A scary realization came to me the other night while I was driving around looking for parking east of Interstate 35 to catch a screening downtown. East of I-35 (East Austin) is typically where I park if I go anywhere downtown; it’s much easier than fighting for or paying for parking.
As I parked deeper than I normally would on the eastside due to the chaos that is SXSW, the realization that parking on the eastside could one day no longer be free hit me like a ton of bricks. Flashbacks of paying hundreds of dollars a year in parking meters, permits and parking tickets in Los Angeles came flooding back.
This may sound like a trivial concern, but it lead to the larger question that had been dancing in my brain while I battled thousands of people through the streets, sidewalks, events and stores as I wandered through SXSW- how much is Austin changing and is it for the better or worse?
I overheard a few rumblings from locals during the film and interactive portion of SXSW that beloved Austin eccentric celebrity/homeless man, Leslie Cochran’s, death at the beginning of this year’s festival might have been symbolic that all is changing with our fair city. They implied that his passing, in conjunction with the day that Austin balloons into a city that is unrecognizable to itself, may be a prediction of things to come.
I wrote an article on CultureMap recently called “Austin is ch-ch-ch-changing: Give up the hate and embrace the non-natives who make our city great” where I told local naysayers of change they should quit their whining. I explained that (in my mind) Austin is what it is because of the wonderful transplants who have moved here, that Austin staples like The Alamo Drafthouse, Birds Barbershop, I Luv Video, Whole Foods etc. were all founded by non-natives. The article received mixed comments- some who agreed and some who told me I was a friggin’ idiot for writing such a piece of crap, but in the end I felt good knowing that I made my point.
This past week I truly began wondering if the fear Austinites have about their city changing is in fact a grim reality.
Watching how large SXSW has gotten, strolling through our new W Hotel, fighting for parking and overhearing people who sound like they are caricatures of themselves terrified me into a state of social anxiety this weekend. Of course SXSW is an inaccurate and extreme example of what our city is on a daily basis, but could it represent what it will become? Impossible traffic, waiting in lines, paying for things that were once free, talking to people who don’t look you in the eye. Those traits are not uncommon in New York City or Los Angeles- could Austin one day be the same?
At the end of my CultureMap post I stated, “With change comes the good and the bad, but it’s inevitable. In my mind, it’s fair to saying that it is Austin’s welcoming attitude and progressive thinking that has made this town stand out. Do I think that the influx of people will change that? I don’t know. All I can is that I moved here to let Austin change me, not to change her, and I assume a lot of other transplants feel the same way.”
I want to believe that what I said is true. I want to believe that because Austin is not only in Texas, but in the South too, that its true heart will never die. I have a hard time believing that Austinites will let that occur. But what happens if the condos, the transplants with money and any non-Austin ideology continues coming to our city? Do we tell outsiders to leave? Can we even do that? This is a difficult topic for me to talk about because I’m not from Austin and I’ve only lived here for four years, but I feel like it’s my home. Do I not belong here?
Maybe I’m being an alarmist. Festival time in Austin has a tendency to make you feel like you’ve stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone. But like a Twilight Zone episode, maybe the punchline is that the change has already happened.
What are your thoughts on Austin’s growth? Good? Bad? Do you think the city will lose its character?