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A cultural catch-22: The battle between growth in Austin and maintaining identity

A cultural catch-22: The battle between growth in Austin and maintaining identity

Austin Photo Set: Caitlin_waller creek winner_oct 2012_wall
A rendering of Waller Creek. Courtesy of MVVA
Austin skyline night downtown
Austin Photo Set: Caitlin_waller creek winner_oct 2012_wall
Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne_Easy Tiger_jan 2012_exterior
Paul Qui, Uchi, chef

National attention is often coupled with a grimace in Austin.

"Oooh, I hope this doesn't ruin us," many hear themselves say as they read that Austin has topped yet another "cool," "best" or "healthiest" list.

There's an overarching theme of reluctantly accepting the change that's come to Austin. Change is hard, but hear me now: Change is inevitable. After all, it would be impossible for our city to live in a vacuum, untouched by development. And what good would that kind of isolation do anyway? Stunt our economic growth? Keep Austin predictable, though "weird"?

In 2013 and the following years, Austin will have to face striking the difficult balance between development and retaining some semblance of the identity that's existed for decades. Richard Parker recently mulled over as much in the New York Times, but remained rather unconvinced that our cultural identity would find a way to sustain itself.

So I ask, must we collectively struggle to maintain offbeat, artistic integrity or may we enjoy some successes? Texas celebrated the fact that the state landed on Forbes magazine's 2012 list of "The Best States for Business.” The Statesman reported in December that "more growth will come from within existing businesses and entrepreneurs already in Central Texas. Local economic consultant Angelos Angelou, head of Angelou Economics, estimated that the region will add "28,800 new jobs in 2013, growth of more than 3 percent." I prefer to view this as strengthening our home base rather than diluting it.

Culturally speaking, take CultureMap's year-end polls as an example. Paul Qui dominated the 2012 Food + Drink poll as the hottest culinary headline of the year. Though no one may be more tired of the press he's received than the man himself, Qui serves as a fine example of using national momentum (and money) to reinvest in his hometown.

This spring sees the debut of his concept Qui on East Sixth Street, for which he's employed locals June Rodil as manager, A Parallel as architects and Public School for creative identity. Qui could have easily taken his talents to any major metropolis around the world, and someday he very well may. If he does, do we want to be known as the city that scorns those who leave to in order to further their goals?

 Qui could have easily taken his talents to any major metropolis around the world, and someday he very well may. If he does, do we want to be known as the city that scorns those who leave to in order to further their goals?

I asked food editor Jessica Dupuy to take the pulse of Austinites' expectations in the culinary realm. She reports, "I think they want two things — to make sure the national exposure we're getting represents the true character of our city and that, because of the growing diversity in our city's population, we're not as easily impressed by smoke and mirrors concepts."

The same goes for the music industry. Prolific music columnist Chad Swiatecki explains, "Here's the truth: Right now in Austin, we're blessed with so many distinct pockets and micro-scenes that it's close to impossible to be musically unfulfilled if you're willing to do some exploring. There's an unreal level of talent and artistry moving around constantly to inhabit wherever it's able to take root."

He spoke specifically to the thriving country scene at the new-ish White Horse and an energized punk and underground rock movement by OBN III's, Flesh Lights and more. The Broken Spoke isn't going to die once it shares its lot with a condominium development — if anything, it may become more crowded, and the original crowd may then disperse.

"So no, things aren't like they used to be. . . but in reality they just move and spread out," he says. Reinforcing this sentiment, our readers voted Holy Mountain as the Best New Music Venue of 2012, one that stepped in to fill the void of a 200-capacity venue on Red River after the iconic Emo’s closure.

“We wanted a bar that would be able to adapt as the neighborhood changed, and I'm all for that change. I can't wait for the day I can hop on my bike and ride from Holy Mountain down to Town Lake along a beautiful new Waller Creek,” Holy Mountain owner James Taylor told CultureMap in October.

 "I think it's wonderful that Austin has evolved to a point where we can not only attract brilliant design professionals from around the world to compete to design our city, but that we also have the courage to go with the best designers for the job, even if that firm isn't necessarily local,” says Adrienne Breaux.

On the surface of things, design writer Adrienne Breaux says "In 2012, it felt like things lunged forward at warp speed. The year saw tons of amazing new restaurants, stores and business open with one thing in common: They all recognized the importance of creating a beautiful space that matched the personality of their business."

In other words, putting thought into a captivating space doesn't equate to "Dallas-ing our Austin." Just take one look at Easy Tiger, which our readers voted the coolest development of 2012 in Design + Style for its kooky and comfortable, yet smartly executed, concept.

A close second place in that same poll was the aforementioned Waller Creek, the seven mile-long urban riparian ecosystem stretching from downtown through UT and the northern part of Central Austin. Over the course of one year, Waller Creek Conservancy held an international competition to redesign the area in a way that would foster more community. To best serve those who live here, great minds from within and outside of the city met in consultation. The team chosen to lead for the job, MVVA and Thomas Phifer & Associates, hails from New York City.

"I think it's wonderful that Austin has evolved to a point where we can not only attract brilliant design professionals from around the world to compete to design our city, but that we also have the courage to go with the best designers for the job, even if that firm isn't necessarily local,” says Breaux.

“Austin's always been a hodge-podge of different ideas, people and viewpoints, and I think moving forward, we should keep our minds open to diversity, to fresh thoughts — to change. The more people that move here, the more sucky the traffic gets, but on the whole a growing city will continue to mean growing opportunities for everyone."

As renowned architect Michael Hsu told CultureMap this fall, "the way Austin continually creatively redefines itself is what I feel like is the most exciting part about [the city]." Thus, it's up to us as citizens to find a way to allow Formula 1 and fried pickles to coexist. There is no use in trying to stop change. Growth and juxtaposition are part and parcel of any thriving cultural epicenter. The presence of increased development or corporate structure in our weird little pocket of a city should, in reality, make the alternative communities stronger as a result.

We will lose Austin if people simply throw their hands up in despair in response to what is ultimately beneficial change. However, I'd like to think that a true Austinite's eye will be able to cut through the clutter — should it arrive — and that only a fair weather fan would uproot altogether.