Chris Walters and Jim Shahin
Chris Walters and Jim Shahin (Photo By Martha Grenon)

Austin: Growth caused certain issues to explode; roads, schools, the airport, city services, and the environment were impacted. Austin was a boom town. State Sen. Lloyd Doggett gets waxed by Rep. Phil Gramm in the Reagan-landslide race for John Tower's Senate seat. Gonzalo Barrientos takes Doggett's place.

Chronicle Content: In the earliest editorial meetings, it was decided that the Chronicle should get established as an arts and entertainment publication, then develop a political voice. After the first few years, it was time. Although from the beginning, the Chronicle had always had political articles, it wasn't until Jim Shahin was hired that it had a consistent political voice. Shahin covered everything from roads to Farm Aid to the Nuke to the Council.

Jim Shahin

Every generation gets the bumper sticker it deserves. In Austin, 20 years ago, it was the funny, life-affirming ONWARD THROUGH THE FOG. These days, it's the anxious KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD.

As the Chronicle's first Politics editor, from 1984-89, I recall that the anxiety of Austinites used to be about something they called quality of life: the condition of creeks, hills, and air. Even the growth-pimp Chamber of Commerce had a Quality of Life Department. An artful dodge to pretend it actually cared, to be sure. Still, that's how big a deal quality of life used to be.

The Chronicle saw itself as defender of that life. We were the grandchildren of The Village Voice, the children of Rolling Stone -- journalists, yes, but not objective. Opinionated. Literary. Our mission -- and it was a mission, not just a career -- was to change minds, make a difference, do good.

The Chronicle's Politics section started as a half-page: my column. Gradually, after lots of arguing, more space and writers were added. Coverage ranged from racial politics to privatizing the city hospital to skewering politicians. But it was, at its root, about setting the agenda. And that agenda was quality of life.

It's a phrase you don't hear much anymore. Maybe we've grown accustomed to our face. Water? The Barton Creek Watershed has more metals in it than a Pittsburgh iron works. Hills? You mean those slopey things underneath all those pricey houses with the For Sale signs on them? Air? Austin had more ozone action days last year than Detroit. The outcry to all this is muted, in sharp contrast to the wailings of yesteryear over similar assaults.

Lack of competitive bidding on major construction projects, believe it or not, was considered a high crime back in the day. They practically rounded up posses over limiting public input on significant civic decisions. Reduced funding for parks and libraries was pretty much an execute-at-dawn offense.

As Dylan sings, things have changed. With his folk and blues synthesis, he represents, as Greil Marcus puts it in his book Invisible Republic, "old, weird America." I like that phrase for Austin. We hear a lot about old Austin, but we miss, more precisely, old, weird Austin.

Austin was a place for misfits and dreamers and rebels, a work in progress toward some endearingly flawed bohemian utopia or, as the late Doug Sahm would have it, Groover's Paradise. It was smug, self-righteous, and never as progressive as it pretended -- Where's the mass transit? Where's the minority mayor? -- but it was also free-spirited, socially tolerant, and culturally exciting. It was different, and it was special. And it was special because it was weird.

A few examples from its bygone political culture:

Item: In the early 1980s, a cocaine-addled City Council member took out his gun and blasted away at his garden hose, having mistaken it for a snake.

Item: After their inauguration on May 15, 1987, City Council members celebrated at Antone's -- then on Guadalupe near the university -- and danced the night away to Buckwheat Zydeco. During the night, the mayor, Frank Cooksey, took the stage and, rather than utter the usual platitudes about the future of this great city, blah blah blah, delivered a heartfelt rave-up of Antone's owner Clifford Antone, busted for selling marijuana. "Only in Austin would the mayor endorse a convicted drug dealer," quipped writer/activist/entrepreneur Jeff Nightbyrd.

Item: At a public meeting that same year, a City Council member called a political opponent a "goddamn motherfucking bitch." The scorned woman responded by making buttons with the letters GDMFB, which she distributed to supporters who proudly wore them to council meetings.

Back then, Austin didn't worry about staying weird. It was weird. It was why a lot of us came here in the first place, myself included.

But, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, when the going got weird, the weird turned pro. Weirdos who once railed against the system are now part of it. As a result, lines in the sand, once drawn clearly -- Statesman on that side, Chronicle on this; pro-growthers over there, environmentalists over here -- became blurred.

With its horrible traffic and urban sprawl, Austin is more like Houston than it would care to admit. (One difference: Houston's daring downtown architecture is much better than offensively bland Austin's.) Worse, its dandified fancy car/fancy restaurant New Money makeover has made Austin more like Dallas than it ever would have imagined. (Well, except that Dallas does have mass transit and has elected an African-American mayor.)

No wonder people want to KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD. A desperate plea from a distraught populace, the slogan articulates a palpable sense that Austin is losing something even more fundamental to its identity than its clean water, which, after all, can be repaired. (Detroit's was.) The fear is that the city is losing its very identity.


Wonder what the next generation's bumper sticker will say.

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