Even with explosive building and population influx, Austin retains its signature self. If only SXSW could find a way to do the same.
So I lived in Austin for a while. Five and a half years, to be exact. And on my very first year there, back in 2007, a friend said I should check out a film at the SXSW festival before heading home to Denver for Spring Break.
(As a teacher, I had the serendipitous luxury of a built-in week off every March, and a week that purposefully coincided with the massive cultural explosion of SXSW).
I thought, why not? And so we went to a Friday night premiere showing at Austin’s prize theater, The Paramount.
No badges. No wristbands. No VIP connections. And yet, we still got tickets and sat in velvet-cushioned balcony chairs, watching a moderately funny comedy that never did get picked up for later distribution.
Such a feat would be impossible now. A Friday night premiere at the Paramount? Without waiting in line for hours, badge on, chest out, legs creaky from all that immobile standing? Absolutely never would such a thing happen.
In the SXSW of old’s place is a corporate-blitz of mega-dollar companies. I partially blame the addition of SXSW Interactive, a fun idea, to be sure. But since it became a part of the festival, the tech portion has eaten up lots of the film buzz, and cut into the music portion too.
Film & Music: those are the twin legs that made SXSW the quirky, intimate, lovable chaos of a great festival in the first place.
Now, you’re way more likely to run into a freak genius coder than a freak genius trombonist.
At any rate, I hadn’t been to SXSW in a few years. Baby + international move + second baby = not much time for the festival lifestyle.
But last weekend, my husband surprised me with a plane ticket back to Austin, to visit my friends and bum around town with the copious SXSW tourist crowd. And wow oh wow…
The city has changed.
Skyline? Completely different, filled now with gleaming, glass high-rises. Town Lake? Manicured, landscaped, new boardwalk, new rowing center. Rainey Street, where the tech festival makes its home?
Let me tell you something. When I lived in Austin, there were approximately two house bars on Rainey Street, no apartment complexes, no hotel, and residents actually lived in the ranch homes that now serve only as boutique beer gardens and jewelry stores.
The city is almost unrecognizable. But I say almost because the glorious thing about Austin – the really shiny gem of truth – is that it happens to be one of those rare cities that changes its newcomers more than the other way around.
I know a lot of Californians have moved in, not to mention hundreds of outlying Texans. One of my local friends said a buzz phrase circling the city over the past few years has been, “Don’t Dallas my Austin.”
But the remarkable (joyous!) observation from me?
Newcomers seem pretty much Austin-ized.
Laid back. Friendly. Open. Social. Active.
The best way I’ve heard my old hometown described is as America’s urban front porch.
And I’m happy to say that while SXSW may have become bigger, richer, and more corporate, that while Rainey Street may have lost its quirky residential vibe, that while the traffic may have gotten to be more LA…
The city spirit remains the same.
If only SXSW could get back to its eccentric roots. “Don’t LA my SX?” Maybe that could catch on…
Photo: Flickr/jenn tx