Friday, December 7, 2007

Irony of Ironies of Ironies of Ironies of

So I read this letter to the editor in one of the local (Portland) publications, The Bollard:
For many years, Portland successfully maintained a level of independence from the big boxy, corporate hogomony [sic], which is expanding to cover nearly every town in America. But our precious holdout has begun to change. Recently we have see the loss of local businesses that were integral to Portland's character, such as Free State Taverna, Acoustic Coffee, the State Theatre, The Skinny (which struggles to find space to reopen in), and Casco Bay Books. In turn, we have new neighbors -- Wild Oats, Whole Foods, Lowe's, and another Starbucks -- as well as condominiums and potential private waterfront development.
Why is this ironic? Because when I moved to Austin in the fall of 1993 for graduate school, I remember reading many such letters in the Austin Chronicle, though the writers were angry, pissed that the Austin they loved was gone. It's nothing now like it was in 1973, and I hate it, they wrote; it's ruined, you've ruined it, and I'm leaving. I remember flocks of such letters in the mid 1990s, flocks that dwindled away, then one day had disappeared entirely. Everyone who couldn't stand griping had left, leaving everyone else behind to gripe and see if they couldn't get up at least one or two more rungs.

As for me, I didn't care; in 1993, Austin seemed like heaven to me. It was relative, of course: I'd just come from a year in rural New Hampshire, living with my parents, doing odd house-sitting gigs, commuting to Boston, and just about dying of isolation and boredom. This after 2 years in Taiwan of high-pressure cultural difference, language learning, and teaching. Austin was warm and had a huge library, plus bookstores, two things I'd missed in Taiwan. The majority of people spoke good English. Plus, Austin gave me a place. Not only a job, but tasks; not only a path, but paths. It gave me venues on which to hang my identity. The university folded me into its bosom, a graduate student who was poor and powerless, true. But you could ride your bike around! The women, oh god, the women were lovely! Lots of places to sit outside and drink cold beer! Parties, oh god, the parties. Nearly every book you'd ever need was there. Occasionally I'd go on long road bike rides to the northeast, to Manor and beyond, where you could find the edge of the city quickly and find yourself in sorghum and cotton fields, as if you'd ridden fast and hard and ended up in Nebraska. Then I got a car and a girlfriend who lived South, which opened up a whole new part of Austin, as if I'd moved to a whole new city ripe for exploring. You could get to all the parts of the city in less than 20 minutes by car then, any time of day. So by 2000 or so I was still high on Austin. People who complained, let them complain, I figured. They were old hippies who couldn't reconcile themselves that the dream of the Age of Aquarius was over and gone. Their disillusion had nothing to do with Austin and everything to do with American history.

Early in 2007, when I started thinking about moving from Austin, and began persuading my wife that it was a good idea, I thought back to those letters to the Chronicle back in 1993 and 94, how those writers felt about the city, and how I feel now compared to all the people showing up for whom this is their Shangri-La, moving as they have from Los Angeles or San Jose or New York. Let 'em have it, I think bitterly. There's a big difference between me and those letter writers, though. They were nostalgic for an Austin of 15 years earlier. Me, I'm nostalgic for Austin of 2005.

I used to live off of Manor Road, on Breeze Terrace, at a time when Hoover's was the big new brash restaurant and what is now El Chile was an empty husk, waiting for the next in a string of to-be failed coffee shops. So when El Chilito went in 5 years later, that was a big deal. At the time I lived in Windsor Park, and El Chilito became the "local" place, even though going there meant driving, and in nothing of a direct fashion. I used to think that the day that Barton Springs closes to swimmers is the day that the heart of Austin dies and I leave. But in 2007, the day that I called El Chilito to place an order and was put on hold for 10 minutes, then drove by and saw a line of people a dozen deep, was the day I reached my personal limit. You think it's going to be a big symbolic thing: Barton Springs closes, the Broken Spoke closes. But no, actually it's very quiet and personal, that limit. Less like a bone breaking than a fingernail.

The writer from Portland (who sports an old Maine name, I notice) didn't threaten to leave the city; her letter becomes a rant about the politics of food more than the politics of place. But it was still amusing to show up in a new city that I couldn't be more thrilled with -- I can ride my bike around! There's a yoga studio a mile away! We walk the dog on the waterfront -- offleash! -- and to see that someone else was mourning, and dealing with, but mainly mourning the evolution of a place. Now I'm less dismissive of people who want to do that. But I mourn the fact that if you want to stay in a place you're going to mourn, mourn, mourn, and that the only way to be free of mourning is to move away.

1 comment:

Chris Trew said...

I got to Austin in 2005 - I read/hear stories like this all the time and I'm terrified of it ever happening to me.