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Fear and Loathing on Sixth Street: Does Austin's High-Tech Future Mean Music Is a Thing of the Past?

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Though gentrification and the damage it can wreak on arts districts have been widely detailed for other cities, the way in which Austin, Texas faces a tradeoff between prosperity and creativity has special aspects that are worth examining in detail.
Lindsey Eck

Issue #50, June 2000


Historically, economic boom times bring florescence in music and the arts, whether in the Florence of the Medici, Habsburg Vienna, or the France of Louis XIV. Everywhere, that is, other than fin-de-siècle America, where our uniquely philistine upper class seems to prefer the uniformity of the subdivision to the chaos of bohemia. The upper classes' loyalty to the bourgeois ethic of the party of Jesse Helms and high-tech prosperity has meant lowlife for artists and musicians priced out of living, studio, and rehearsal space from the Big Dig to the Golden Gate. In an irony now so familiar as to be reflexive, young professionals lured by the charm of a boho district wind up crowding out the very nonconformists who gave the neighborhood its character. Apologists for "development" (often mere construction) like to shrug the process off as the result of the invisible hand of the marketplace. But sometimes the hand is all too visible, as newer, conservative residents use zoning and noise restrictions, enforced by neighborhood associations or sympathetic police, to harass artists and other nonconformists, perhaps driven by an inchoate fear of what is different.

Though gentrification and the damage it can wreak on arts districts have been widely detailed for other cities, the way in which Austin, Texas faces a tradeoff between prosperity and creativity has special aspects that are worth examining in detail. Specifically, the business community is characterized by feuding and revenge that often takes precedence over profit in a way most unlike business communities in other population centers such as New York or Los Angeles. The government, while formally democratic, has many aspects of Old South autocracy that, when translated to the national stage, masquerade as the efficient free-market way of the future. And the incredible growth of sprawl around the central city has bypassed the traditional pattern of gentrification. With so many subdivisions sprouting in all directions, Austin as a whole is morphing into a miniature Houston even as its residents fight to maintain the character of the core neighborhoods. Beyond all that, though, the familiar pattern of high tech prosperity crowding out bohemian diversity has resulted in a widely perceived decline in quality of life for Austin. Musicians, already in exile here, wonder if there's any place left where they can crank up the decibels.

Dead Music Capital

Texas, like two-thirds of American states, has a city other than its largest as its capital. Following the lead of Eastern states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, Texas located a capital near the center of population gravity. Until its recent high-tech boom, Austin's economy was based on the state government plus the University of Texas — America's biggest university — along with associated lobbies and nonprofits and other institutions such as the IRS.

Because of its trendy college and relatively liberal cadres of lawyers and civil servants, Austin became a magnet for nonconformists. Musicians, actors, gays and lesbians, political activists, longhairs, drug addicts, New Agers, anyone who felt uncomfortable in the rest of Texas poured into Austin before high-tech ever reared its electronic head.

And what a society they failed to conform with. By now Texas is famous for its enormous prison expansion and unflinching use of the death penalty. The Texas government seems to lack strategies for dealing with most social problems, beyond expanding definitions of criminality and increasing punishment. In such a climate people are less inclined to sing and play, even the blues. Though the GOP is unlikely to come out and declare itself the party that opposes art, the tirades of Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani leave little doubt as to who best represents American philistines. Indeed, a disdain for popular art, whether Ofili, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, or Pulp Fiction is one thing most Republicans — pinstriped Wall Streeters and snake-handlin' evangelicals alike — can agree on. Compared with the Biblical Land of Dallas or the Police Paradise of Houston, Austin managed to buck the state's movement from right to farther right, but lately, the left seems dispirited and the arts community depressed.

The memory of having once been the capital of an independent republic led by super-masculine heroes, and its status as capital of a vast nation-within-a-nation (larger than France, more populous than Australia), are central to Austin's self-image. This hubristic mythos no doubt led the City Council a number of years ago to dub Austin the Live Music Capital of the World, in what was hoped would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were festivals drawing support from the council and a thriving cable channel just for music. New venues kept popping up on Sixth Street, the heart of the music district, and other parts of downtown. In the excitement of being a music capital, few noticed the disappearance of clubs from other parts of Austin, the classic sign of a boom about to bust. The hundreds of clubs were mostly empty, most of the time, and bands frequently played their butts off to go home with $12 each, or nothing at all.

