Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hey Leaguers.

Hope your weekend was a quality weekend.

Saturday was supposed to be a two-party Saturday. We were to meet some friends in N. Austin for Letty's 30th birthday, and then head into town to hit another friend's party. Unfortunately, the first party was at a wine bar and Juan D. and I split a couple bottles of wine, and...

The wine bar itself was nice. I was a bit more confused by my first trip to Austin's "The Domain", a high end shopping center/ residence that's oddly like Main Street USA at Disneyland, right down to the music blasting over the PA as you're wandering around. I guess the major difference is that The Domain is for people looking to buy status symbols instead of overpriced Disney tsotchkes and lemon freezes.

I wouldn't be bugged by the place so much, but its a reminder of the ever growing change in Austin culture as people move here claiming to love Austin, but do everything they can to make it more like Dallas or the suburbs outside of Houston. Also, there was some odd real estate deal when they decided to put in the domain. Despite the fact its basically a mall for over-priced, chain stores selling needless luxury items, (there's a Tiffany's, for example) the developers brokered some major deal on what taxes they do and do not pay. It's kind of a big "screw you" to the rest of Austin, and especially local retailers of all stripes who pay those taxes without complaint while struggling to make it.

That's one of those things, though. I swore I'd never spend money at The Domain, but then your good pals announce that's where they're hosting their party, and I'm kind of past the point in my life where I would have skipped out on the party for some abstract principle or just been a jerk about it (and there was a period). But, honestly, the place was pretty nice and the service was very good.

Needless to say, the wine had taken its hold, and I felt either Jamie or myself driving would be an issue, so I decided not to try to make the second party.

Rather, folks started talking about going to grab a bite to eat. In order to wash the taste out, I talked everyone into going to Jim's, up off McNeil and 183. And if you want to find a place that's the antithesis of everything that The Domain stands for, it is the Jim's chain of family restaurants. This particular location is up near where I grew up in N. Austin, and I don't think they've changed, literally, anything, since the last time I was there, which would have been the spring of 1994.

And they make a surprisingly good cup of coffee and tortilla soup.

Had breakfast this morning with our good pal Heather W. Then I rearranged my office. Not a terribly exciting day, but it was great to see Heather for a bit (she lives in Lubbock at the moment for grad school).


J.S. said...

Here's an article from the front page of the Statesman about, a group which opposes Domain subsidies, but which also hopes to bring more of a grass roots, populist feel to the decision-making of the Austin City Council:

JAL said...

Politics aside, The Domain isn't that bad, though my thoughts were initially pretty much the same. Despite some of the high-end establishments, it's hardly any different than The Arboretum in it's hey day. Granted, it would be nice to see a few more locally owned businesses. I think The Steeping Room and Betty Sport are the only two, currently. Your mileage may vary on this next statement, but I find myself more accepting of something like The Domain, as it is bringing something different to Austin rather pushing out the old and reinterpreting “Austin”. At the very least it's no worse than little San Diego on 2nd street or the hipsterfied, gentrified South Congress, which, is, perhaps, more ridiculous, in that SoCo (SoCo…really?) seems to now be viewed as “the real Austin.” But, I guess at the rate of cultural change we're seeing, it might as well be "the real Austin." I’m also not so sure dollar-heavy status symbols are any sillier than raving about how you discovered the latest quirky trailer-based eatery.

I’m not always thrilled with the pushing aside what made Austin, Austin, but I suppose it is inevitable, to a degree. I don’t think you can pinpoint “the real Austin”. It ain’t North or South or East or West. It’s changing in every direction. The pre-tech explosion, slacker days of yore just don't quite exist they used to, for better or worse. We're now in hipster phase, which reminds me of a joke.

The League said...

The truth is, I wouldn't care at all if The Domain were paying its fair share of taxes like everyone else. I haven't got a clue what was sitting where the Domain was before its sprung from the earth. Probably a grubby field, if I had to guess.

Until I moved out of Austin as an adult, I didn't really appreciate the city for what it was as a unique spot on the cultural map (and not to diss on JAL, but I happen to know that despite his traveling nature, he's a lifelong Austinite).

It's difficult to demonstrate, but Austin's insistence on supporting non-chain, often moderately priced establishments (Las Manitas comes to mind) as much or more than bending over for the new Applebee's has been not just a hallmark of a town that welcomed local industry, but opened its doors to a wide-range of social brackets.

What I see when I see the Domain is Scottsdale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix (which makes The Woodlands look like tinker toys). When I lived in The Valley, Scottsdale was the consumerist aspiration of a town very focused on acquisition, status symbols and being seen. Perhaps a minor differentiation from sneering at the hipsters populating South Congress, but at least South Congress is based on mostly local arts, food, clubs, etc... and grew organically over ten years. It was not expensive retail sea monkeys.

The Domain plays at being "main Street USA", but it also plays into the amnesia of people who don't care about history or the well-being of their own town so long as they can sit in the glow of their new designer items or say they waited in line for half an hour at Kona Grill over the water cooler on Monday.

If you're looking for the insidious nature of the beast: The developers mitigate risk and competition by simply refusing to deal with chains that don't have high end corporate backing (and this isn't just the Domain: see how many non-chains showed up at the signicantly lower-rent South Park Meadows or most other retail strips these days).

For those of you who think The Domain is in anyway a unique experience, there's an exact duplicate of The Domain in The Woodlands (near Houston), with exactly the same outlets. It's consumerist Borg.

