Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.
You can buy a t-shirt in Austin that reads "Keep Austin Weird," but that's about as far as it goes nowadays. What made Austin magical and weird was that it was a vortex of creativity. Musicians, writers, artists, potters, carpenters, weavers, singers, dancers...(the list goes on and one)...lived in central Austin in old Craftsman houses, converted garages, rooms above bars and restaurants, and had people over for parties. When I say parties, I mean once a week for a potluck music jam or writers discussion. Supported by the local community, the artists in turn supported the 50-year old hamburger joints and Mexican restaurants. If someone asked you to meet them at Las Manitas, you knew where to go. Now that's a memory crushed under a high-rise office building.
In "weird" Austin, architects turned houses into restaurants without demolishing any part of the structure. And in one instance turned a house built on speculation into a great music venue. Old stores and warehouses were refurbished into coffee houses that had open mics and play readings, live music, and fundraising events. Liberty Lunch, a music venue in a former warehouse, sold beer only and sold it out of ice tubs. It was the first of the downtown establishments to go. Demolished. You can enjoy a glass and steel building instead and perhaps a latte from a coffee chain store. Not so weird.
Borinquin was a restaurant on South Congress that after the last dinner was served, pushed the tables and chairs to the side of the room so patrons could dance to live salsa music. Zona Rosa, Ruta Maya, Capitol City Playhouse, housed in 19th century buildings downtown -- all gone. Broken Spoke the most well-known country-western club in Austin used to be surrounded by countryside and now is nestled in a u-turn of concrete real estate. Offices, I presume.
The ramshackle little Victorian houses on Rainey Street with their burgeoning, overgrown gardens is where one of the producers of "Slacker" lived. Now they are chic bars. I can imagine a realtor getting the commercial permit and turning one house into a bar so as to drive the whole neighborhood out.
On a Saturday night recently I drove from Hwy 71 north on Congress Avenue, passing through what realtors dubbed "SOCO" a decade ago for newcomers, a term that Austinites use with the sound of quotations in their voices. South Congress looked like someone kicked an anthill - people everywhere covering the sidewalks and crossing the streets. And for what? Food trucks, an assortment of restaurants. Nothing special.
You can't buy an artistic temperament, like some kind of smoothie with exotic fruit, but you can sell it out. The people that made Austin livable and cool are pushed out now, leaving a soulless commerciality in which the closest people come to that artistic temperament is wearing clothes that look like they just slept in them.
The true artists have moved out of downtown and the newcomers, chasing money, may never meet them as I was lucky enough to do. A few of them are still there:
My friend, David, decided to start building wooden boats. He started with a canoe and took his time. It seemed like it took months because he is was very involved in each step of the process, insuring he got it right. Then he bought a sewing machine and began making sails. He made videos about how to build boats. He taught boat-building, and he published books about sail making and boat building. And now he's involved in a documentary about a man sailing around the tip of South America in a tiny boat.
My friend, Gloria, (who is also a writer) decided to begin making animals out of wood. She bought a jigsaw and learned how to use it. They were hilarious caricatures with funny names, beautifully made and painted with stripes and polka dots. She was in the Pecan Street Festival and others as well as a gallery.
My friend, Paige, is a potter and has developed a style and range of colors that are recognizable. People look for her at the shows she is in and she's taught pottery. So many shows have been terminally canceled because so much is mass produced in China and quality and uniqueness no longer have honor.
My friend, Janine, is still dancing - in music videos no less - even though her kids are grown. She's enthusiastic and amazingly strong and talented, holding her own with 20 year olds.
My friend, Pat, was living in a motel when she wrote "Afoot in a Field of Men" (read it) and after that lived in the basement of the book store she managed with her (then) husband. Her book was reviewed in Atlantic, Time, and People magazine. She turned down the option to be on a national daytime talk show. Fame wasn't the reason she was writing.
My friends Andrea and Mike had full-time jobs and still devoted their time to writing stories - wonderful stories. Marcia is a master at creating costumes for movie and play characters. Christine is a painter and tango dancer.
These are just a few of the people that made Austin weird and while you may not have heard of them because they don't have PR reps or handlers, their lives have been fully artistic and remain so. If you want to compare them to the well-known, compare them to Vincent Van Gogh who never sold a painting in his lifetime. Or Henri Rousseau whose paintings were slashed as crap by the judges of the Paris exhibition. Or, Paul Leautaud whose heart-breaking memoirs are published under the title "Child of Montmarte."
Austin was a hippie version of Paris of the 1920s with heat and mosquitoes. Now it's not.