The need to see itself as the "capital" of some kind of music turned out to be a liability for Austin, the way that the title "Imperial" led the German Emperors to overreach in order to justify their claim. Austin's need to be a "capital," despite the more natural claims by New Orleans and Memphis, even within the Blues Belt, led to the expansion of the music infrastructure beyond what the market could bear. When it became clear that Austin could not be a true world capital but merely a vassal of LA and Nashville, depression set in and the city set about becoming a "high-tech capital" instead. Austin could not be a music capital, because people on the coasts held the (economic) capital that first flowed in to create Arista and Warner Discovery offices in town, and then flowed back out and closed the same offices. Now, bigger, badder capital has flowed in via the NASDAQ to create a high-tech economy stoked by low wages, poor protection for workers, and massive tax breaks to draw companies in. With the decline in software stocks, it is probable that Austin's joyride on the Information Superhighway is due to stall. And nothing stokes the inferiority complex that underlies Texans' superficial arrogance more than seeing good times go bust.

For music and other performing arts the boom is bust already, with Sixth Street clubs rapidly reverting to uses other than music, and other elements of the music infrastructure in obvious decline. To cite a few examples:

  • Sixth Street is losing not only the small clubs but the larger, flagship clubs that offered quirky new artists a break. Gone in the past year or so are four major venues: Steamboat, the Hang 'Em High Saloon, Liberty Lunch, and the Electric Lounge. Gone too are the Bob Popular complex that offered up to three stages at once, the psychedelic White Rabbit, the grungy punk venue Bates Motel, even the Coffee Connection that gave acoustic acts a place on Sixth.
  • Various festivals have declined in quality and attendance or gone out of business altogether. After decades of tradition, Aquafest finally succumbed to chronic money losses. Similarly, the Old Settlers' Festival overreached with excessive ticket prices and has been forced to scale back its talent, while moving from the park in suburban Round Rock that gave the festival its name to the newly "developing" suburb of Dripping Springs.
  • Two major labels, Arista and Warner Discovery, closed their branch offices. Watermelon Records, a respected indie, went belly-up last year with unfortunate economic consequences to local artists still under contract.

Boom-and-bust cycles aggravate Texans' already overgrown tendency toward hierarchical social relations, which is reinforced by the high proportion of leaders drawn from the armed forces and college sports. When Texas is "on top," the mood becomes manic as the winners revel not merely in freedom from being bossed, but in being the boss. When the flood of money becomes a drought, depression sets in as the "winners" are revealed as being mere dependents after all. Bust times inevitably recall repressed myths of gallant cavalry laid low by Northern treachery and an economy ravaged by carpetbaggers and scalawags. The Confederate myth is just an update of the older feudal schema, in which society is arranged as a pyramidal hierarchy. Similar thinking leads to absurd disputes such as "Should Austin emulate LA, or Nashville?" as if one must be enfeoffed to a single overlord. For many Austinites, if they could not be a Live Music Capital, then there was no fun in being a Live Music Center. Now Les Pauls are out, Beemers are in, and the city is off on a new manic quest for capital status, this time in the conformist world of high-tech.

The conversion of large parts of the economy from education and public administration to chip manufacturing and speculative dot-coms has affected the local cultural community in a number of ways. For one thing, geeks prefer forms of entertainment other than live music and art (such as Web surfing and video games). And there is also a new approach to city planning that privileges the vast complexes and smaller but dehumanized industrial parks preferred by such businesses, and encourages typical suburban land use (i.e. sprawl). These spaces are built so that those who work in the industrial zones can buzz by car from subdivision to plant to mall and back without ever realizing they live in a city of nearly a million people.

