Austin: Proud to Be Weird

“Keep Austin Weird.” Rebecca Melançon, the director of the local organization, doesn’t remember who the first person to utter this phrase was, but in the Texas capitol, it’s become more than a slogan. It’s become a philosophy.

Literally, this phrase exhorts the people of Austin to preserve the bizarre side of their city. More specifically, it is a rallying cry for people like Ms. Melançon who aim to start new urban initiatives to help their city thrive. What they want is to create and preserve an eclectic city.

The nightmare for these pro-weird citizens of Austin would be to see a population explosion in their city, leading them to become a collection of cardboard cut-out commercial centers of large chain stores that could be found anywhere, like Gap, Nike, Coach or Pottery Barn.

The dream (and it’s being realized) will be a downtown full of offices and residences with all kinds of shops necessary for a dynamic lifestyle: grocery stores, music venues like the dozens of others in Austin, bike, furniture and clothing shops, little cheap restaurants and taco trailers. Ms. Melancon remarks that the key is balance.

Initially, in the ‘80s, “Keep Austin Weird” was an impromptu campaign launched by a few small, independent boutiques. It was more of an idea than a structured movement. Then, the saying was discovered by a larger company that appropriated the rights and put the slogan on t-shirts, hats and stickers, among other things. Today, the concept is widely embraced by independent businesses and civic groups alike.

When walking around the city, you simply see different things than in other American cities of the same size. You don’t run into Banana Republic, Williams Sonoma and the like; on the contrary, there are numerous innovative products. For example, the other morning for breakfast, I went inside a little café, La Boîte, which is a converted shipping container installed on a grass field. From there, I walked south of South Congress Street, crossing a residential area full of typically small, old, pastel houses. Amongst them were also hyper-modern, environmentally conscious architectural designs. Dwell, a magazine devoted to innovative, contemporary residential architecture, has already booked a number of conventions in Austin.

Beyond these small merchant campaigns, the real difference in Austin is the true hippie environment that lies underneath it all. Janis Joplin, who long lived in Austin, embraced its “granola” side. This concept was indeed born there when Whole Foods, the first organic grocery store, was founded near the university in 1984. The store has since become a huge success throughout the United States, Canada and even Great Britain. In fact, Austin even has another chain of supermarkets, Central Market, designed for both goat cheese and organic pesto connoisseurs alike. In short, there are many people in Austin who do everything possible to avoid doing their shopping at Safeway, Price Chopper and other kinds of Wal-Marts planted across America.

Like Northern California, an even more hippie and “granola” place, Austin is also high-tech. Dell, like many other small business startups, comes from Austin. It’s not a coincidence that Austin is the great meeting place of South by Southwest (SXSW), an arts festival focusing on film, music and the interactive world. This year, the festival will have attracted about 30,000 participants, ready to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the city’s economy.

SXSW helps keep the city weird. For when all of these super creative people discover Austin, see that its climate is similar to that of Southern California and find the prices reasonable…well, let’s just say that many Californians are moving to Austin for a less crazy and expensive lifestyle, though not necessarily a less dynamic one. As noted by the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams, during the SXSW conference, good ideas come from outside of Silicon Valley. It is true that creativity benefits from less saturated environments, if it is encouraged there.

In Austin, they love people with weird ideas.

As Ms. Melancon reminds us, there are excellent programs established in the city to encourage independent entrepreneurship. In Austin, there is a separate culture, one of eclecticism, risk-taking and difference. The people of Austin want and support that.

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