South Austin Secede!
The Roots of South-of-the-River Bubbadom
Pat Bennett envelops himself in smoke, then bellows it away with a booming voice that rumbles out of his enormous body.
"I don't go north of the river," he says, puffing on a cigarette in his mother's South Austin home, a house that's occupied a rural lot south of William Cannon Drive for decades. Bennett knows he's exaggerating, though. "Okay, I may go north of the river three times a year ... if I can't find something in South Austin. But I don't like it."
Bennett is a fanatic, a South Austinite who still holds on to the vision of the Austin of "old," a time when the area was defined by a weird stew of rednecks, hippies, blue-collar workers, and Hispanics. And he sees North Austin, once the bastion of academic types and white-collar workers, as a godforsaken place -- the representation of a new metropolitan area filled with migrating high tech workers and Yankees. About the only thing good to come out of the area was a Shoney's he used to frequent, but even that's closed.
The great North-South Austin divide was real at one time, mainly distinguishing a boundary in economic status, since much of the housing south of the river was cheaper and attracted lower-income residents.
Stereotypes developed over time, and South Austin became the butt of jokes, the place where raffish people parked in their front yards, drank Pearl beer, and called each other "Bubba." South Austin residents, in turn, reveled in the stereotype and prided themselves in being true Austinites.
Today, Bennett represents the rare breed, someone who still has a penchant for considering South Austin the only real Austin. But with the great influx of newcomers to the "Silicon Hills" in the past two decades, the Colorado River isn't such a boundary anymore. And with the recent boom in home buying, you're almost as likely to find a $200,000 bungalow off of South First Street as you are in Hyde Park. Another telltale sign of change came with the recent one-year anniversary of South Austin's own Central Market at Westgate. Even the trendy grocery store isn't seen as an oddity anymore.
Has the good-natured rivalry between North and South that helped define the city faded away into the memories of Bennett and a few other old-timers? Or is it just awaiting a new rebirth when South Austin rises again as the home of the weird and funky?
"It's more subtle now," says John Kelso, the humor columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. He sips coffee in the bustling newsroom that's been home to his writings for nearly a quarter of a century and tries to pin down how things have changed in his part of town near Manchaca (pronounced man-shack, for newcomers) since 1978.
"It's more of a lifestyle thing," he says. Kelso, the gray-bearded smart-ass who regularly features South Austinites in his writings and most likely came up with their collective moniker "Bubba," says now you're more likely to find artsy types and other weird people down south. They're the kind that build sculptures out of trash or Stonehenge replicas in their yard, he says.
But he admits the sense of Bubbadom is dying, even if it didn't really have a foundation in truth to support it in the first place. "We painted the picture," he says with a smirk. "It wasn't really accurate."
Maybe not accurate on the whole, since you could probably find the beer-drinking, ugly-truck-driving Bubba and the aging hippies north of the river as well.
After all, the South may have the Broken Spoke, the Horseshoe Lounge, the Tex-Mex strips, and former Armadillo World Headquarters (located, interestingly enough, adjacent to what is now Threadgill's South, owned and operated by Armadillo founder Eddie Wilson), but the North has the Little Longhorn Tavern, a host of little Mexican food joints of its own, and the original Threadgill's.
But Bennett, a 300-plus-pound ex-Marine with a knife collection numbering more than 600, notes that the South has always been a bit more hick and funky, and the trend continues. Just down the road from his mother's house is a place called "Creekside Used Furniture," and a bumper sticker on their beat-up van in the driveway proclaims, "All in Favor of Gun Control, Raise Your Right Hand," along with a caricature of Adolph Hitler.
So Bennett is happy to try and live up to the Bubba stereotype, although with the usual sadness about the way things used to be in his neck of the woods.
"It seemed like all there was here was good old boys and people of moderate income. And everyone with money lived north of the river." Now newcomers in SUVs choke the roads everywhere and erase the laid-back life with every honk or screech.
