Point Austin: It Ain’t Easy Being Weird
Welcome to Austin – accept our gift of the spirit of change
At the risk of repeating myself – occupational hazard of longtime reporting and advancing age – I hope regular Chronicle readers bear with me if this column is written with one eye over the shoulder on many thousands of visitors in town this week for "Spring Festival Season." That's the grandiose term the city designates for Austin's local version of March Madness, this year made even more frenzied by the Enormous State University at Austin decision last year to shift its 2019 spring break one week later, a change then followed by local school districts. (Predictably, UT officials blamed the conflict on South by Southwest officials, who returned the favor.) Today's point being: If you think motor vehicle traffic (not just e-scooters) is worse this year, you're probably right.
Speaking of traffic, festival-goers have undoubtedly noticed that even the pedestrian variety around and especially inside the Convention Center is often overwhelming if not downright claustrophobic. As it happens, that situation opens a window into current city politics – there is significant business and political sentiment to expand the Center, as well as significant backlash against the notion – at its extremes a residual rejection of growth altogether ("Welcome to Austin, now go home," is a popular mantra).
More specifically, on the City Hall cookstove simmers a proposal to expand the Center to better accommodate larger conventions, and in theory also create a more human-friendly streetscape. It's the linchpin in an collection of interrelated efforts, dubbed by Mayor Steve Adler the "Downtown Puzzle," under which tax increment funding provided by the hotel industry (direct beneficiaries of Center expansion) would help address homelessness and a host of other Downtown problems. Right now the entire project is on hold – pending more research, a euphemism for political consensus – and attendees shouldn't expect there will be less literal elbow-rubbing for at least the next couple of years.
Here and Elsewhere
As that conundrum suggests, at least in political terms, there is less literally weird about Austin than sometimes meets the brand-identification eye. The city has been both blessed and cursed by the recent decades of growth animating much of the South and West. In return for persistent prosperity and employment expansion, we've been burdened by the affordability, equity, and mobility problems (and their corollaries) that are the complex inheritance of modernity. Even as the job market continues to grow (Amazon passing us over for HQ2 evoked hardly a community shrug), wages for most folks have not kept pace with the costs of living in the central city. That has not only driven working-class people (especially of color) out to the suburbs, and reinforced economic inequality, it has exacerbated the vehicle traffic nightmare that strangles our major thoroughfares and directly undermines an otherwise comfortable quality of life.
Beyond the economic and cultural implications are the much larger consequences of climate change – tailpipe emissions remain the greatest regional contributor to global warming, and if it weren't for the prevailing winds we would regularly be stewing in our own gases (come July and August, we are). Even setting aside the grimmest planetary effects, if Central Texas cannot get a transformational grip on substantial, regional public transportation, local effects already happening – notably an increase in catastrophic flooding and an expanding floodplain – will steadily worsen.
Perhaps 2019 visitors will have noticed a major complicating factor only too familiar to Austinites: the Texas Legislature, our biennial reminder that Austin, and the state's major cities generally, are considered undeserving stepchildren in the political calculations of a suburban Republican-dominated state. Efforts by local governments to protect the environment, to support workers' rights, to defend health care (especially for women), to provide affordable housing, to fund public schools, and more are relentlessly kicked to the curb by a GOP caucus and leadership that much prefers throwing red meat to the base, from counterproductive "tax cuts" to insulating developers from affordability requirements to imposing absurd, oppressive restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQ Texans.
Meanwhile, an energetic national effort by the Republican Party to restrict voting rights and discourage minority voters reached a surreal peak in recent weeks, as the Texas Secretary of State (amplified by President Trump) accused thousands of citizens of engaging in illegal, "noncitizen" voting – only to be forced to retreat a few days later when it became clear that the list of "noncitizens" was a propaganda-manufactured comedy of errors. For Texas – subject to some of the most extreme "voter ID" laws in the nation – this latest nonsense is unfortunately par for the political course.
If Austinites and Texans are to change all this – to maintain the culturally and economically generating "weirdness" of cities that is the real U.S. engine of prosperity and freedom – we will need every last one of those tyranny-threatened votes. When you do head home, feel free to take a little bit of weirdness with you.