We Are Devo

"Development" is the Newspeak term for the sprawlification that is gobbling the Southwest faster than kudzu can devour the Southeast. But the word "development" implies that the resulting structures are of value, that what is built in some way improves the site. "Development" is a term preferred by those who call cookie-cutter tract houses "homes." What Austin suffers from is not development but mere construction. There is constant and ecologically devastating construction everywhere, while development is confined to a few show projects. Indeed, the destruction of neighborhood businesses that are being replaced by franchises (a flower/coin shop/deli into Walgreens, a beloved grad student hangout into Starbucks, an African-American-owned fish-and-chips shop into Jack in the Box) represents a sort of anti-development trend, a devolution Slurbs 'R Us.

Downtown Austin is remarkably well planned. The grid follows the plan of capitals around the world in having major avenues named for features of the domain it rules, in this case the rivers of Texas, for which the north-south streets are named. The east-west streets are numbered. In the heart of the city, the existence of the largely unbroken grid leads to much better traffic flow than amid the concrete spaghetti of North Austin.

The further one ventures away from the central city, the more the chaotic blandness of suburban sprawl takes over, without landmarks such as the Capitol dome or the UT tower that give different parts of the core city their character. Despite the best intentions of a self-proclaimed green City Council, development over the past decade has turned mile after mile of picturesque countryside into a depressing corporate monotony. This monotony is indistinguishable from Houston or Dallas and notably lacking in public space, other than megachurches where you can sweat in a jacuzzi following your dose of fire and brimstone. In short, Art-Free Zones.

Fear is one motive in the replacement of open grid with secluded pods. Relocation to the new bedroom communities may be motivated less by love of suburbia than fear of crime. And crime in the inner city is all too real, as I discovered most painfully when both my legs were pierced by a 9 mm round from one of those "would-be assailants" I never thought I'd run into in real life. Oddly, I experienced little fear at the time, more a sense of inevitability following a summer of sniper incidents in this crack-infested East Austin turf that I was able to compare with Sarajevo, which was also sniper-infested at the time. The shootings in Sarajevo and the shootings in our neighborhood tracked each other rather closely, except that CNN was covering Bosnia but nobody was covering us. After this painful body piercing, I too moved out, but not to suburbia. (I moved out of Austin altogether and I remain a farm dweller with a long commute to this day.) Austin is awash in guns, legal and illegal, and paranoia is rife in neighborhoods of all classes and ethnicities.

payola

Housing type and availability has a direct effect on whether typically underpaid artists and musicians can find a place to live. High tech has brought wages for its workers (often paid in overvalued stock, hence subject to sudden downturns) that are inflated compared to wages earned by the longer-standing force of state and university workers, let alone those earned by hand-to-mouth artists. High-flying techies have gobbled up luxury apartments faster than they can be built, while builders see little incentive to invest in affordable units.

The pattern is familiar nationwide, even if Austin's peculiar attitudes and traditions aggravate the process. Increasingly, social critics and urban geographers have argued that the traditional city plan, with each neighborhood serving many needs in a compact, walkable area, offer valuable opportunities for civic life and artistic expression. In contrast, the plan used by most American developers today presents single-use residential neighborhoods dependent on auto transportation to shop in single-use malls, with a loss of civic and performance space. In latter-20th-century development, there is no village green, no bohemian quarter, and no farmers' market. People are reduced to spectators of television and consumers of goods; there is simply no space in such "communities" for self-expression, and irrational exuberance is a phenomenon of the stock market, not the rock-n-roll stage.

The case that Sunbelt-style sprawl is destructive to civil society, unproductive culturally, and economically unsustainable is made and illustrated in a new book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck (North Point Press, 2000). It is excerpted in a recent "FEED Special Report: Sprawl of America." The authors assert that only two models of planning are known to be possible in the United States, traditional and sprawl, and only the traditional one is healthy. Unfortunately, building the traditional neighborhood (like Austin's downtown including Sixth Street, or its Hyde Park residential neighborhood) is not even legal under today's typical zoning ordinances. The authors note that such well-known tourist destinations like Boston's Beacon Hill or Santa Fe, New Mexico, exist in direct violation of current zoning ordinances. Even Main Street, the classical American mixed-use thoroughfare, is now illegal in most municipalities. As the authors conclude, at some point in postwar America, traditional towns became a crime.

