When POM Magazine asked me to do an interview, I was surprised. To investigate a city in Texas, an American State haunted by the image of cowboys, red-necks and conservatism? Also, I didn’t know anything about Austin. That changed after I interviewed Dutch visual artist, Steef Crombach. She works and lives in Austin and lives the Austin life! In this article she explains what makes Austin so special.
By Klaartje Til
Steef, you have been coming to Austin for a couple of years. Can you tell me about this city?
Austin is the capital of Texas. That is a bit strange since Houston is much bigger. Austin isn’t conservative at all, which is often the case with cities where the government is located. But Austin is very liberal and remarkably different from the rest of Texas. It is sometimes said that people live in their own bubble. That you only meet people who have the same lifestyle and opinion as yourself. In Austin that bubble, and the border of that bubble is palpable and visible. As soon as you drive forty minutes from Austin you find yourself in small villages where you experience conventional Texas. And that’s really the opposite of what you see in Austin.
Why is Austin not like the rest of Texas?
It is both an intellectual and a real tech city, because of the University of Texas Austin with over 50,000 students. So there are a lot of young people. People come to Austin all year round because of the music. People from liberal cities such as New York and San Francisco, travel to Austin. The motto of Austin is: Keep Austin Weird. Today that is not as relevant as it was in the past. Hippies came to Austin, especially during the sixties and seventies. Since then, the music has come to Austin. Most parents of people I know that live here, are still hippies. Of course their children all get that. Buying organic products is normal here. The first branch of the organic supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, started in Austin. And it is still here.
I didn’t know Austin is a big music town.
Bars, restaurants, and hotels are expected to have live music all the time. As a musician you can easily live off your performances. That is why many musicians come to Austin. So the variety of music increases, for which, people come to Austin. It is a circle that holds itself. There are a lot of annual music events such as South-by-South-West and Austin City Limits. And every two weeks there is a free festival called, Blues on the Green, attracting 8,000 visitors. Actually, there are free festivals here almost weekly.
Austin is on the Colorado river. Does that impact the city?
Nature is part of Austin. There are beautiful natural springs with ice cold water and rare salamanders. Barton Spring Pool for example, is a spring that is also a pool which continues to flow into the Colorado River. You can hang out there in the sun all day and sunbathe topless, which is very unusual in America. In general, people in America are very prudent. However, you can’t eat there, just drink water. Next to Barton Springs are the Barking Springs, because you are allowed to take your dog there. You can see the different segments of society lying next to each other, with a small metal fence in between. On one side there is the natural swimming pool with water drinking visitors. On the other side there is a water stream where dogs can walk around and people drink alcohol and play loud music. From these water springs, you can easily row or kayak through the city centre on the Colorado River. You will eventually sail under the Congress Bridge, also called the bat bridge because there are so many bats. So many, that the air turns black when they fly out every evening.
Tell me about the neighbourhoods of Austin. How do they differ from each other?
Until recently, the State Capitol building was the tallest building in Austin, because nothing in the city was allowed to be higher. That rule was abolished ten years ago. So all skyscrapers of the Austin skyline are ten years old or younger. But in general, there are many low-rise buildings in Austin. You often think you are in a bungalow park. Nightlife is in the historic city centre, on East 6th street, with bars that have balconies where you can stand. Near East 6th street is Rainey street. The story goes that a woman once started a bar there in her home. The bar was very successful and the rest of the neighbourhood decided to do the same. So in Rainey street there are residential houses that are now bars. In downtown Austin there are modern apartment buildings with a swimming pool in the courtyard. There are also many, many hotels. They usually have a swimming pool on the top floor. Often, non-guests are allowed to swim in those pools. Just outside the entertainment centre is Clarksville. This is a historic district where most houses are one floor high, have a porch with pillars and huge lawns. In the eastern part of the city, East Austin, people with less money used to lived there, until recently. East Austin is now flooded with galleries, museums and other creative projects that left downtown because of the high rents. Many buildings in East Austin are from the sixties and seventies. The neighbourhood is run down, but the inhabitants paint their houses in all possible colours and sometimes even line it with mosaic. Most young people live a ring further away from the city centre. That is a neighbourhood with a lot of apartment complexes. They are sometimes housed in enormous buildings with a swimming pool and a communal laundry room. Around these complexes a sort of new city centre is created with a large supermarket, shops and a nice park. The Domain is such a centre. These pre-programmed social meeting points don’t work in the Netherlands, but they do in Austin.
Do you notice the cowboy culture in Austin?
There are cowboys in Austin- people riding on horseback and who own a small farm near the historic centre of Austin. There is country-dancing in some bars and saloons. But most cowboys are republicans, think guns and the rough life. But, when is a person a cowboy? I sometimes work in the fields just outside Austin, helping a local brewery. They grow their hop there. Working in the fields you really need to wear long sleeves, long trousers, a hat, gloves and a piece of cloth to cover your nose against the sand and dust. You need to wear high boots because of the snakes. You look like a cowboy wearing functional clothing that protects and is needed for your work.
What do you call a person born and raised in Austin?
An Austinite, and you are only an Austinite if you were born in Austin. Because so many people from other cities moved to Austin, there are not many Austinites. Austinites are calm and down to earth. They will show their true character even though it may be the first time you meet them. There are no courtesies. You don’t have to guess what they mean with what they say. They are friendly people, down to earth, and they have a strong bond with nature.
Illustration: Auke Triesschijn