"I think combat was safer than the traffic now," Bennett says, recalling his Vietnam service. "At least you knew who the enemy was."
With the growth, most old-time South Austinites now wonder if their good-natured enemies, the North Austinites, even realize there ever was a war.
The apex of the North-South Austin jousting surfaced in 1987 with the city's first Tug of Honor, a tug of war between the two sides over Town Lake that some remember as the "City-Wide Jerk Off."
The Jerk Off
The concept was the brainchild of Charlie Gandy, a former state representative who recently made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic U.S. Senate race.
Gandy's idea for a tug of war took off with incredible success and fanfare for three years, then was dropped after it fulfilled its purpose of raising funds for the Austin Youth Hostel. Hundreds of participants lined the Town Lake banks, where barbecue and beer was served on the south and quiche and wine coolers on the north. Of course, the burly Bennett was there and outfitted his family with T-shirts that said, "I'm Bubba," "I'm Bubba's wife," "I'm Bubba's kid," and "I'm Bubba's other kid."
Boredom and bad times may be part of the reason for the preoccupation with stereotypes that led to the tugs. "The whole North-South thing was a lot more important when nothing was going on," says Ken Burger, a North Austin general contractor who graduated from the University of Texas in the late Eighties. "That fit the laid-back times ... and the [real estate] bust."
But now, on the coattails of a thriving economy and lots of money and new outsiders flowing in, people are distracted by a host of different diversions, none of which seem to center on South Austin eccentricities. While Spamarama and Eeyore's Birthday Party may have been one of the few choices for festivals in the Eighties, now you've got a street festival for just about everything -- from Mardi Gras to St. Patrick's Day -- with just about everything centering on the thriving Warehouse District. Dining decisions now involve choices like Thai and Southwestern specialties instead of which steakhouse, cafe, or Tex-Mex dive to hit.
Of course, the roots of the South Austin Bubbadom began innocently enough decades ago with the influx of cedar choppers, many of whom lived in lower-income housing south of the river and in the hills southwest and west of town.
In the Sixties and Seventies, as the country and hippie cultures began to merge, it became apparent that the cheaper, down-home places to live were south of the river, while more established academic types and professionals lived near campus in the north or in the growing suburb of West Lake Hills. A large concentration of Hispanic residents also made the area home throughout time.
So with the diverse mix, people naturally had to either hate each other for their differences or learn to appreciate them. Appreciation apparently won out, at least in the long run, says Bennett's mother, Marion Bennett.
"We always had people who were strange, because we were all strange," she says, yelling from the kitchen table now and then to interrupt her son with important points. "You accept people here, warts and all. If they have long hair, fine. If they don' like to bathe, fine. South Austin is the kind of place where tree huggers and Ghengis Khan could get along."
Her son adds that, of course, a large chunk of the ongoing history of taunts between the two sides of Austin is rooted is the competition between McCallum and Travis High Schools.
Pat Bennett, a 1967 Travis grad, says that when you have two hotly competitive schools, and they're both sitting on different sides of a river, the rivalry obviously is going to be intense. "And the intensity, it's just sort of stayed," he says.
Marion Bennett, whose father, Polk Shelton, was famous for defending prostitutes and other societal outcasts -- may have a more romantic recollection of the area due to her father's tolerance. But she steadfastly maintains that there has always been something different north of the Colorado, and it's getting worse.
"Up north, that's where everyone has moved in, and it's changed the way Austin is," she says. "It's a whole different world. The friendliness is gone. The friendliness never did leave South Austin. South Austin is like a rural Texas town. If your friend is drunk, you help them get up."
Not everyone is so enamored with the South Austin mystique. (Even though to a Bubba, "Mystique" is simply the name of the nude modeling studio on I-35 and one of the only good things about North Austin.)
"In South Austin the water pressure is terrible; the toilets don't even flush," says Pam Leighton-Burwell, an Austin resident since 1977.
