Get It While You Can
Much of Old Austin survives -- and thrives -- for now
All is not lost.
Certainly, it might seem so. Every other day or thereabouts, there is another mournful newspaper headline, another vacant storefront, another piece of what we treasure about this town slipping into the realm of "Lost Austin."
And as this city has transformed over the last decade -- or two, or three -- more clear divisions can be seen between Old Austin (you know: hippies, funky live music bars, mom & pop shops) and New (techies, traffic, chain stores).
The concept of an "Old Town" and a "New Town" is hardly unique to Austin; less common is the kind of commingling of the two found here. Old Austin is not a neighborhood or a district, and New Austin did not spring up wholesale in a razed section of town. The new simply grew in the midst of the old or, too often, on top of it.
But here and there, old treasures cling to life, and in some cases thrive. A few flatlined briefly, but may have been resuscitated by new owners: Hole in the Wall (2538 Guadalupe), the Tavern (922 W. 12th), Hill's Cafe (4700 S. Congress). These places remind us why we fell in love with this town -- or, if you're a newbie, they explain why we crochety old-timers get misty-eyed with nostalgia.
What follows is a completely arbitrary survey -- a roundup of places that are special to me (a proud Austinite since 1986, after emigrating from nearby Rockdale, although I first swam in Barton Springs at age 9). It couldn't possibly be comprehensive and isn't meant to be. "Old Austin" is in the memory of the beholder. For some of us, Old Austin died when Liberty Lunch did. For the generation prior, it died with the Armadillo. And no doubt an even older bunch of folks laments the day all those damn hippies came to town.
The Gay PlaceOnce upon a time, Austin was not known for cosmic cowboys or tech geeks. Instead, it was the quiet little college/government town described by Billy Lee Brammer in his novel The Gay Place: "It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol's granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light."
The perfect setting to read Brammer's novel would be Scholz's Biergarten (1607 San Jacinto Blvd.), under the pecan trees with a good dark beer, rubbing elbows with politicians on break from the nearby Capitol. Even better, you could read The Texas Observer (307 W. Seventh) -- the left-wing paper that formed a focal point of that book, still comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in a state that needs a counterweight to the right, now more than ever.
A year older than the Observer is the Crestview Shopping Center (West St. John's & Woodrow) -- the sign says "Since 1953," and that should be preceded by "Unchanged." The IGA Minimax grocery store is no Central Market; it's the store your mom took you to when you were a kid. And the Crestview Pharmacy is no Walgreen's; it's family-owned and personable.
Speaking of drug stores, Nau's Enfield Drug (115 West Lynn) is a true throwback: You can still get an actual ice-cream soda (for you youngsters, that's a scoop of ice cream plopped into a glass of soda water and drizzled with chocolate syrup) and a burger at its legendary lunch counter. Its campus location (Nau's Pharmacy, 2406 San Gabriel) has been serving up the same to UT students for years.
While we're on the subject of great burgers, what better way to experience one in Old Austin style than by biting into a greasy treat under the watchful, autographed gaze of Darrell Royal and Earl Campbell? Dirty Martin's Kum-Bak Place (2808 Guadalupe St.) is the epitome of a time when not only Austin, but also UT, was a more intimate place. Ditto for Sandy's Frozen Custard (603 Barton Springs Rd.) downtown.
Finally, one thing will transcend every generation: swimming. It's been said many times but bears repeating: Barton Springs (2101 Barton Springs Rd.) and Deep Eddy Pool (401 Deep Eddy Dr.) are the soul of our city -- and have been since long before the name "Austin" was applied to this place. Funds are currently being raised to restore Deep Eddy's bathhouse (www.deepeddy.org); if you don't want these natural treasures to slip into the realm of Lost Austin (thereby driving the last nails into Old Austin's coffin), please keep fighting the difficult battle to preserve them.
