Austin, Pop Culture



I’m currently reading David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries– a 30 year hodge-podge of his observations, diary entries, and blog posts about urbanization, gentrification and transportation taken from the perspective of a bicycle. Byrne often has a child-like approach to observing the world. Everything about us fascinates him. One can see this curiosity in his songs, “Once in a Lifetime“, “The Big Country“, “Neighborhood“, and “Strange Overtones“, or his 1986 cinematic love letter to Texas, True Stories. Though he’s by no means an expert on anything other than dancing like a mentally challenged person, I’ve always valued Byrne’s commentary. He looks for the deeper meaning behind the obvious and makes us think differently about how we view the mundane and the taken for granted.

In Bicycle Diaries, Byrne takes us on his adventures through major international cities such as Istanbul, Manila, Buenos Aires and American cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, and his current homestead New York City. He describes what works and doesn’t work about the city in relation to it’s inhabitants- Are citizens able to walk around their city? Are they able to bike around their city? Does the layout of the city create community or destroy it? He also broaches ideas of urban renewal, adaptive reuse, and green technology- What cities are doing it right? (New Orleans) And what cities are still stuck in the Stone Age? (Baltimore)

A particular passage struck me in my reading yesterday. In a section called “Gentrification” in the Buenos Aires chapter, Byrne compares the city with New York. Extreme gentrification has pushed the artists and creative types away from the epicenter of the city, creating a harder challenge for “any kind of scene or movement to gain traction” (Brooklyn?) However, he then goes on to explain how he does not like the rundown neighborhoods that artists then flock to:

I have no romantic feelings for rundown neighborhoods where crack vials litter the pavement and the plumbing barely works. Granted, those neighborhoods typically offer cheap housing and a tolerance for noise and eccentricity, but to confuse the availability of space with the unfortunate circumstances that often make those spaces cheap is, well they don’t need to go hand in hand.

This statement seem very anti-David Byrne to me considering Talking Heads got their start in 1970’s East Village, but the man is 59 now and I’m sure he’s mellowed with age. Becoming an adult, a parent, and a millionaire often dictates the want to live in a safer community.

Reading that above statement made me think of my own penchant for choosing to live in the semi-gentrified, the semi-crime riddled, or the semi-rundown parts of cities. How I always thought that the areas with the abandoned warehouses, the raw loft spaces, the graffiti, and the concrete paradises were the only place to be. That the only people I could get along with were smattered throughout this mosaic. I’ve sadly realized that now that I’m getting older, I’m not quite sure I have the stomach for it anymore.

my loft in downtown Los Angeles

When I lived in Los Angeles, I wanted to live in the sketchiest part of town. My family and friends thought I was crazy, but I felt that the only place I could find culture, history, and art was in these places. I rented a unconverted loft in the industrial district of Downtown Los Angeles where the window wouldn’t shut and mutant mosquitoes from the neighboring waste plant would gift me with giant welts all over my body. Where I’d listen to rats run alongside my bed. Where I had no hot water, no working kitchen, and cockroaches that liked to skydive onto my face while sleeping. This situation eventually took it’s toll on me and I moved to the slightly better Koreatown area. There I had a real apartment in a 1930’s brick building. Here I would listen to homeless people violently threaten one another outside my window. Shootings were not unheard and being one of the few young single ladies in the building, I was often harassed. Thinking back, none of my time in Downtown LA or Koreatown made me uncomfortable or scared. It was exciting and I was invincible. I felt that it gave me street cred, that I was one tough cookie, and maybe I thought deep down living in this sort of landscape would uncover some hidden secrets about the city and me.

I currently live in the socioeconomically diverse East Austin. Austin falls in the #203 spot of city crime rankings in America. The Eastside, along with Downtown and Campus area, experience the heaviest crime- though it’s typically petty crime such as bicycle theft, property theft, and car break-ins. Violence and murder are very atypical and happen once in a blue moon. Living on the Eastside is generally safe if you don’t mind putting up with the occasional panhandler or car break-in. I’ve experienced two car break-ins, one house break-in while no one was there, and one potential house break-in. All were crimes done out of convenience. It may be because I’m turning 28 this weekend, but much like David Byrne, I no longer have a romanticism for this sort of ambiance. Stepping over used condoms, syringes, and trash ceases to tickle my fancy. Do I want to trade in the diversity and character of an area like East Austin for the comfort and safety of Suburbia? It doesn’t seem to be in my nature, but I do wonder if there can ever be marriage of the two?


