Home to the Cathedral of Junk, Eeyore's Birthday Bash, Dirty Sixth and the Museum of the Weird, the Texas capital has earned its slogan, "Keep Austin Weird," which was coined by late native Red Wassenich in 2000.
The pandemic has temporarily closed some of these strange attractions, but the city's weirdness lives on. For new arrivals who are looking to understand Austin better, here is a field guide to some of the city's idiosyncrasies.
This week, you'll see stories useful for someone new to Austin in anticipation of Austonia's "How to Austin" event. To attend, sign up here.
Austin is the largest no-kill city in the country as well as second most pet-friendly, according to a recent study by WalletHub. Many Austinites are devoted supporters of local shelters such as the Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive, serving as volunteers, donors and adoptive families. It's also not uncommon to see well-behaved dogs lounging outside coffee shops, on restaurant patios or running around Lady Bird Lake—with their owners, of course.
Wilder animals also call Austin home. As many as 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats live part of the year inside the crevices of the Congress Avenue bridge. Grackles congregate by the dozens on electric lines at dusk, calling to mind a scene out of a horror movie. Monk parakeets, migratory birds introduced to Austin by humans, have been spotted all over town. And peacocks roam at Mayfield Park.
Austin may be the capital of Texas, but cowboy hats are a rarity here. Trucker caps are more the norm.
And while there are more cowboy boots in Nashville, you can get yourself a pair down South Congress, where local boot sellers include Allen's Boots, Heritage Boot Co. and Tecovas. Women often wear them to Texas Longhorn football games and to jeans-and-cowboy-boots-themed events. And when men wear them, they usually wear "ropers, a shorter boot with a squared-off heel and a wider toe.
Jeans are acceptable anywhere, any time, even at church.
Food and drink
Desert Door distillery in Driftwood, Texas. (Emma Freer)
Austin staples include breakfast tacos from a local spot such as Tacodeli; kolaches, which nod to the Czech heritage of many Central Texans; queso, of which there are many varieties and favorites; and brisket, a Texas barbecue specialty that warrants long lines at places like Franklin, La Barbecue and Micklethwait.
When it comes to beverages, Austin is fortunately known for many, from craft beers brewed on-site to fresh smoothies whipped up at JuiceLand to perfectly roasted coffee to sotol distilled at Desert Door in nearby Driftwood. Pace yourself!
Frontage roads, sometimes called access roads, service roads or feeders, run parallel to Texas highways and allow access to cross-streets and businesses. They also double the number of times you need to merge, are expensive to build and maintain, and can be very confusing to people from other states, almost all of which don't have them.
The new Waterloo Park in downtown opened for light-up sneak peek in December.
Originally a small community near the confluence of the Colorado River and Shoal Creek, Austin used to be called Waterloo, which may be derived from the battle where the English defeated Napoleon, according to the Austin History Center.Waterloo was purchased by the Republic of Texas to serve as its capital in 1839 and renamed in honor of Stephen F. Austin, who colonized the Mexican-controlled region in the early 19th century and defended slavery in spite of Mexico's effort to ban it. The U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, and Austin became the state's capital the following year.
IconsWillie Nelson (Wikimedia Commons)
Austin is home to an increasing number of celebrities and other high-profile folks, from Matthew McConaughey and Elon Musk to Kendra Scott and James Van Der Beek. But some people are in a class of their own, including beloved country music star and local vaccine recipient Willie Nelson.
Some other late icons include:
- Civil Rights leader Barbara Jordan, who was the first Black person elected to the Texas Senate and the first Black woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
- Texas blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan, who performed at local clubs such as an Antone's and whose memory is honored by a statue along Lady Bird Lake
- Richard Overton, who was the nation's oldest World War II veteran and a beloved Austin resident
- Darrell Royal, who coached football at the University of Texas from 1957 to 1976 and won more games than any other coach in Longhorns history
"Party Island" on Lady Bird Lake, seen from above on Aug, 8, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Some people feel strongly about South Congress and consider it touristy at best—and sacrilege at worst—to call it by its marketing name SoCo.
