Austin: Free healthcare for the homeless, art, and great music

August 20, 2021
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AUSTIN is a sight for sore eyes, especially at night with the city buildings lit up in a rainbow of colours reflected in the cool waters of Texas’s Colorado River. The latest census showed a little over 900,000 people lived within Austin City, and it is now the fastest growing city in the United States.

Austin was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s and didn’t really pick up until the 1980s. It is now home to offices of some big players in the technology field, firms like Apple, Amazon, Ebay, Google and IBM, so the city is thriving. I found it an interesting contrast even to San Antonio which is only an hour and a half away by car.

I met a number of homeless people, and I was warned to stay out of the downtown because of them all. As in San Antonio, the river area was beautiful, and I liked how they had modernised it all.

I went to the 7th District, and I parked the car for $15 for the whole day. I felt a bit tired and lazy and so I decided to jump on a Hop-On-Hop-Off Double Decker Bus Tour and go for a tour around the city.

There was plenty to see. We were taken past the Texas State Capitol building, past Lady Bird Lake, past a few historical museums, the Austin Convention centre and art galleries showcasing a range of cultural art exhibitions. There was a lot to see and do — that’s for sure.

I heard that 65,000 people a year are moving to Austin, making it the fastest growing city in the entire USA. The Rainey district is still a lovely area to eat out (I have visited it before), and the 6th district is very vibrant with really good food as well. So, I walked around and ate lots of good food. I think Texas has some of the best food around, and it’s all affordable and good value for money.

I spoke to a woman in an art gallery who said that Texas was still a very divided society, and that white people don’t know a lot of people of colour. I was quite surprised when she told me that. She also told me how her family had pretty much abandoned her after she had married a man of colour. I thought back to that incident with the renovators.

I found plenty of differences between Austin and Houston. One thing I noticed, which sounds minor but is important, was that Austin had better pedestrian crossings than Houston: something that matters when you walk around a lot! They experiment with new ideas.

For instance, when I was there, one of the busiest intersections in Austin, at East 6th and Waller Streets, where the historic but deteriorating Uptown Sports Club is located, had its kerbs flared out on what looked like a trial basis with polka dots and edge marker posts to narrow the road carriageway and thus slow the traffic down. The polka dots, placed behind edge marker posts, served as a visual barrier. If it worked, presumably the intersection was then to have a permanent kerb buildout.

(Having said that, unfortunately, this trial seems to have faded away as of 2021. I hope something more permanent is about to be done.)

A woman on the bus tour told me that in the early 2000s, the Austin Independent Business Association had coined the term ‘weird’ to describe Austin. Austin seemed to be a pocket of Texas which was completely different to the usual cowboy stereotype, home to a much more urban vibe. I met another woman in an Austin movie house. She was born and bred in Texas, and she said Austin was like a bubble and it really is like an exception in Texas.

Perhaps some of this is down to the fact that Austin is the state capital and began its existence as a completely planned and brand-new capital in the days of the Republic of Texas: a bit like the later founding of Canberra in Australia. Austin has had a strong legacy of planning ever since those days, making it perhaps the most planned city in what is often otherwise stereotyped as a state of individualists. Having said that, there is plenty of evidence of civic pride elsewhere in Texas.

There was a three-day music festival on, with Kanye West and Willy Nelson; so, it was quite busy in the city. I did make a brief stop at number 6 Congress Street, which had some great live music.

Texas also has its Confederate legacy, and there was a statue there I found quite interesting, and I took some photos. Whether it’ll still be there in the future is a good question.

One other thing did find remarkable is that there have been so many flags over Texas. There has been the Spanish flag, the Mexican flag, the Texas Republic flag, the United States flag and the Confederate flag, as well as the Texas state flag. It was interesting that they displayed and acknowledged various emblems of their history, though there were adverse comments from some of the locals I met.

As of the time of writing (2021), the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument and Terry’s Texas Rangers statue in the collage below are still present, as is the cowboy statue. So is the Confederate seal among the six seals.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Over one million bats live under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge that was built over the Lady Bird Lake in 1910 and restructured in 1980 to support the increasing number of vehicles. The bat season attracts tourists who flock to the banks surrounding the bridge to see the Mexican free-tailed bats fly into the sky at dusk during the months of March to November usually.

The South Congress Bridge is open to the public to view the flight of the bats as they blacken in the sky with their sheer numbers. I made a point of stopping by the bridge to see them was great to see, black balls of fur and wings flit across the darkening horizon as the sun set. Apparently, they were once considered to be a big problem and the city actively tried to remove them, until an organization started up aimed at protecting them. They migrate every year to Mexico and as far south as Yucatan.

Austin in one day was not how I would have liked to do the trip; I really wish I had had more time. I had also decided I was going to use Booking. com in these parts instead of Airbnb because I found I could get cheap hotels.

I also found the people in Austin were very friendly. I was filling up my car with gas, and someone came over and asked if they could check my tyre pressure for me and I said thank you!

You can go on tours of the stately homes in downtown Austin, in what is called the Bremond Block Historic District: it is definitely something to do if you have the time, either guided or just on your own with a map or an app.

Finally, it is interesting to note that Sam Houston, one of the early founders of Texas, had wanted the capital of the Republic of Texas to be the just-founded town that was also named after him: and so, there was a bit of a skirmish in 1842. In an incident called the Texas Archive War, Houston had ten men try to raid all the archives and take them to the State Archives to Houston.

This wasn’t just a product of Houston’s ego. At the time, there were renewed hostilities between Texas and Mexico, and the Mexicans reoccupied San Antonio. There was a good chance that nearby Austin, the brand- new capital of Texas, would fall next; and Houston was concerned that the archives would not survive.

Anyhow, Houston’s party failed to get the archives shifted; Austin survived; and the Mexicans eventually withdrew back behind the Rio Grande. Houston became the capital of the Republic of Texas for the rest of its short history, but once Texas formally became a state in 1846, Austin became the capital of the state of Texas, and has been ever since.

It was time to get on the road again and I was off to visit my friend Aubray in Wichita Falls: a five-hour trip.


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