Gentrification is an interesting subject. A paradoxical dilemma that many are not sure what side of the coin they fall on. You can tell me that I’ve made my bed and have to lie in it if I chose to live in a neighborhood that wasn’t mine to begin with, but should the long-term inhabitants have to experience such danger as well? Graffiti and poster art screaming “Gentrification Hurts” and “Go Home Hipsters!” can be found sprinkled through the Eastside. I tend to agree that when gentrification begins, it spreads fast. Old homes and businesses are bulldozed down to accommodate new condos and storefronts. The developers come in with seeming disregard for the families who have made the area their home. They try to whitewash whole neighborhoods looking for a quick buck. The Eastside went from a handful of bars, restaurants, and stores to a new business popping up at every turn. Luckily most of the spaces snapped up my proprietors have been abandoned buildings or lots reconverted.

Gentrification is inevitable. Relocating from places to place to place is what we have been doing since the beginning of Mankind. What I am against is alienating neighbors and creating resentment and unease. Am I idealistic in thinking that you can take a more impoverished part of a city and make it livable for all walks of life? That we don’t have to push others out by raising the cost of rent, property tax, and goods? Could we build more mixed-income housing, community centers, and transportation systems to connect everyone? Could we clean up streets, add beautification, and outreach services? And though East Austin is attempting all of these things, how do we know if we’re trying hard enough? Or is it out of our hands?

What do you think of gentrification?

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  • Reply Riff Dog June 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Funny, we were at a party last weekend with some . . . (okay, can I be blunt?) "poor people." It was a nice party. It was pot-luck. (Uncatered, in other words.) Everyone was warm and friendly and having a good time.

    My wife remarked that she'd like to live like that again. Not worrying about hiring a new maid or private schools or which granite to get for the new kitchen. These people have a much simpler and "real" life, she said. She envied them. *

    I told her after a day or two without air conditioning, with rap music blaring out passing cars at midnight, waking up to a homeless guy sleeping on your porch . . . she'd change her tune.

    *I'm oversimplifying what she said, by the way. She's not *that* naive.

  • Reply April Dawne June 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    She may not be naive, but is your wife that uppity? Poor people do not have pot-lucks, that's just what anyone does that wants to foster community at their table with friends and loved ones.
    I live off of FAR east riverside on the way to the airport, I still ride my bike everywhere, I have a great central A/C unit and my house was built in 2005. Home is where you make it and it's ok to want to be in a safer, better hood, and it's ok to be cheap if you can hang.
    Two different thoughts here between Lauren's post and Riff's comment.

  • Reply theTsaritsa June 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I live in a neighborhood in SF that used to be all Black. There are still a bunch of Black churches in the area and the families that have been going to these churches for decades still go every Sunday. The people who used to live in the neighborhood were pushed out by rising rent costs and were forced to relocate to more unsavory areas of the city. It's completely fucked up, the whole history, but I don't know what anyone can really do about it.

    I also lived in a very poor area in SOuth Philly during my last six months of college– it was dirty, you could hear gun shots going off all night, a rape occurred a few doors down from where I lived, while I was living there– it could be scary.

    While I do find romance in forgotten buildings and the oldness of cities, I don't romanticize being poor or living poor. It sucks, and I've been there before. Food stamps aren't glamorous.

  • Reply Hannah June 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    While I welcome change and wish for the general socioeconomic and financial progression of the city, I am worried that by pushing out those who are no longer able to afford living in the heart of the city we aren't doing much to preserve the rich culture and diversity of Austin. I think more "rebuilding" projects should be initiated in low income areas prone to gentrification. I like the idea of income restricted modern efficient housing projects and the such.

  • Reply IT (aka Ivan Toblog) June 9, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Somehow Catch 22 comes to mind.
    Who do we expect to pay for improved living conditions? If not the beneficiaries of those conditions, then the rest of us; one way or another.
    There have been attempts to create better living conditions for "the poor" (think Cabrini Green).
    I'm thinking gentrification is just the private sector doing what the public sector can't… unfortunately the baby's going out with the bathwater.

