“I’ve Got Ninja Style Kung-Fu Grip”.

“Keep Austin weird” is, according to a brochure I happened to read some time ago, this city’s strapline. It sounds somehow artificial, not only because it was coined, as it turned out, by a group of lobbyists named the Independent Business Alliance; but, also, because it is objectively hard to put my finger on what, exactly, makes this place “weird”.
Sprawl spreads unchecked all around a city centre ringed by highways. A flourishing of skyscrapers of questionable sizes and shapes sprouts where you’d expected the centre to be, with hotel chains – W, Fairmont, Hilton, JW Marriott, Sheraton, Four Seasons, Hyatt – so ubiquitous to generate sympathy for the only two banks – Bank of America, Chase – that dared flying their flag there.
But, perhaps, there is something. It’s not the 6th Street bars strip, for every city has one, and it’s not even SXSW, because of the same reason, albeit less frequently. It’s not the Texan Lone Star, merged with the Gay Pride rainbow flag, fluttering above a closed for the day.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
It’s an Ai Weiwei sculpture made of hundreds of chrome bicycles, dizziness-inducing in its splendour. It’s a girl jogging along the lake embankment, a T-shirt proclaiming, “I support planned parenthood” written across her chest. It’s the fact that I’m the only one to take notice of it.
Courtesy winged_wonderer
In a world of Madrids and Berlins, I’m doubtful whether Austin would make it on the list, but when your peers are Fort Worth or Birmingham then perhaps, yes, Austin is “weird”, in an American teenager sort of way.
Downtown’s ordinate grid of streets descends in good order from Texas’ State Capitol to the lake. The Capitol itself is what you’d expect from such a building and, a welcome change from the usual white-plaster cliché, is granite-burgundy. Built by migrants and convict labour, it’s flanked by a monument to the emancipation of Texas’ African Americans. I take my turn to photograph it after Indian families and groups of Stetson-wearing Latinos. As the shutter whirrs and buzzes I think at the black tour guide I’d heard lecturing a group of Asian tourists on 6th Street of how, when he was a boy, the Ritz was the only theatre allowing black punters.
Turtles, cormorants and seagulls jostle for space on a floating barrier on the lake, next to the beautiful lakeside walk. The walkway, sneaking in and out of the vegetation, didn’t feel very Texan, or at least it didn’t seem to fit very much with my own preconception of the state – desert, pump-jacks and 10-lane-speedways. Chinese tourists snap photos of each other against the skyline; tiny mamacitas chirp Christmas greetings into phones plugged to their ears, wishing love to “Mi hermosa”. Three friends in hats, leather gilets and trucker moustache inspect the crab shack.
“Move over bitch. Get out of the way you son of a bitch” yells a homeless man as he careens on a bicycle a good three meters away from us.
The median income for a family in Austin is $54,091 per annum. In spite of that, 14% of the population here lives below the poverty line. According to an estimate, one Austin resident every thousand is estimated to be homeless.
To see how big one in a thousand is, all I had to do was to look at the I-35 overpass by the Shell petrol station just south of the Sheraton Hotel. Whilst three men beg by the slip road, another hundred or so sleep rough beneath the Interstate. Another contingent does the same by the Salvation Army’s office, one block off 6th Street’s bars.
On Christmas Day it’s only us on the pavements. Us, and men and women politely asking for a dollar. I haven’t been enough on these shores to be numbed by the dimensions of the problem of homelessness in the world’s biggest economy, so I quite can’t shake the image away. In my mind, the figures huddled in sleeping bags beneath the overpass merge with the footage of scared villagers taking shelter in their cars after an earthquake in Umbria, uncertain of whether an aftershock will send their medieval homes crumbling down. But no tremors shake the Texan land whilst I’m there.
A remembrance tree laden with origami and two plaques spearhead the efforts to raise awareness on the problem. But it’s deeply laden with meaning, I reflect, that a Bible has been left on a bench next to them. As if it was meant to say that only Him could solve the problem. And, perhaps, not even Him.
Dogs are the undisputed masters of the piece of lake shore straddling between the Hyatt and the rusting bridge where somebody’d risked his neck to stand on a narrow, crumpling ledge to spray-paint two Pac-Man ghosts and the rather cryptic message “I’ve got ninja style kung-fu grip”. Oblivious to its meaning – or perhaps all too aware of it, but unwilling to share it with this visitor – Alsatians battle with Labradors to retrieve bright plastic Frisbees, spaniels go sniffing setters’ butts and pugs oversee proceedings as if they’d already figured everything out a long time ago, something I always suspected but never quite been able to demonstrate.
Meanwhile, an ersatz Rodriguez jams with another guy that could pass for a young Tony Hawk impersonator.
Keep Austin weird.
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14 Responses to “I’ve Got Ninja Style Kung-Fu Grip”.

  1. J.D. Riso says:

    When did you visit Texas, Fabrizio? Was it recently? I’ve never been to Austin, and no desire to really go. Seems a bit too hipster for me. The weird too contrived…the American teenager kind, as you so perceptively put it. Just trying to upset the parents, but too self-conscious for true eccentricity. As always, an entertaining account, young man. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hey Julie, we were there around Christmas, 2017 of course. I got my first dose of “Fox & Friends”, together with the Don I guess… Thanks for the comment and yes, it wasn’t a place I didn’t like, but it wasn’t something that had blown me away either. Charlotte, to name one place, seemed more interesting.

      Like

  2. It’s amazing how you get everything you see out intact, as if I’d just landed there myself and opened my eyes. All these places just wait for you to reach them, and then they say: “Look!”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave Ply says:

    Another vivid set of vignettes. Kind of makes me wonder how you’d see my city, appropriator of Austin’s tagline, “Keep Portland Wierd”. We too have developed a homeless problem; too many drawn by the hipster reputation or the liberal reputation or the beauty or whatever, not realizing how expensive it’s become.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hey Dave! In fairness, Portland is one city – if not the one – that I’d actually would like to visit in the States. Homelessness is something that hits a soft spot for me, it must be horrendous to be in that situation and it seems to me that the slope leading to it is particularly slippery over there in the US of A…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lignum Draco says:

    Thanks for the outsider’s inside view of Austin. To me it is not a tourist destination, but interesting nonetheless.

    Ai Wei Wei makes a different version of that bicycle sculpture for the cities he exhibits in. I saw it in Melbourne Australia a couple of years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi there, thanks for reading! Indeed, we were there more for family reasons/work than for tourism, and frankly I wouldn’t really know why would people go on vacation there. Still, it was an interesting visit.

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  5. Homelessness is a growing problem around the world. Even in Scandinavia where it used to be nonexistent (or perhaps just very well hidden?). Great juxtaposition of mentioning the internationally successful hotel brands dominating the city center and the spreading homeless situation: incredibly ironic and tragic. What I also find ironic is a city’s express desire to be “weird” or the “happiest place” or the “friendliest” destination since these are all subjective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hey there Bespoke! It’s true, homelessness is indeed growing, but in Austin it indeed felt off the scale. In fairness, that juxtaposition wasn’t really meant and, to be completely honest, had it not been for you I wouldn’t have noticed it! I agree as well with the irony of being “weird” or “friendly”. The only place that perhaps doesn’t fit the bill in this is Genoa, in Italy, renowned for its dwellers being skinflints and… they objectively are!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. jesh stg says:

    Lived in TX for about 1 1/2 year of my student time, and visited friends in Austin several times. Oh, I love WeiWei’s Winged Wonderer!

    Liked by 1 person

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