Is Austin Really Still Keeping It Weird?

Jul 28, 2016

This story is part of our ATXplained project, which answers questions from our audience. In this edition, we tackle a question from Nisha Bagepalli: "Where did the phrase 'Keep Austin Weird' come from? And is Austin REALLY all that weird anymore?" 

"Keep Austin Weird." The phrase is printed on T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters; it's part of Austin's national reputation.

But, it seems that for every pocket of weird, there's a new corporate chain from California moving in. Some residents say that the city’s losing its unique weirdness; some lament that it’s already gone. Then again, there are others who say the weirdness is alive and well.

So, is Austin really still keeping it weird? In this edition of our ATXplained series, we’ll present the evidence for both sides of the argument.

But first: the origin of "Keep Austin Weird."

It happened long ago — in 2000. Local librarian Red Wassenich was at home listening to the radio when he got inspired to pick up the phone.

Red Wassenich, pictured at HOPE Outdoor Gallery. Wassenich came up with the phrase "Keep Austin Weird" in 2000.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

"I was making a donation to your rival radio station KOOP during my favorite show, the Lounge Show, which is still on. And the person taking the call said, ‘Why are you donating to this?’ And I said, ‘Well, it helps keep Austin weird.’ And the phrase clicked in my head. And I said that to my wife and she said, ‘Well, let's get bumper stickers made,’ which she did. And I got the website keepaustinweird.com, and it very slowly took off."

It caught on slowly until about two years later, when a couple of local businesses wielded the message as a weapon. That's when the saying went from highlighting the town's cute and quirky side to warning big chain stores to back off Austin's local businesses.

The battle had Waterloo Records and Book People up against Borders Books and Music. The one-time national chain got city incentives to move into a giant development across the street from the two Austin retail institutions near Sixth Street and Lamar. But just as all hope seemed lost, Wassenich said, the local stores came up with a plan.

"They tacked on 'Support Local Business' to 'Keep Austin Weird' and started giving out bumper stickers — and they won. The city backed off, and Borders didn't build, and of course it has totally gone out of business. So, I think 'Keep Austin Weird' can take credit for putting Borders out of business."

Amazon might have played a larger role in Borders' demise, but anyway ...

From there it was off to the races. T-shirts bearing the phrase "Keep Austin Weird" began popping up in various local businesses around town, showcasing the slogan while marketing the businesses.

For Waterloo and Book People, it made such a difference that the owners began preaching the gospel of keeping it weird to other cities.

"So these other places have kind of adopted it with the idea of supporting local business. So … Johnny Appleseed," Wassenich said.

That explains why other cities, like Portland, Ore., also use it. But Wassenich said don't be confused: It originated here, and only here, with his call to KOOP radio.

That's how it all began. But, is Austin still keeping it weird?

Obviously, the question really can't be answered with a simple yes or no. After all, weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. So instead of trying to draw some kind of scientific conclusion, I thought we'd hold a debate on the topic and give people from the pro and con sides a chance to lay out their arguments. The debaters will focus on three types of issues: size, opportunity and meaning.

Size: Is Austin outgrowing its weirdness?

Has Austin's size and rapid growth taken away any and all chance for weirdness?

Karen Richards owns Nature's Treasures, the largest metaphysical rock store in the country. Her 14,000-square-foot campus includes minerals, rocks and crystal bowls and, she says, is "full of weirdness."  

“The crystal bowls are actually silica, which is quartz, and they heat it and spin it," Richards said. "Originally, supposedly, the crystal bowls were created during the Atlantean time."
 

Crystal bowls, like the ones forged in Atlantis — the mythical island said to be submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean. That's definitely weird. But Austin's weird doesn't stop with her metaphysical mega-store, Richards said.

“I don't think Austin getting any larger makes it any different. We just get weirder."

"I don't think Austin getting any larger makes it any different. We just get weirder."

Daniel Calise disagrees. I found him after putting out a call for dissenters on Twitter. He said the city's rapid growth has overwhelmed some of its essential weirdness. The Lanier High School teacher and New York native has been here a couple of years. He used to live in L.A., but fell in love with Austin while visiting friends and decided to move here. One example of the city's waning weirdness, he said, is Rainey Street.

"Something that could have been seen as weird years ago: ‘Wow! Houses converted into bars, how unique.’ Meanwhile, now it's just home to huge apartment complexes being developed, gridlock with ride-sharing cabs. Everyone knows about it, so it's far less weird." 

Revelers at Eeyore's Birthday in 2014. The party, held each year in April at Pease Park, is known for outrageous costumes and booming drum circles. It's been held annually for more than 50 years.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

It's hard to deny that some of the original quaint features of the town are disappearing or are long-since paved over. But the pro-weird side argues there are still plenty of traditional Austin events. They point to Eeyore's Birthday: The annual festival at Pease Park has drum circles, body painting, music and drugs. So, absolutely weird.

But as the city has grown, has the party become harder to enjoy?

Calise argues that the city's growth has made it impossible to enjoy Eeyore's Birthday or just about anything else unique in the city anymore.

“I rode my bike through there this past year, and people were packed in like sardines. I mean, everyone's in line for everything here, and that makes it far less weird. People line up for a $5 doughnut in Austin. Nothing weird about that."

Juggling and acrobatics at the 2014 Eeyore's Birthday party.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Opportunity: If you seek out the weird, can you find it?

If things that define Austin's quirkiness, like Eeyore's Birthday or the annual kite festival, have become unenjoyable because of the crowds, are there other weird things to do?

Calise said that while there are plenty of things to do, they're not weird things. Take the annual Republic of Texas Biker Rally, he said:

A biker at the 2016 Republic of Texas Biker Rally.
Credit Charlotte Carpenter / KUT

"That doesn't inspire weirdness – quite the opposite. That's where normal people go, or tough guys go, to look tough, and if you're going to be weird in that area, you're going to be looked at as strange. And that's the opposite of Austin being weird to me."