    And, no, I haven't got an answer.

  • Reply Steph June 9, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Surely there's a happy medium between East Austin and Dripping Springs? I live in the Zilker area…there is some cheap housing and some very expensive housing, a nice diversity of people, and low crime. My house is old and small, but it has AC and a little bit of backyard for a garden. Austin has plenty of neighborhoods like this. See: Allandale, Barton Hills, Bouldin Creek, etc.

  • Reply Hipstercrite June 9, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    @Riff Dog- very funny…

    @April- I think Riff Dog was kidding. I think? April, do you rent or did you buy?

    @Tsaritsa- It's sad and it's true and I'm not sure what we can do. We can try to help, but ultimately is it in our control?

    @Hannah- Great comment and I agree. I'm sure many lifelong Austin residents will tell you how much change they've seen. For most major cities, Austin does a pretty good job of preserving it's diversity. I hope that doesn't change.

    @IT- Catch 22 is a good word for it. Gentrification is such an interesting topic that I could go on and on about. I definitely don't have any answers either.

    @Steph- Oh totally. Austin is one of the places that does have a good mix of both. I was just using one example to describe a larger thing.

  • Reply Riff Dog June 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Mostly kidding, yes. Although April is correct – my wife *is* that uppity, dammit!

  • Reply Tim Thomas June 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    "confuse the availability of space with the unfortunate circumstances that often make those spaces cheap is, well they don't need to go hand in hand."
    I would take this to mean more that we must strive for social equity even if it leads to gentrification. We can't say we're uninterested in fighting crime or having good schools in East Austin because it might lead to further gentrification. We must strive to make East Austin as fantastic for its residents as possible and address gentrification separately. I live in East Austin and I cannot abide by the fact that my neighbors who live in sub $450/month rentals somehow deserve to have their kids shot or their homes broken into by drug addicts simply because they don't have money. I think that's what Byrne is saying. We have to stop thinking of the equation as having drive-bys or having affordable housing.

    I personally think it's a supply and demand problem, and if we could encourage lots of building we could get prices lower. Austin exploded in the early nineties specifically BECAUSE of the real estate bust of the late eighties. While it might be bad for homeowners, and developers encouraging overbuilding would be great for affordable housing and vibrant neighborhoods.

    More of my thoughts on this here:

  • Reply Mallory June 9, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Maybe I should have sent you an email for this comment or something, but I just wanted to tell you, I love your blog. You are fucking hilarious and I will probably end up spending hours reading through your past posts while I sit here bored at work. You have quite a way with words. <3

  • Reply Icorules June 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    As an native Austinite(actually born here as well) the current eastside change is both good and bad. It is nice to see to new developments and successful businesses in this often neglected area. However, I spent a lot of time on the eastside as a kid(my father's office being right by Cisco's) and this current gentrification has stripped the neighborhood of the classic east austin culture. I kind of miss being able to go over there eat a bunch of secret(to white people at least) soul food and mexican restaurants and hearing amazing conjunto music blaring all over the place.

  • Reply Big Mark 243 June 9, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Interesting perspective on gentrification. 'Home is in your Head', and I don't think that either you or Mr. Byrne have tired of these eccentric areas as much as in Baltimore's case, it was accurate and in your case, you are growing up.

    I grew up in a mainly working middle class neighborhood in the Motor and as an adult lived in the Palmer Park/Green Acres subdivision. But it was still the Motor and the 'stuff' that made it notorious, such as the '8 Mile' that inspired the movie was always there. In a way, you can say that I had all the taste of living in the hood without any of the calories.

    After I got out of the Army and divorced my starter wife I would turn pro and kind of go on hobo tour of the midwest and appalachia, fighting here and there, learning about different locales and seeing what made one side of town 'this side' and the other 'that side', when they looked the same to me. Also, being from the Motor meant I had a credibility that I did not have to fake to get respect.

    I think that it depends on what counts as 'authentic' to you. Maybe David has simply gotten to old for that crap, though at 43, I know what I am willing to put up with. As for you, I think that ambition, aspirations and maturity, has made the whole stepping through the trash and over drunks, with your senses on high alert as you hope to get behind the locked door of your apartment has been made passe.