Leighton-Burwell now lives in Brentwood, just north of Koenig Lane, but she recalls her brief move to a South Austin rent house for a couple of years. "I remember thinking, 'Oooh, I'm a Bubba! I won't have access to any emergency services ... I won't be close to culture.'"
Her husband, Don Leighton-Burwell, was equally depressed. "I immediately wanted to go back north of the river," he recalls. "It was largely so I could be near the university. I've certainly upheld my share of North Austin snobbiness."
He does find it telling, though, that South Austinites are always willing to get up and flaunt their eccentricities and their reputation for being big and rough, while North Austinites keep their mouths shut on the subject. "It's the whole quiche-eating thing: No one in North Austin wants to explore their own wimpiness," he says.
But Leighton-Burwell says a lot of that identity has been replaced with growth, not just northwest, but south as well.
"I do think it has been watered down in places like Circle C and with the gentrification of the area," he says. "I don't think that there's that much of a schism, but there's still this historical vein. Over a matter of time it will probably drop out of sight."
For newcomers to Austin, strange geographic stereotypes live on the fringe of what they encounter. Many have to wonder what the hell the bumper sticker "78704" means. (It's the predominant zip code in South Austin, and you can still find it on a few cars now and then, not all of them clunkers.)
On the Fringe
Vincent Calderon, who moved to North Austin a couple of years ago from the Denver area, says he kept hearing tidbit references to South Austin that didn't make much sense.
"When you're moving to a new place, people bombard you with comments about the town," he says. "For instance, people would tell me that if you want to live in a more hippie part of town, live in South Austin."
But he also heard vague references at parties and elsewhere about broken-down cars and hicks. Calderon ended up getting a job at Esther's Follies, and the pieces of the puzzle fell together quickly when comedians repeatedly joked about south of the river.
"When I started working at Esther's Follies I heard all about it," he says. "But then I was getting the idea that it was just poor white trash there. It just became a running joke." After a year here, he now thinks the area is home to more "hip" people.
Another fairly recent arrival to the area, Lee Einsweiler, says he picked up the South Austin jokes in bits and pieces, mainly from longtime residents talking at parties or from Kelso's column. Einsweiler, a planner from Minneapolis who lives in Northwest Austin, says he does see a difference in the attitudes and lifestyle south of the river, but that it's "laid-back and cooler," not hick and white trash.
Alan Barber, a specialty ceramic tile dealer who moved to a house south of Ben White Boulevard in 1976, wonders what will happen to Austin's collective joke when it gets lost on newcomers.
"You really don't hear it much any more," he says. "To me, what's sad about Austin now is the change in culture. It's like the old cultural icons don't exist."
Barber notes that it may not be too late to rescue tradition. "It could be revived. John Kelso tries to revive that cultural prejudice all the time." Kelso, a longtime South Austinite himself, continues to plug away at his computer, spinning out Bubba stereotypes every chance he gets. Meanwhile Bennett wouldn't mind another chance to get his ham-sized hands on a rope over the span of Town Lake.
A Last Stand?
Other signs are on the horizon that South Austin may stick it out and remain a haven for everything hip and hick.
The Hill's Cafe on South Congress -- once a staple of Bubbadom with big, meaty steaks and home cooking -- has been closed for more than a decade. The South Austin landmark will reopen in March under new ownership. Partners in the deal include KVET talk show rabblerousers Sammy Allred and Bob Cole. The South First Street strip of Tex-Mex and a bizarre mix of businesses has never been livelier, nor have the South Congress antique shops, hotels, and restaurants.
South Austinites also have banded together to make sure their geographical location was part of their political identity as well, although the message wasn't necessarily consistent. When light rail plans didn't include south of the river, vocal residents there protested they were being left out and treated like second-class citizens. But when election time came, staunch advocates like former City Council Member Max Nofziger screamed that the trains would herald the onslaught of yuppies and ruin South Austin's unique way of life.
Gandy reminds everyone that regardless of how many yuppies move south of the river, it will always have vestiges of its funky, if not junky, down-home roots. "And it's still the auto parts capital of the world," he says.