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent, and comprehensive. Its performance is largely predictable. It is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living. Unfortunately, this system is already showing itself to be unsustainable. Unlike the traditional neighborhood, sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation.

One familiar with oncology might make an analogy with healthy vs. cancerous tissue. Healthy tissue is differentiated into a community of symbiotic but diverse cells, each with its own function. Tumors contain a mass of rapid-growing but undifferentiated cells, just as north-central Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood offers a diverse mix of residences, small businesses, museums, parks, and churches whereas newer subdivisions such as those around Jollyville and US183 are homogeneous masses of bloated single-family dwellings. The subdivisions, metastasizing like neoplasms all over Austin, resemble sarcomas, bladder-shaped with a single outlet to a major "artery."

The sprawlification of Austin is intimately connected with the decline of its music industry. Suburban residential areas and shopping malls offer few places for rehearsal, performance, or recording studios, and as even the suitable downtown spaces become coveted for high-tech production, music finds itself homeless. The redefinition of downtown Austin from a space for creative nonconformity into a sterile environment more suited to computers than composers has begun.

It is no accident that Sixth Street and other downtown entertainment areas have prospered in a grid. The availability of multiple parallel alternate routes keeps traffic flowing; the relative pedestrian-friendliness encourages club-hopping; the mixed use buildings and nearby apartments allow easy access to downtown without a hellish drive. The democratic aspirations of those who laid out this downtown are symbolized by the great Capitol dome overlooking the whole of downtown from just a few blocks away at Congress Avenue and Eleventh.

Compare the Jollyville/US183 area. In contrast to the micro-planning for the entertainment district, planning for the city's outskirts (and the city increasingly consists of "outskirts") is at a macro level. It is focused mainly on transportation, which for now means highways and maybe, someday, will mean limited light rail. This area lacks a grid or any discernible pattern. It also suffers from the Balkanization of residential areas into discrete pods that communicate with each other only via massive roadways. The decline of community is enforced by the street layout, which presupposes auto transportation, individual shopping trips, work in industrial parks, and passive entertainment, i.e. television. Even the rows and rows of new motels seldom offer a lounge where one can catch a band.

Over the past forty years, city boosters have depicted the most mundane commerical activities with adjectival abandon. A style of business writing has emerged that transforms single-mindely avaricious real estate developers into characters from a Raymond Chandler novel. This literature of urban capitalism has transmogrified the image of the organization man from a depressing and pathetic white male figure to one who is not only exciting and sexy but one whom women and minorities demand the right to emulate. Similarly, we no longer frown over the banalities of suburbia, but nod thoughtfully at Joel Garreau's claim that suburban "edge cities" are the most conscious attempt that Americans have made since the days of the nation's founding to create something like a new Eden.
 
The idea that God's work has finally been successfully replicated by suburban real estate developers is challenged by the lives and perceptions of ordinary citizens, most of whom think in terms of jobs, friends, and communities, not commercial markets and their regions. It also is markedly out of sync with the literature of more personal urban experience, ranging from Theodore Dreiser to Ice-T. Or with the stories we tell each other.
— Sam Smith, "Saving the City From Itself," in the Progressive Review

Zoned Out

If abstract economic forces can be blamed for the contraction of much of Austin's musical infrastructure, declining support by the supposedly progressive City Council deserves credit as well. Compared to the Council of four years ago, the current lineup of Smart Growth advocates seem to equate Smart with Nerdy. Music, by implication, is just plain Dumb.

Take the Austin Music Network. For years the city government maintained this special community-access channel, despite money losses, as a form of support for the local music community. Many artists who never succeeded in breaking the city's formidable print-publicity barrier were able to place videos in rotation on the music channel, which was carried free on cable television throughout the city. However, the changing Council, despite public rallies in support of the Network, has sought to privatize it, cutting funding and inviting commercial sponsors. Musicians cynically note the gigantic tax abatements the city offers to high tech firms, as compared with the piddling sums it is willing to invest in its pool of thousands of young artists.