    There is nothing wrong with 'wanting' and it is a good thing. You have talent and ability, and it demands that you get that six figure place and a pair of good shoes!

  • Reply Guise Faux June 10, 2011 at 1:05 am

    You've neatly summarized why Byrne's lyrics are so appealing. He has a gift for observing the interesting amid the seemingly mundane. I tend to over-think everything.

    Nothing wrong with retaining the outlook of a naif, if it can be tempered by experience without cynicism.

    Enjoy living rough while you're young and have the energy to appreciate it. Later you'll be glad you did. The Austin you've described sounds like the transition period of the late '80s in Deep Ellum. It was a good time.

  • Reply Annette June 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Great post. I think a lot about gentrification, but not in any informed way, really. I don't live in the East side, but I've always thought that the gentrification there at least seems to be happening in a much more conscious way than many places I've seen. I used to live in Portland, OR, and, as much as I still love it, it's pretty ridiculous how much gentrification has pushed away much of the minorities and low-income residents. It's much more drastic there.

    It's a complicated issue, obviously, and, thus, an important thing to talk about.

  • Reply smedette June 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    As someone mentioned earlier, I wish cities/counties would take low-income housing into consideration when "revitalizing" an area.

    I think it's great to save the old buildings, construct quirky lofts and bring in local business, but doing so by eliminating a socio-economic bracket doesn't seem fair.

    I saw it in parts of Portland (sections of North Portland, The Pearl, Mississippi neighborhood, etc)…though Portland is one of the whitest cities in the country, so I'm not sure if that's a good "control".

    Here in Charlotte, a builder wanted to add low-income housing units to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods. The design was stunning – the buildings would fit perfectly with the surrounding architecture, it would be near the center of the city and bus lines (because public transit sucks here). The public outcry was thinly-veiled racism and whole lot of NIMBYs.

    I don't know what the answer is. Segregated neighborhoods does not seem appropriate, but I can understand why some of my black friends, regardless of income and education, do not want to live near a bunch of rich, self-entitle white people, choosing a neighborhood based on trends; especially in the South.

  • Reply Laura June 17, 2011 at 5:08 am

    Y'know, I don't think gentrification is the problem so much as is the "Blue Velvet" syndrome. You know, where people glamorize how safe and happy and healthy the suburbs are? And all the while, these places are stinking cesspools of horror, covered up by a polite façade?

    Yeah, that's pretty much what I view as Hell. The suburbs, and their illusion of safety.

  • Reply Brooke Farmer June 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Rats and roaches are the one thing in this post I could not deal with. The area of L.A. I am in is well into the gentrification process and adjacent Echo Park is moving fast too. It's a tricky issue to wrestle though. How much is enough? How much is too much?

  • Reply YoungUrbanAmateur June 25, 2011 at 12:46 am

    Once again, I'm so sad that my current "real job" (and scantily available internet) has been interfering with my ability to be a loyal commenter on your blog… but I'm going to jump into this one (2 weeks late) anyway.
    This made me think of a 35-year-old white dude I met on a bus who lived in Brooklyn in the '90s. He gave a unique take on why it sucks now and why it was awesome then. He said that, in his time, the white kids who moved there wanted to be part of the neighborhood, not to establish a hipster community. As the neighborhood became more popular, people moved there not to be part of a somewhat edgy neighborhood but just to be around the other hipsters while ignoring the "natives."
    I try to figure out how and if it's possible to protect areas from becoming so incredibly lame like that area has become and I've found a lot of disparate answers. One is that engaging with the neighbors helps. Another is that it's good to move from those neighborhoods when you can easily afford to (I haven't arrived there yet). I feel like it's only EXTREME contrasts in wealth that create tension, not contrasts in race or culture, or even minor contrasts in wealth.
    And the last thing that I plan on doing to stop neighborhoods from sucking so badly is to not vote for a politician who supports rent control. Part of why NYC (and a few other American cities) is as gentrified as it is is, ironically, because rent control indirectly encourages luxury development and decreases the supply of housing.
    I also wonder (almost done!) what it would be like if artists started more communities in cheaper suburban areas. I feel like we have this idea that those areas are "not artistic," but maybe we can change that?

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