Richards said Calise isn't looking hard enough.

"You obviously haven't been here long. I mean, every weekend there's some kind of event that's really outside of the box going on, if you just get online and ask around and pay attention."

Some of these things can be harder to find. But yes, if you look at some of the community bulletin boards around town, you'll find ads for plenty of things: fire dancers, sitar lessons, a whole range of metaphysical activities. Richards said the weird is out there, you just have to want it.

Red Wassenich's book, "Keep Austin Weird," based on the catch phrase he helped popularize.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Meaning: Has the phrase 'Keep Austin Weird' lost its relevance?

Calise said there are plenty of reasons to argue the phrase has lost all its meaning. Calise has been a pedicab driver – a job he refuses to concede is weird – off and on during his two years here.

As a pedicab driver, he said he hears people say "Keep Austin Weird" all the time, but for all the wrong reasons.

"What that's turned into is just something that a drunk bachelorette shouts from the back of a pedicab. 'Keep Austin Weird Baby!' What does that mean to you at 2 a.m. in a pedicab? It's not true in essence anymore. It's just a catch phrase."

He said there are other examples of weirdness that have lost their meaning.

The iconic "Hi How Are You" mural, painted on the Drag in Austin by Daniel Johnston, now decorates the outside of a Thai restaurant. The mural was also recently defaced with red spraypaint, as pictured.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Take the iconic Daniel Johnston mural on the Drag, Jeremiah the Innocent, aka the "Hi How Are You" frog.

"I mean you ask nine out of 10 people in Austin, and they have no idea who that is. In fact they probably prefer the 'I Love You So Much' mural, as part of the new corporate and expensive SoCo area. And there’s no cultural significance to that mural. It's just a place where people take selfies."

Sammi Curless, who moved here with her husband from Phoenix in 2015, said she agrees the soul of the city is under pressure.

"It's at a crossroads that I don’t think I realized before. It fights really hard to be a very small, very locally-focused community, which I love. But it's got very urban problems, if you think about transportation, you think about the social issues, you think about the income inequality and the demographic challenges that Austin has."

"It's at a crossroads that I don't think I realized before. It fights really hard to be a very small, very locally-focused community, which I love. But it's got very urban problems."

But she said the city is still weird, because there are still people here open for whatever.

"I spend a lot of time on the Lady Bird Lake trail, and just all the different kind of walks of life that I see, clothed, not clothed. It's just kind of like….okay…alright. It's...the freedom that people feel to go out in public and do whatever it is they want to do. I just have to grin and kind of chuckle and say, 'Oh, that's Austin.'"

Calise just doesn't see it that way. In fact, he's leaving Austin. Two years, he said, was enough. He's heading to Philadelphia, a town he admits isn't weird at all. But, as if he's trying to burn bridges, Calise had one final shot at Austin: He said it's becoming too much like L.A.

"So many comparisons to L.A.: the fitness lifestyle, the beauty, the glamor. It is here, just like L.A."

HOPE Outdoor Gallery on Baylor Street.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Both sides of the argument present good points. But before you pass judgment, let's visit again with the man who coined the phrase "Keep Austin Weird," Red Wassenich.

He presented as an example of ongoing weirdness the graffiti park known as the HOPE Outdoor Gallery on Baylor Street.

"This is a wonderful graffiti park. This is an example of something that's relatively new. People say, 'Oh, all the weird stuff stuff's gone.' Well, this is new."

Sure, he's invested in the "Keep Austin Weird" movement. He even wrote a book on it a few years back, with a new edition released this year called "Keeping Austin Weird" – a guide to the city’s remaining odd spots. But he knows it's hard to hold on to that vibe as the city grows. Even the graffiti park is fleeting.

"You get a lot of, for lack of a better word, everyday people who are weirdos. You know, a guy who is a motorcycle repairman who plays in a band and does strange sculptures with bottle caps. Accountants who collect mannequins. You know, whatever."

"This is probably going to be developed — almost undoubtedly is. And just right across the street, there are new condos going up. But there are plans to…recreate [HOPE Outdoor Gallery] in another spot. So the idea's not going to go away, hopefully. This particular spot may."

He worries about the cost of living forcing artists out of the city, but he said it's not just those full-time contributors to Austin's vibe that make the city what it is.

"You get a lot of, for lack of a better word, everyday people who are weirdos. You know, a guy who is a motorcycle repairman who plays in a band and does strange sculptures with bottle caps. Accountants who collect mannequins. You know, whatever. That's cool in Austin, whereas in other places they might be looked at a bit askance. Here, they're celebrated."

He said as long as those everyday weirdos can find a way to survive some of the dramatic changes in Austin, the city will be fine — and weird.

And, Austin has one other trait that might help keep it weird: It's surrounded by the rest of Texas. This idea comes from a long-time Austin weirdo, John Kelso. You may have read in the Statesman that Kelso has had his voicebox removed because of cancer, leaving the curmudgeonly, sarcastic, quick-witted and brutally honest voice silent.

But just a couple weeks before his surgery he texted me about this story. Here's what he wrote:

"Austin is weird by Texas standards. We appreciate unusual art, like the tower of junk, which in Lubbock would be considered, well, junk. We made an icon out of a man who stood in the center of town nearly bare-assed naked. Leslie has a plaque in his honor on Sixth Street, like Davy Crockett or something. We read a lot of books. If you've got fingers in this town you play guitar in a band. So if that's weird, we still are."

So, I'm sorry Nisha, I don't know that I was able to answer your question. I guess all I can say is, at least we're not Portland.

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