Austin already has major problems with segragation by income and class and has for decades (see: Westlake). I prefer an Austin where folks of different stripes intermingle. The geographic location, fortress set-up, price point, etc... of Austin are but the first volley in what will be an Austin that very much does NOT want Austin to be weird or fun, but the Nerf Austin that's safe and scrubbed clean of anything that doesn't fit into high-end retail culture and owes nothing to the city (thereby suggesting to its patrons that there's nothing Austin has to offer, but the chain stores do).

I know this sounds like the paranoid rantings of a crazy person, but, again: Scottsdale and Ahwautukee, AZ exemplified the culture, and I lived tucked between the two areas, worked with people who dreamed of not just going to Socttsdale, but being perceived as truly belonging and not just faking it among the bleached teeth and Hummers. I look at The Domain, and unless people get bored and move on, all I can think is: This is how it starts.

It's the me-first, gimme gimme-ness of the culture I didn't get. And Austin still isn't that way.

The era of the Slacker in Austin died when they tore down the old building housing Inner Sanctum and Les Amis. I'm well aware of that.
The city that I loved was not one which defined itself by what one could buy, and its certainly taken a turn that direction. If what you're looking for is a sea of chain retail, then it really doesn't matter if you're in Austin, Plano, what-have-you.

And, yes, The Arboretum was never any different. And I never shopped there except for ice cream, either.

The League said...

All that said, if you like shopping at The Domain, I'm just as much, if not more, all about people doing their own thing. If there are restaurants, etc... that you like, please continue to enjoy them. Better a full and successful Domain than an empty shell with C.H.U.D.s, I think.

And, it may surprise you to hear I think mixed use space with retail/ living is a grand idea. I actually think The Triangle, for example, is good use of space.

JAL said...

Certainly as someone who left and came back when you did, you’ll have a perspective that I will not. You probably appreciate this city much more than I do. I suspect I may very well see things differently as I do now, if I’d followed similar path as yours. So perhaps I do not see the slowing encroaching Borg/Domain as threatening as you do. Perhaps I should. Your concern is warranted and compelling. I’m sure we’d both agree that if The Domain was filled primarily with locally owned businesses and the Banana Republics and J. Crews secondarily, it would indeed be a better place. I don’t know too many people that wouldn’t prefer to shop locally.

However, seeing the changes more from the inside out, there’s just as much chipping away at what made Austin, Austin from the well meaning.

I’ll suggest that this city has become more aware of itself in the last decade that than it ever thought it would be and I don’t quite think it knows what it wants to be. Too many people are trying to get the vibe rather than just be the vibe in the same way you can’t make a cult movie. While it’s easy to point the finger at the corporate giant, it’s not entirely to blame. Maybe it’s just the evolution of a city, maybe it’s bound to happen to a degree and I guess you have to weigh it all. I certainly don’t want a preplanned shopping/living/dining experience on every corner, who would, but at the same time, I find the seemingly forced “weirdness” to be just as contrived.

JAL said...

Oh, yes, I think you hit the nail on the head about the slacker obit.

I do think Austin's new snobbery is hipster folklore. "What! you haven't been to cute/ironically named eatery/bar! (or whatever is #1 on Yelp!) like you're some lesser beast for not having been first to the cool, new quirk extravaganza. Looking down your nose at someone else is uncool whether you're gleaming at them over a product or a concept. There ain't no difference in my book.

The League said...

Yeah, I'm still not sure where I stand on the whole "Keep Austin 'Weird'" slogan. I think, Unfortunately, it kind of hurts as much as it helps. And, of COURSE significant elements can be annoying. I guess after Phoenix, I now would much prefer the danger of the forced weirdness than the pod-people vibe I got out there.

I don't actually blame corporations for any of this. They do what they do. They're in it to make money. It's just up to Austinites (and very specifically the Austin City Council) to be smart about how they handle growth. Compared to Houston, these days they look like geniuses.

What's hard for any smaller town or city, when the big money rolls in, is to know when to say when and not get taken advantage of like a wanna-be-starlet on a casting couch.

J.S. said...

Well, "Keep Austin Weird" was actually a slogan developed by an organization of local Austin business owners in order to promote local businesses, so it's a motto that was co-opted by business since its inception, but at least it was a locally grown idea meant to draw attnetion to local business. And its true that Austin, as it has grown larger, has lost some of its smaller, creative, spontaneous spirit (there's something inherently strange about any large group which, as a group, tries to encourage people to be unique and demonstrate individuality, especially when some of that sentiment comes from the commercial sector). But I still think Austin has its heart in the right place and that, in general, it's striving in the right direction. Some of the pressure to be unique in Austin is hipsterish and rings sort of hollowly, but at least the focus is on creativity and trying to do new things rather than on simple conformity and rigid compliance with ideals set by "mainstream" American culture (and there are plenty of places where people are concerned with little more than matching their image to look like people on commercials and MTV). Austin has a culture where lots of people seem to typically have "a thing" outside of their job or family- be it music, art, comics, film, disc golf, martial arts, comedy troupes, knitting, burlesque dancing, roller derby, etc. People in other cities aren't necessarily like that. I still think Austin has a culture that has a much more interesting, creative populace, on average, than a lot of other cities. People want to move here because of we have a well-educated, creative, and oftentimes affluent populace. We don't need to give out of town businesses tax breaks to lure them here. They want to come, anyway. And if they want to set up shop here they ought to pay the same taxes and support their community the same way everyone else does. IF we're going to be giving tax breaks, we ought to be providing them to local businesses who understand and represent Austin and whose profits will flow back into the Austin community (as opposed to flowing back to some corporate headquarters in California or New York or wherever). My two cents.

JAL said...

well stated.

Ironically, my word verification is tosoco