Old SincerityFor the youngest of the fogies, Old Austin was punk rock at Raul's, air-guitaring to Stevie Ray Vaughan at Antone's, or a Liberty Lunch bill featuring some combination of Doctors' Mob, Glass Eye, Zeitgeist/Reivers, True Believers, or Wild Seeds. Or maybe just a beer at the Texas Showdown (2610 Guadalupe St.).
Well, it can still be a beer at Showdown. This campus-area bar is proof that change isn't necessarily bad: When Raul's closed, Showdown moved into its old digs and quickly established itself as a Drag fixture. Other than a slightly improved back beer garden -- well, and the inflation that's hit the 3-3:15pm "Happy Minutes" -- this place hasn't changed since my college drinking days in the Eighties.
And as long as you're near UT, grab a pre-drinking cheesesteak at Texadelphia (2422 Guadalupe St.). Now this place has changed -- the original Drag location doubled in size, from tiny to merely small, and now boasts seven Austin locations and several other Texas franchises. For anyone who worked across the street at The Daily Texan, this place provided a good 50-75% of a day's nutrition. May it never be any different.
All of this will be easy if you're still a student and can crash at Taos Co-op (2612 Guadalupe St.). Or any of the West Campus student-housing co-ops. Funky places to live, fantastic parties that often showcase great new bands before they become the Next Big Thing.
And speaking of cooperation, Wheatsville Food Co-op (3101 Guadalupe St.) is still the place to get your organic groceries. Other, bigger companies have become blockbusters in the organics biz, but Wheatsville is so much more than a store -- it's also a community center, live music venue, and frequent fairground.
Of course, you can still air-guitar at Antone's (213 W. Fifth). Although too many of the people who built the club's reputation as the best blues joint south of Chicago -- Stevie, Muddy, Albert & Albert, etc. -- are dead now, Jimmie and Lou Ann sound better than ever. And you can still top it off with a late-night trip across the highway to Sam's BBQ (2000 E. 12th). Even a devastating fire couldn't kill that place. Maybe it will last forever, but don't chance it.
You can also still read The Austin Chronicle (4000 N. I-35) while you're there, but we're a bit bigger than the 24-page biweekly that came out on Sept. 4, 1981. Or pick one up at Waterloo Records & Video (600-A N. Lamar), one of the best damned independent record stores in the world since it opened that same year.
Home With the ArmadilloSteve Fromholz (get well soon) once told me, "What happened was all these guys who were drinking tequila and all these guys who were smoking pot said, 'Here,' and they swapped. And it took." That's his description of Austin in the Seventies, when the seeming oil and water of rednecks and hippies somehow merged into a single crowd.
The Texas Chili Parlor (1409 Lavaca) was a good place for them to merge. It's still the perfect place to pop in after, say, an old-fashioned anti-war protest. With tons of memorabilia on the walls, this place just reeks of Old Austin. Good chili, too.
Broken Spoke (3201 S. Lamar) has chili, too, but the main reason you go there is to dance. This classic, low-ceiling honky-tonk was once on a dirt road outside of town; now it's in the heart of South Austin, but the parking lot is still unpaved and full of beat-up pickups. The biggest legends in the business played here, including Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and Dolly Parton, but it also served as a place for the cosmic cowboys to cut their teeth ... the most important of whom is Willie Nelson, an institution unto himself and still going strong at age 70.
Good old Threadgill's actually predates this era by four decades, but the old Janis Joplin hangout (6416 N. Lamar) is still a repository of heirlooms from our town's groovy years, and the newer downtown version (301 W. Riverside) sits mere feet away from the former Armadillo World Headquarters site that was the ultimate nexus of the scene. The photos adorning the walls, most taken by the iconic Burton Wilson, drop the jaw with their dazzling array of musical talent.
And no discussion of hippies can be complete without mentioning Hippie Hollow (7000 Comanche Trail). Alas, the days when bathing beauties swam topless at Barton Springs seem to have passed, but you can still bare it all at McGregor County Park, aka HH, out on Lake Travis. The spirit, and everything else, is truly unencumbered at the only government-owned park in the state that allows full nudity. Advice: sunscreen. Lots.