The end of Austin

Travis Knoll

UT’s American Studies department recently launched a new digital humanities project titled “The End of Austin,” which purports to “explore urban identity in Austin.” For the most part, writers featured in the project are not saying that Austin’s doom is imminent, but wonder if Austin will “lose some of its past charm.” But its title, “The End of Austin,” echoes neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay “The End of History,” in which Fukuyama posited that history was over because the U.S.’s victory following the Cold War represented the pinnacle of global political development.

Some of the contributors to the project are not as happy about their conclusion as Fukuyama was about his.  They fear that “the real Austin” will be consumed by constant growth, its charm lost and its legacy fled to elsewhere. It will become just another sprawling super-metropolis, an L.A. without Hollywood, a New York without Broadway. To save Austin’s brand, it must be “exported” to other outlying cities, lest it be lost forever to the growth machine of consumer capitalism. I disagree: Austin will not simply devolve into a giant suburbia. Even the largest cities are a mix of urban culture and “houses in a box” neighborhoods. 

The larger problem with this premise is that there is no one  “real Austin.” Interestingly, articles appearing in “The End of Austin” make this distinction while still maintaining the idea that the “real Austin” might be on its way out.

Andrew Busch, UT PhD graduate, visiting professor of American Studies at  Miami University and contributor to “The End of Austin,” writes in “An End Both Slow and Urgent: Blackness in Austin” that Austin promoters never mention the consistent black flight from Austin dating back to the 1920s or Austin’s resistance to racial integration in the 1960s. He is correct in that assessment, and the effects of those phenomena are still felt today. The Texan highlighted significant segregation in neighborhoods such as West Campus and Riverside in an article titled “A Tale of Two Neighborhoods,” published on Sep. 14, 2012. While for many college students life in Austin can seem charming, racism is still a part of our city’s cultural legacy.

We see, then, that the idea of Austin having a “golden age” is misguided. The fact is that we cannot define one true Austin, because Austin has historically held many different meanings for its diverse, ever-growing population. Is it the Benson Collection, one of the largest Latin American collections in the world, that makes Austin what it is? Is it 6th Street, with its never-ending Saturday night parties? Is it our live music? Is it student housing cooperatives? Or is it frat parties in West Campus?  Some of the contributors to this project say that there are many Austins that are dying, but if there is no consensus as to what Austin is, I think it would be more prudent say that Austin as a whole is “mixed and changing,” like any other influential cultural hotspot.

Nostalgia is inherently self-defeating. In Woody Allen’s 2011 movie “Midnight in Paris,” the main character is transported to 1920s Paris every night at midnight. After enjoying this surreal universe for a time, he has a confrontation with a French girl to whom he is attracted. He thinks that the 1920s “present” is perfect, while she longs for the days of the 19th century. Allen’s protagonist then realizes that nostalgia is a vicious cycle, which inhibits innovation and adaptation in the present.

We in Austin can learn from this scene. If we refuse to acknowledge our progress alongside our cherished traditions, we will be in a constant state of longing. If we idealize our past, we will be unable to build upon our progress or address historic wrongs and inequalities that continue into the present. We must boldly claim the future, building on our cultural diversity, addressing real threats and affirm that the end of Austin will only come if we buy into fatalism and determinism. Austin is not ending; we have the chance to shape it for the better.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.