Digital Humanities

Is it the beginning of the end? End of Austin chronicles the "city of perpetual nostalgia"

Is it the beginning of the end? End of Austin chronicles the "city of perpetual nostalgia"

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It would seem that, based on the number of high-ranking positions the city has held on multiple magazine’s top 10 lists for economic growth, popularity and promise, that Austin has surpassed being the new big “it” city to becoming the city.

Austin’s intersection of high-tech, higher education and high capacity for cultural currents is making the city a formidable force in the global market, damaging PR from doping cyclists notwithstanding.

But for locals — the ones who have lived here all their lives or moved here to go to school and just never left — there’s a feeling of collective uneasiness. Austin is growing and changing and evolving into a metropolis unrecognizable from the one that boasts the mantra, “Keep Austin Weird.” Austin, you hear, just isn’t what it used to be.

Is the city’s end upon us? Yes and no, and not quite. A project out of the University of Texas’ American Studies department, after dabbling in a test blog more than a year ago, intends to chronicle these feelings of anxiety, unrest and change, “the beginning of a much-needed conversation about the identity of Austin.”

A sort of digital anthology published twice a year, End of Austin pulls together academics and some prolific personalities (like Ann Richards) to address looming questions of Austin’s place in its citizens’ consciousness, writes its editor, Randolph Lewis:

A city of perpetual nostalgia, Austin is a vivid place where rapid change pulls against profound attachments to the way things are (or how they are imagined to be). Perhaps this dynamic is what gives such poignancy to the idea of endings in Austin. Austinites are always afraid of losing what we love about the city: the vibe of a particular neighborhood, the murmur of the so-called creative class, the beauty and health of Barton Springs. The end of Austin, or at least some beloved facet of it, always seems around the corner, haunting our sense of place.

But End of Austin isn’t a bunch of academics shaking their metaphorical fists at the sky, bemoaning Austin’s growth and change as ruinous and evil. Really, there’s a wistfulness and romanticism to the writing, a waxing nostalgic, that it may be the end of some old ways, but it’s also the exciting beginning of something new.

“I don't think anybody wants to believe that what they truly love about a place could really disappear,” Sean Cashbaugh, a teaching assistant at the University of Texas’ American Studies department, said in an email message.

“That's where the nostalgia many people feel about and towards the city is transformed into some hopeful vision for its future. I think a lot of this depends on what exactly people feel attached to in the city, what they think makes up its texture.”

For Cashbaugh, who interviewed Austin luminary Thor Harris for the anthology, the music scene — so much a part of the fiber of the city — is a good example of moods shifting with location.

“For instance, a lot of people were really attached to Emo's, and now that it's moved, there's a sense of loss,” he said. “However, if you focus on the people that made Emo's what it was — the bands, the fans, the community — there's a sense of hope, since all those things are still here, just different spaces.”

Jason Mellard, a lecturer with the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University, also points to urban development and how it is affecting music venues is essential to feelings of loss.

“The plans to develop Waller Creek will likely further alter the area's dynamic and continue to flush this brand of live music venue from downtown,” Mellard said in an email.

“We will have performance spaces, sure. Buildings and concert halls to fill up for SXSW. But the hallmark of a scene is a group of individuals with deep investment in going out, night after night, forging relationships with others who do the same, talking about the music others make, making some of their own, and using this scene as a creative springboard for their own endeavors.”

End of Austin, though, doesn’t get too specific on demanding — there’s never quite a call to arms or incitement for action. The hope, Lewis says, is for the site to behave as a meeting ground for communities who rarely interact: academics and creatives. Just short of activism, Lewis says that the kind of collective problem-solving that could emerge is the ultimate goal.

To the writers and contributors of End of Austin, the site is an opportunity to engage in conversation with the city and its psyche, but also a chance to be self-effacing.

“Any city is always ending, in a sense, just as its new self is beginning,” Mellard says. "And the rhetoric begs the question, ‘What is Austin anyway? Whose Austin are we talking about?’”