neither intentional nor carefully planned.

If people didn't want to come to Austin, no one could have done anything to make the city grow. Instead many people and businesses want to move here. Anecdotally, one can document a few cases in which the city or local residents were crucial in luring either of those here. More often than not, though, they came on their own, because of the city and the environment.

At the same time, many in Austin began to do better and better, thus raising their standards of living. Though they by no means constituted all of it, a significant chunk of this evolving group included many in the creative community.

Austin has long been defined by its creative community. The atmosphere and environment thus created has helped define Austin, as well as served to lure businesses and people here just by dint of its existence. The growth of that community, including an often-significant increase in earnings, has contributed to the changes affecting the city. The creative community, however, is still critical in defining this city. Its success both accentuates the city's identity and contributes to unwanted and substantial changes.

Yep, here it is: "We have met the enemy and he is us," as Pogo said. There are groups and individuals that have done harm to the sense, style, and well-being of the community we call Austin. Still, by and large, the changes that so many of us detest, or at least despair over, have been driven by folks just like you and me. The only reason I make this argument, as unpopular with some as it is certain to be, is because the continued demonization of one part of the community by other parts is not just wrong but violently unhealthy. This is not limited to any one group. Those in favor of even more growth – who benefit from development and are not nostalgic for nor appreciative of the Austin that was – demonize others as much as the citizens and organizations determined to preserve the city as much as is possible, to protect the environment, and to promote social and economic justice. If this battle is viewed as good guys vs. bad guys, the truth is that it is lost even before it is begun. When in any way the conflict is portrayed as pitting the malevolent against the noble, progressives against reactionaries, realists against wide-eyed dreamers, a conflict that is mostly not personal is personalized.

The problem is people. The problem is shifts in this country's economy, as well as changing demographic patterns. The problem is not that these issues should never be personalized – it's that when they are, more often than not, they may make someone feel good and righteous, but the issues at hand don't really end up being addressed. The continuation of conflict is assured, while the chance at compromise or resolution can be forever lost.

The next section of our ongoing series of interviews with legendary producer Bob Johnston, being published exclusively online, is on Johnny Cash and recording the Folsom and San Quentin prison albums. See "A Boy Named Sue "for the new installment.  

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