The recent forcible closure of the venerable Liberty Lunch — the only midsize venue adequate for smaller national touring acts — shows how the immolation of Sixth Street may result from the intolerance of supposedly liberal city planners. A thriving music venue did not fit with the Council's plans to sterilize the architectural environs of the planned new City Hall. On the Lunch site, the story goes, will arise a new software plant belonging to Computer Sciences Corp. The problem is that the corporation has no signed agreement with the city, just a verbal understanding. Call it Fear of Music masquerading as Love of Technology.

If the music district gets no help from the liberals on the Council, worse yet are the conservatives at the state level, such as Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, recently elected in place of a Democrat on the slogan, "She's one tough grandma." Much was made in the local press about Rylander's one-night closure of Antone's, a downtown club whose legendary owner faces serious federal drug-trafficking charges. The closure was an attempt to force payment of the club's state taxes, which are considerable and which are technically due in advance of the revenues on which they are based, though this provision has not always been enforced in such a "tough" fashion. A journalist tells me the press has ignored some dozen other clubs also shaken down by Rylander in the same incident. Why Antone's was singled out for press coverage is not clear. One wonders whether a high-tech firm, or even one of our many new Starbucks, would be summarily closed until it could cough up back taxes in the same way that music clubs are targeted. One suspects that patrons who had their evening's entertainment interrupted by a tax raid might not come back as often.

The feeling that the city government is out to get musicians is exacerbated by the obsessive policing of the downtown music district by cops armed with decibel (dB) meters, ready to shut down acts that exceed 80 dB, as measured from the street outside a club's front door. Parking near a rear entrance to unload equipment is also frequently singled out for special harassment. Sometimes it seems the downtown music zone was created not just for "planning" but to ensure control, to keep the troublemakers in one place, like a red light district. (The city has several of those, but not downtown.)

High-Tech Future?

On 25 March 2000 the Austin American-Statesman carried a front-page story about Intel Corporation's choice of a new downtown site, at Fifth and Nueces, for a chip-development office. Mayor Kirk Watson, the story states, had urged Intel to locate downtown rather than in a more environmentally sensitive area. The site is near the former Liberty Lunch and Electric Lounge sites. The sterile world of high-tech is suitable for proximity to the new City Hall, but not the unruly world of rock'n'roll.

With Intel colonizing downtown for the high-tech industry, it remains to be seen whether such uses will swamp the entertainment district, or whether geeks will buy the occasional ticket and keep venues alive that otherwise might go under. I suspect neither will be the case. As evidenced by the recent negative auditor's report on Austin-based drkoop.com, the software industry may be built just on dreams of being a "high-tech capital" rather than on any foundation capable of making money. Further, it is not often remarked that the infusion of millions of dollars — raised nationally — into the Austin economy by Gov. Bush's campaign for President is artificially inflating this year's performance. Whether the Governor wins or loses, those campaign funds will dry up after November. (The kinds of people spending the money have much to do with the new chic of conservatism in town and the disfavor of forms of art not endorsed by the Christian Right allies of Bush.) Barring a miracle, look for 2001 to see high-tech shrink just as the music hysteria began to around 1998.

So long as Austin insists on living according to a myth in which it must play the role of "capital," it is doomed to suffer hubristic booms followed by nihilistic busts. This kind of laissez-faire economics purports to represent the free market necessary for post-industrial capitalism, but its practical application in Texas looks like old-fashioned manipulation of resources for the gain of a powerful few in the best tradition of plantation hierarchy and hacienda exploitation. As more and more Texans pull our nation's political levers, men like Tom DeLay and Bill Archer, and perhaps President George W. Bush, Americans would do well to realize that what Texas portrays as the cutting edge of capitalism may be the retrograde drag of feudal thinking.

Lindsey Eck is a writer, composer, musician, and scholar who lives in Central Texas.

Collage by Dani Eurynome.

Copyright © 2000 by Lindsay Eck. Collage 2000 by Dani Eurynome. All rights reserved.

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