Austin roads have a funny way of going by multiple names, which can be confusing even to drivers who are familiar with the city's streets. MoPac, named after the Missouri Pacific Railroad along which it runs, also goes by Texas Loop 1. The Capitol of Texas highway is more commonly known as 360. I-35 is called all sorts of things, many of them unprintable. Many smaller roads have both a name and a number, such as Bee Cave Road in West Austin, which is also called Ranch to Market 2244, RM 2244 and Bee Caves Road.
Similarly, many east-to-west downtown streets have both a name and a number. First Street is always known by its proper name, Cesar Chavez Street. Sixth Street will do, but it is also sometimes called Pecan Street. The portion between Congress Avenue and I-35 serves as an entertainment district and is mostly referred to as "Dirty Sixth," for obvious reasons. Locals over 25 years old are more often found on West Sixth—or west of Congress.
There's also the issue of Town Lake, as many long-time locals know it, which was renamed Lady Bird Lake, after former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, who helped beautify it.
Like most places, Austin has its idiosyncrasies. Some of the odd local pronunciations have to do with the Spanish origins of many street names. Central corridor Guadalupe, which sounds lovely in Spanish, becomes the pedestrian GWAD-ah-LOOP—or just GUAD—in the mouths of many Austinites.
You can try to show yourself as a local by using the older (and sometimes preferred) pronunciations of names that have since changed. After considerable research, and for reasons of equity, Manchaca Road—pronounced MAN-shack—is now Menchaca Road, or Men-CHAH-kah. But for many residents, old habits die hard.
Another tough name is the street and corresponding river just outside of Austin: Pedernales. Memorize how it should be said. Don't think about it, just do it: PUR-den-nal-ehz.
Don't worry about how to pronounce the name of the Mueller residential and commercial area in Northeast Austin. MULE-er, MEW-ller or MILL-er will all do. Nobody knows.
In addition to many recreational leagues, whose members play volleyball and flag football at public parks all over town, there are also some professional teams who represent Austin.
- Major League Soccer club Austin FC will start their inaugural season on April 3 at the newly named Q2 Stadium; it is the first major league sports team to represent Austin and has gained a substantial fan base in the community
- United Soccer League club Austin Bold FC, founded in 2018, plays at the Circuit of the Americas' Bold Stadium
- United Women's Soccer team FC Austin Elite plays at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex
- Minor League Baseball team the Round Rock Express plays at Dell Diamond
- NCAA team the Texas Longhorns play football at Texas Memorial Stadium, basketball at the Frank Erwin Center and baseball at UFCU Disch-Falk Field
- American Hockey League team the Texas Stars play at Cedar Park Center
Now that you look the part, make sure to check out our guide to civic issues in Austin:
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No matter how long you’ve been in Austin, Samuel Grey Horse has probably been here longer than you and the spirit of his indigenous ancestors walked the land far before anyone living did. Born and raised in the capital city in 1961, the city has grown and changed all around him.
You’ve probably seen or heard of Grey Horse before—he’s been called the “Sixth Street Cowboy” due to his penchant for riding his horses through the city streets, dressing up as Santa Claus during the holidays and making national news back in 2011 when he received a DUI while riding his mule down Sixth Street.
“I remember when I could see the capital from anywhere,” Grey Horse told Austonia during a visit to his East Austin ranch. “I never thought or imagined that I would see Austin like this.”
Now, living with his three horses, mule and dogs in East Austin on “the road that time forgot,” Grey Horse lives the “Native” lifestyle; he cares for his horses, tends to his garden, holds sacred prayer ceremonies, writes music, sings with legendary musicians and occasionally films with Richard Linklater, director of "Dazed and Confused."
Just as Austin changed over the years, so too did Grey Horse. On June 26, 2010, he was in an accident that he credits for changing his life. While riding a racing horse, Grey Horse’s saddle came loose and dragged him underneath for 150 yards. By the time they had stopped, Grey Horse had 12 broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a broken neck, broken clavicle, cracked skull, broken wrist and went into a coma.
