For Joe Nick Patoski, Austin is a city like no other, an anomalous spot of “blue in a sea of red,” where East Coast meets West and swimming laps in the chill waters of Barton Springs in February is oddly commonplace. His love for the city is covered in depth in his new book, Austin to ATX, launching Feb. 13 at the Austin Central Library.
Patoski, a Fort Worth native, moved to Austin in 1973 to write about music. From writing briefly for the Austin American-Statesman in the late Seventies to working as a staff writer at Texas Monthly for 18 years to reporting on icons such as Ray Benson and Clifford Antone for the Chronicle (and even appearing on the cover in the early Eighties), Patoski has seen the city transform in more ways than he could chronicle in his book.
When he first arrived, Austin had the lowest cost of living of any large city, the famed Armadillo World Headquarters was the place to be, and Whole Foods Market had yet to make its mark. It was a time when students from the University of Texas “almost took a vow to not move away to New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, or Houston post-graduation,” but to stay in Austin because they enjoyed the way of life. Yet through all the changes the city has undergone since Mirabeau B. Lamar first declared Austin – then the settlement of Waterloo – as the new capital of Texas, there is one thing that has stood the test of time: the groove.
For Patoski, finding “the groove” now requires a bit more searching, but all the new Downtown condos and 100+ people moving to the city daily have yet to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
“It’s elusive, but it’s still here,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on [what exactly the groove is], but it’s this creative force that’s still with us and that drives the city as a whole. While Houston and Dallas are oil-and-gas cities, it’s the creative mind that has built Austin.”
In his book (full title: Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas) Patoski makes note of the city’s early days, from the tale of strong-headed Angelina Eberly, who fired a cannon to keep the city archives from being moved to Houston, to the opening of the University of Texas in 1883 to the establishment of the longest running business in the state of Texas, Scholz Garten, where Austinites could sit under the shade of oak trees, enjoy a pitcher of beer, and talk about current events. He then attempts to capture what’s made Austin Austin through what he calls a “glorious mess” of chapters on music, tech, South by Southwest, the Austin Film Society, Whole Foods Market, etc., chronicling the history of each from their beginnings in the city to today.
While combing through old Statesman articles and browsing through documents at the Austin History Center as well as oral histories, one thing in particular surprised the journalist: Before Austin was known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it was a writer’s city. “There were more printing presses in Austin in the 1840s than there were churches,” he says, a fact which separates Austin from both the rest of Texas and the rest of the South.[image-1-right]
In fact, writers J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb, who are now immortalized with a statue at Barton Springs, used to head to Philosopher’s Rock for what is known as Austin’s first literary salon. While Patoski is unable to calculate why Austin has grown to become such a city for writers, he thinks it may date back to Texans’ innate gift for storytelling.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, Austin has “recognized the importance of culture to the well-being of its economy” and has provided a welcoming atmosphere with a hint of Southern charm for those looking to work through their ideas here. Patoski remembers befriending SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson when the festival was just an idea in the mid-Eighties. He also details how the Austin Film Society was started by director Richard Linklater because the university wasn’t playing enough films and he just wanted the opportunity to watch more movies. It wasn’t for money, pride, or to start a cultural revolution – it was passion that led to two of the greatest organizations in the city.
While much of the city has transformed and the food scene is much more sophisticated since Patoski made Austin his home in 1973, there are still many places he frequents, like Matt’s El Rancho for chile relleno, Dirty Martin’s Place on Guadalupe for hamburgers, and the Broken Spoke for the best country dancing in town. For Patoski, the city reminds him of lyrics from Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads”: “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul.”
Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas
by Joe Nick Patoski
Texas A&M University Press, 376 pp., $32
The book launch for Austin to ATX takes place Wed., Feb. 13, 7pm, at Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez. The event will include author Joe Nick Patoski in conversation with Austin American-Statesman writer Michael Barnes, and with Jon Dee Graham performing songs from different eras of Austin music.
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