RM 2222 at City Park Road Lost in Winkieland
The boundaries of Emma Long Metropolitan Park, (or City Park, as it is more commonly known), are huge, and extend halfway between 2222 and Lake Austin. Although aside from the sign out front, little in the landscape separates the public space from the resolutely private property preceding it, which is not part of the city, let alone the park. The real action at City Park occupies a mere scrap of the preserve, a lakefront fringe where the ground has been flattened, the undergrowth shaved, and the resulting greensward packed with all mod cons.
As a nexial point with the water world, City Park is not greatly inspirational; it lacks the drama of Lake Travis, the mysticism of Barton Creek or the homey ubiquity of Town Lake, just as Lake Austin itself, despite the socioeconomic status that pockmarks its shores, is not a very attractive body of water. As a depository for your road-weary butt, though, City Park pretty much beats all, or at least the KOA; the only officially sanctioned campground in a city-owned park is also one of the nicest and most orderly squatting places in the 787XX ZIP codes.
Or at least a lot of folks from near and not-near Austin (California, Canada, and the fabled Land of Long-haul Truckers) seem to think so. Enough of them raise their tents and lower their trailers on City Park's putting-green grass to necessitate some gentle crowd control from the Park Police, and on summer weekends the throng resembles a Middle American pow-wow, where gimme caps are mandatory and the Frisbee-flapping kids shout over the jet-boat hordes, churning Lake Austin's bread-mold-green water to a fluffy froth.
Like most spots catering to the petrol-powered lifestyle known to parks-and-rec types as "outdoor recreation," City Park is hardly a hobo jungle. But as is typical in Texas, the affluence symbolized by the jet skis and camper vans doesn't match the patrons' populist preferences. These folks - the great bulk of whom are Anglo - drink beer (Busch being a favorite) from cans, can distinguish Miracle Whip from the store brand, and have attended office parties where strippers were present. The sport utilities are few and the dualies many, at least compared to the driveways of the homes farther up City Park Road.
Places like City Park and the people who frequent them don't often rest cheek-by-jowl with the Southern Living Idea Homes, each protected by ADT, such as those that dot City Park Road and its tributaries. The vast stretches of City Park may serve as a buffer to protect the riches from the riffraff, and vice versa, but in the eyes of many Austinites, the sleepy cedar hills merely segregate two different species of Them.
If Austin were the Land of Oz, the western quadrant would correspond to the Kingdom of the Winkies, who were yellow, and ruled (after the Wicked Witch of the West got hers) by the Tin Woodman, who was stiff, chopped down trees and didn't have a heart. For many, this about sums up West Austin. (By extension, South Austin would be bright red and ruled by a beautiful and benevolent witch-queen, which maybe it is.) It's hard to know what to say about Winkie-land; people are people, and the places they call home all have something in common, but the didactic purpose of "Corner to Corner" is to give voice to the real Austin, as opposed to the golf-addicted, over-leveraged, Paul Pryor-loving, history-hating, and culture-effacing ethos of Macro Austin. And the purest distillate of the latter state of mind can be found at the end of the sculpted driveways of City Park Road, abutted by too-recent construction scars and dotted with deer that, given the artifice of their surroundings, cannot avoid being mistaken for mere lawn ornaments.
Rhapsodic as the natural environment is west of Loop 360, the man-made environment within it does not coexist with it, but aims to dominate it in violent perceptual conflict. Looking at the homes along City Park Road, you may gasp at the Winkies' lack of taste and color even as you envy their wealth, and you may resent their appropriation of the natural commonweal even as you and Bubba frolic lakeside, under picture windows with more glass than your apartment has carpet. The park road and environs is probably the best scenic overlook of Winkieland, since the ethos is there undiluted by social or political or historical or geographic imperative.
The City Park Road area may qualify as a neighborhood, but - except for a village-like cluster of lakeside homes on Pearce Road, by Ski Shores, and just off the park road near the main gate - there's little evidence of it being a community. There's no long history of habitation in this area; City Park is an adolescent as local parks and wet spots go, dating to the early 1970s, but it's a lot older than the adjoining homes and streets. The oldest of these went up during Boom No. 1, the early to mid-Eighties; the newest are still in the delivery room, and along the side streets lie infant dream houses one after the other, too young to have the beginnings of turf-grass, just piles of quicksandy red dirt offset by graders and 'dozers. Many homes are for sale, many of them for the first time. The deer are not used to them being there; you can tell from the way they swarm the grounds erratically, too close to the road and too far from the obvious sources of grub. The residents have not yet taken precautions to keep their finely tuned xeriscapes from disappearing down Bambi's gullet.
There's no development out here dense enough to make the water-quality police restless, even though the area is inert from this standpoint. There are, however, the bleached bones of stillborn subdivisions - wide roads with silly names like House of York and House of Lancaster, with fire hydrants and electric cable boxes at frequent and precise intervals, all old enough for the grader scars to have healed, without any homes on them at all. (A few lie within such developments but appear to predate them.) Even in the Glen Lake area, a real live subdivision with a main gate and everything, the lots are ample, and many homes set back obscurely among the trees, so the residents have little reason to know who their neighbors are, let alone care what they think. (On the way in, the lighthouse-shaped sentry box bears a sign announcing that a dog has been lost; on the way out, another announces that a dog has been found.)
Even though City Park Road is closer to downtown than are many Austin taxpayers, once out here you could easily slip the bonds of Macro Austin's surface gravity. You could build an incredible home, indulging any sort of rustic fantasy or urban utopia, expressing whatever quirks inform your sense of aesthetics, reinventing your relationship with the city and the landscape, for probably less money than the subjects of the Margravate of Circle C paid to live in a split-level Doyle Wilson packing crate. Yet the homes of City Park Road are, more than anything, senseless. Despite their obvious expense, they are drab; despite their wonderful location, they are ill-sited; despite the opportunities for creativity and functionality, they are dated and inefficient (Mike Brady, please call your office); and despite the archetypal Hill Country ambience of the area, they mostly could be anywhere.
Many are clad with the normally attractive native limestone, but handled as if it were brick, in regular little squares connected with grey mortar that gives the facades the look of a dirty Handi-Wipe. Many other homes are clad with real red brick, which harmonizes so badly with the landscape that future archeologists will think they were temples, designed to attract attention to themselves.
Uniformly, the winding and steep driveways in Glen Lake are flanked at street level with two identical, symmetrical pillars, which look fine on horse farms along the James River but look like parts of Stonehenge sticking up out of the cedar scrub. These are topped with light fixtures that match neither the landscape nor the house - New Orleans street lamps, mod glass-and-brass globes, nautical lanterns. So much for the typical houses; amidst them are some real curiosities, shaped by whim rather than sense but at least distinctive, and therefore admirable. The currency of rebellion is cheapened considerably in this city in these times, so much so that painting the eaves purple can make you a visionary.
Perhaps this attention to surface detail is totally unfair, and these houses are actually occupied by the latter-day Texas variant of the Bloomsbury Group, but several weeks of probing has failed to turn up anyone who wanted to share their stories with the public. (Some refused to talk because they found this paper offensive.) So this tale is unfortunately unfinished. From the street, it doesn't look like those living along City Park Road have much to say, to outsiders or to each other. I'd like to think this isn't true. Input from the residents is encouraged; let us hear from you. n
"Corner to Corner" is a biweekly column on Austin's neighborhoods by Mike Clark-Madison. For next time: Along the shores of Bouldin Creek, the waterway that never was - until now? Prepare your sandbags...