“I had all the things done to me but that's how the universe teaches you,” Grey Horse said. “They said I would never ride a horse again or walk correctly, but no, I don't live in that world, because where I went to with my coma. I was living in another world, in the other world’s illusion.”
His road to recovery was long, arduous, miraculous and aided by his horses: Big Tex, Big Red and mule Mula, who have all been in his care for well over a decade. Grey Horse said they took care of his “energy” when he needed them most. Despite the pain that ensued from horses, his accident drew the cross-species family together.
Big Red and Mula have been living with Grey Horse for 16 and 14 years, respectively. (Sam Grey Horse/Instagram)
“I ride them around town and share them with everybody because everything has a purpose,” Grey Horse said. “You don't throw something away just because it's a little beat up. I was all beat up.”
The winters are still painful for his joints but he powers through so he can bring joy to the people of Downtown Austin in his Santa Claus costume every year.
“I can't hurt because I'm Santa Claus, and I got to be Santa for the kids and everybody. I give them inspiration and energy, I make millions happy downtown,” Grey Horse said. “I sing often with a cordless mic, my horses dance and they're happy. If I can make one person happy that makes a difference.”
Though it was never his intention, a career in music found Grey Horse and it felt right due to his mother telling him as a child he would be a singer one day. Grey Horse recently returned from his tour with The Greyhounds and Sir Woman across Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
His original song, “Crow Dog,” is a tribute to his life and the people who have passed along their loving energy in it.
Show biz can’t get enough of Grey Horse, who also models for Patagonia and Levi’s; he taught Joe Jonas how to ride a horse for a video shoot. He is now working with a British filmmaker on a documentary, and was featured on episode 10 of Linklater’s “That Animal Rescue Show.”
“I sing with Grammy winners, which is very special to me, and I write songs about my life. Very magical stuff,” Grey Horse said. “(The tour) was one of the best runs we've done for now—people are out and want to get out and the energy the guys bring is amazing.”
You’re certain to see Grey Horse around town if you spend some time near The Continental Club on South Congress or the Texas Capitol into the night. Until then, tok sha.
“There are no words for goodbye in my language, it's 'tok sha,'” Grey Horse said. “It means I’ll see you again. I'll see you soon. I'll see you in the next life.”
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For women who feel threatened while they’re out, an app that lets users easily call for help is now available in Austin.
Launching in the capital city on Tuesday, SafeUP, works by training users over the age of 18 who are known as “guardians” on how to respond in times of crisis. Those who are placing a call for help are connected to guardians less than half a mile away who, depending on the situation, can chat on the phone or physically go to the user and escort them.
SafeUP allows women to contact others who can help them when in danger. (SafeUP)
First launched in Israel, the app was co-founded by Neta Schreiber, who became interested in safety tools after her friend went missing at a house party about a decade ago.
"My friend and I searched for her in a panic, and, as we headed upstairs, we heard her voice amidst a group of men's voices," Schreiber has stated. "We went into one of the rooms and there they were—the men and our friend, half-naked, fighting them."
The assailants fled once the friends stepped in. "We managed to get there just in time," Schreiber said. "Luck and women saved my friend that night."
Schreiber told Reuters that during the testing phase of SafeUP, two guardians stepping in was enough to have people leave a woman alone.
Earlier this month, SafeUP became active in other major cities including Boston, San Francisco, Miami and New York City. There are more than 70,000 members in the global network with approximately 200 guardians in Austin so far.
Mira Marcus, a spokesperson for SafeUP, told Austonia most users are millennials and younger, and a lot of college students use the app, which made an Austin launch especially fitting. The company also has a partnership with Lime so that guardians can take free rides to reach a person.
SafeUP's partnership with Lime allows users to take free rides to a person calling for help. (SafeUP)
“You could always call the police, but they won’t necessarily be there within a matter of a minute or two. You could always speed dial your mom or girlfriend, but they won’t always be available to answer,” Marcus said. “The idea behind SafeUP is no matter where you are and what time, you can always turn on the app and see on the map the guardians around you.”
