Friday, August 19, 2011

Keeping it Weird

I have not been to Austin, Texas. In fact, other than brief visits to Houston and to Dallas for conferences, I’ve never really been to Texas. I don’t necessarily have anything against Texas, just didn’t have any real reason to go there. After reading the book “Weird City” by Joshua Long, I might feel inclined to visit Austin sometime. I had heard that Austin was a city known for its music (well, OK, I knew that from watching “Austin City Limits” in my youth). I did not know it was also famous for fighting the homogenization that’s running rampant through the country. Having seen several, formerly unique places, end up looking anything but unique, I was intrigued enough to read the book.

The book’s title refers to the “Keep Austin Weird” phenomenon that began with kitchen table discussions among Austinites concerned that the city was losing its character due to an influx of newcomers. What attracted many of these newcomers was the city’s reputation as supporting the cool, the creative, the bohemian. These Austinites were concerned that those coming to the city to appreciate that uniqueness were diluting that very uniqueness and thus the city would fall to homogenization and gentrification.

As the book describes, that group began to distribute “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers and it became the rallying cry for fighting developments perceived as threatening the soul of the city. Since, in addition to a strong sense of place, Austin also had a strong tradition of civic engagement, these efforts worked. The book also describes how the “Keep Austin Weird” motto was co-opted (and copyrighted) by a group that used it to promote local businesses and has sprouted up as Keep Boulder Weird, Keep Portland Weird, etc. It also describes that the feeling was not unanimous. There were others in Austin who used the mottoes “Help Austin Grow Up” and “Make Austin Normal.” But overall the story seems to be one of a city capitalizing on its unique character and resisting the tendency to look like every other city.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in a case study of the power of sense of place. It’s a spin-off from Long’s PhD thesis but is an easy read, told in story format (some chapters have an academic tone but readers are warned in advance of those chapters and they are not essential to following the story – as an academic I appreciated those chapters). The book also includes a nice summary of the concepts of how cities evolve and references to the ongoing work of those who study cities and help cities develop (such as Richard Florida who promotes the ‘attract the creative class’ strategy).

Here in my area, we need to develop the sense of place further. We have those who think that a mark of ‘arriving’ as an area is to have a new big box store or national chain restaurant and that otherwise we’re a cultural backwater. “Weird City” doesn’t provide specific advice about how to help build a sense of place, but does provide good background on what sense of place is and isn’t and what it can do for a town. It also shows that preserving what’s already good about a place can be good for a place’s economy and doesn’t mean that the place has to be frozen in time. Those are good lessons for many areas.

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