The app also allows users to call the police if the guardian finds the situation requires their backup. With that function, the app uses the phone’s camera and microphone to record evidence.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the Austin Police Department discussed possibly issuing a civilians unit to assist with non-emergency crimes over the summer. The discussion came as the department announced it would not respond to 911 calls where there was not a present danger due to a staffing shortage.
Some have turned to personal safety tech as public safety in Austin continues to be a hot topic with a record-breaking number of homicides in the city.
SafeUP joins other tech like the Citizen app and Ring cameras that track crime and include tools for reporting to the police. Some scholars and activists have criticized this tech for potential racial and gender bias, as well as expansion of surveillance. Biometric data is also taken in before users have full access to the SafeUP app so they can be verified as female, though facial recognition systems have a tendency to vary in accuracy.
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Giving Tuesday: Dell Foundation gives $38 million to combat homelessness as Austin celebrates 'radical generosity'
It's the most (philanthropic) time of the year, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation added to Central Texas' $100 million Giving Tuesday donations by promising a $38 million commitment towards combatting homelessness in Austin.
The Round Rock-based foundation, headed by tech giant Dell CEO Michael Dell, will donate the lump sum to three local nonprofits: Multiplying Goodness, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks.
Almost all of the funds—$36.6 million—are headed to Multiplying Goodness, which is a capital campaign to grow the Community First! Village in Austin, a neighborhood that offers permanent housing for the homeless. The 51-acre housing development has already rented out tiny homes to 220 formerly homeless residents and has plans to add 1,400 more units with the Multiplying Goodness program headed by Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
Dubbed a "hand up, not hand out" program by Mobile Loaves CEO and Founder Alan Graham, the neighborhood also helps residents with services and resources as they leave homelessness behind.
The Dell foundation is asking the public to match their donation as the "most talked about neighborhood in Austin" looks to reach its $150 million goal. Expansion of the Community First! Village is expected to break ground in 2022.
“As Austin grows, it’s more important than ever that we care for those most vulnerable in our communities,” Dell Foundation's co-founder Susan Dell said in a press release. “By coming together as a community, we can provide those experiencing homelessness in Central Texas with the dignity they deserve through stable housing and the opportunity to experience community again. We are honored to partner with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks—along with the broader Central Texas community through our community match—to accelerate the difference these organizations are already making on the ground each day.”
Community First! Village, a 51-acre housing development, currently houses over 200 formerly homeless people. (Community First! Village/Facebook)
The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation also announced a $1 million donation to Foundation Communities as they construct 100 units on the Burleson property at Community First! Village. LifeWorks Austin, a nonprofit aiming to end youth homelessness, will also receive $400,000 as it looks to provide permanent housing for local youth experiencing homelessness.
All three donations will funnel to the greater cause of ending homelessness in Austin, a hot topic in local politics in recent years. Around 3,000 Austinites are currently experiencing homelessness, with nearly 50% described as "chronically homeless." That's 25% above the national average.
Giving Tuesday has seen more than just the Dells digging into their pockets: known as a "global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world," the Tuesday after Thanksgiving has ushered in donations from corporations and private individuals around the world, including $100 million coming to Central Texas nonprofit I Live Here I Give Here.
The nonprofit has become the front for Central Texas' Giving Tuesday campaign. In 2020, Austin businesses, individuals and nonprofits contributed over 20 million acts of generosity during the holiday.
This year, Home Depot surprised small Austin nonprofit Green Doors with a $30,000 donation as they work to combat homelessness.
AppSumo, a leading digital marketplace for entrepreneurs, announced that it will match donations to Future Front Texas, PeopleFund and Swan Impact Network—all Central Texas nonprofits looking to benefit the area's small business owners—from Giving Tuesday through Friday at 5 p.m.
Local philanthropy group Impact Austin awarded $226,200 in grants to four Austin nonprofit organizations on Tuesday as part of their fall giving cycle, while Austin influencer Laura Lux agreed to match any donation under $1,000 given to Austin Pets Alive! on Giving Tuesday.
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