Editor's Note: Joah Spearman is the former vice chair of the Austin Music Commission, former chair of AIDS Services of Austin, and is the founder and CEO of Localeur. He has lived in Austin for more than 15 years and experienced the city's growth. This opinion does not reflect that of Austonia.
Optimism is defined as hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something, and in my 16-plus years living in Austin, the optimism many hold about Austin's future appears to be at a critical inflection point.
Will Austin bend but not break under the mounting pressure of growth and sustain the relatively affordable and high quality of life that has made this city what it is? Or will Austin go the way of many large American cities in history, San Francisco perhaps most notoriously, and cease to offer its middle and working classes access to the bounty all this growth begets?
For decades in Austin, optimism alone was enough as political participation was largely substantive enough—and major decision-making privately constrained enough—to ensure quality of life benefits by the tens of thousands. Simultaneously, Austin's population growth was somewhat matched by upticks in social and professional opportunity (for many). Even as the negative effects of the 1928 Plan on racial and socio-economic makeup became more evident, there was an implied optimism in Austin's political dealings, including the 2014 switch to a 10-District Council system.
However, once we became an undeniable large American city (right around the time Austin started being named the "best city for" absolutely everything), the collective optimism started to subside for these longtime politically-engaged Austinites who were civically responsible for holding the line on deciphering quality of life vs. growth.
This is particularly true of the last decade amid the rise of Downtown, SXSW's shift from music, the proliferation of high-priced restaurants replacing affordable establishments (a la Sammie's), and the tech industry's surge, each of which no longer represent the core identities or localized interests of many longtime Austinites who've grown disconnected from what now appears to pass as quality of life.
Based on the umpteen conversations I've been having with longtime Austinites both before and during the pandemic, there's something about a $40 lunch, $200 outfit to the gym, staying in a $400/night boutique hotel, and spending over $1.3 million for a two-bedroom home that doesn't register as WINNING— especially during a pandemic, racial unrest, a presidential election and a winter storm. Not to be forgotten nor ignored, many a longtime Austinite—be it four decades or four years longer than their friend who moved here in 2020—has realized that waning optimism can be wielded as a weapon through either libertarianism ("every man for himself"), obstructionism ("don't do that over here"), perfectionism ("that isn't the way I'd do it"), pessimism ("that won't work"), or—the most troublesome yet hard to decipher during City Council meetings or the 2018 CodeNext dust up—unconstructive criticism.
Don't get me wrong, critique is a great thing. Critique leveraged correctly by an engaged audience leads to improved implementation of policy, but thus far the constructiveness has yet to bear much sustainable fruit in addressing Austin's most-pressing problems around affordability, creativity (the growing chasm between the creative and asset classes) and inclusivity (as East Austin looks less like a community for Black and Hispanic Austinites forced there in the years following the 1928 City Plan by the day).
For example, Prop B of Nov. 2020 for $460 million in transit bonds passed with 67% of the vote in an election with over 400,000 total voters participating whereas Prop B of May 2021 passed with over 57% of the vote in an election with less than 160,000 voters participating. But somehow if you talk to the average Austinite, voter or not, the Prop B of May 2021 is the one that they realize got the state and national headlines and impacted local discourse, civic creativity and optimism, and the political tonality more.
Prop B of Nov. 2020 was constructive optimism. Prop B of May 2021 was critique at best and pessimism at worst. And it's worth pointing out that there is a massive difference—of at least 240,000 voices—even if the majority of Austinites voted "for" both.
Listen closely for the next time you hear people in Austin talking about the Olympic-like speed by which our city is facing affordability issues. Most likely those folks will race to explain the affordability issues only through the narrow lens of rising home prices, property tax increases and above-market purchases under the false notion that hardships around single-family homeownership are the sole representation of a city in crisis.
Meanwhile, constructive optimism would break free of the shackles of Austin's political binarism in an attempt to pursue a more holistic and inclusive understanding of the ways in which affordability (or absence of it) shows up in quality of life outcomes for our neighbors.
We would then be able to better acknowledge a myriad of indicators from the lack of investment in Black creatives and musicians who shaped Austin's live music and "weird" identity, the segregation of a city that is nearly 50% Asian, Black or Hispanic and built on Native land where just 2,000 or so residents identify as Native American today, the dearth of "complete communities" that truly adhere to the merits of the 2012 Imagine Austin plan, the decathlon-like permitting processes we force everyone from homeowners seeking to build ADUs to monied developers seeking to build multi-family housing within minutes of Downtown (if anywhere), and the homogeneity by which private, generational wealth, venture capital and real estate assets flow within this city.
A Tone… meant for Austin
Earlier this year, I wrote a welcome letter to new Austinites that went somewhat viral online. It wasn't just the words, maybe even just headline, that connected with people, it was the tone. Constructive optimism is about substance in policy and which outcomes are deemed worthy, but it is also about tone.
It's through tone that an aroma of possibilities is cultivated where optimism sustains and both empathy and pragmatism create civic solutions and shared ideals. That aroma, that tone, is one of both patience and passion, grit and genuine commitment to a positive outcome, and it must be around for years—election years and off-cycle years—to cultivate real, meaningful, substantive progress in quality of life and outcomes for thousands.
Rev. Dr. William Barber and former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke spoke outside the Texas Capitol on July 31 after a days-long march for voting rights. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
So who will drive the constructive optimism for Austin's political narrative? Can we look to statewide officials with a particular interest in the happenings of Austin a la Dan Patrick? Can we entrust conservative lobbying groups like Save Austin Now? Can we solely rely on Beto O'Rourke to re-capture the progressive momentum of 2018 or force Chas Moore and his organizing powerhouse Austin Justice Coalition to do the work of both creating and championing a more equitable and inclusive vision for Austin?
Hopefully not. And though I'm inspired by the frequent discourse about Austin's political machinations on Twitter, how do we as a fast-growing city of change (reluctant or required) channel our collective energy, mitigate apathy, and instigate a community's creativity to address problems that are simply too big and too imposing and too widespread for decades-old Austin political mentality—where keeping the decision making guestlist small was an effective way to get things done—reigns supreme?
While setting the tone for an entire city isn't a job that should be left to one person, even an elected official, I realize it's also not a duty that can be held by the unwilling or uninterested. Constructive optimism doesn't roll off the tongue like Make Austin Great Again would, but it's a far better approach than the kind of avoidance, obstructionism and pessimism that is sucking the quality of life and color out of Austin like its 1928.
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Actor, director and screenwriter Justin Theroux isn't the only famous member of his family. His canine companion Kuma made waves online this past weekend supporting Austin Pets Alive!—and Jennifer Aniston is a fan.
Theroux launched Kuma's own Instagram account on Saturday with a link to Austin Pets Alive!'s website in her bio. And the grey pitbull mix is already garnering the kind of attention worthy of her movie star dad: As of Monday night, she has over 55,000 followers.
Chief among them is Jennifer Aniston, who posted a photo of Theroux and his newly online dog on her Instagram story yesterday with fond words for the Austin shelter.
"Love what these two are doing to help people who help pups who help people," the 'Friends' star, and Theroux's ex-wife, wrote. "They helped save 60 pups at Austin Pets Alive! yesterday."
Theroux began volunteering at the shelter while filming 'The Leftovers' in Austin when he fell in love with the shelter's pitbulls, according to Dr. Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO.
"We are thrilled that he and Kuma are spreading the word about the work APA! is doing and the need to keep Austin no-kill," she said, referring to the shelter's commitment to save animals most at risk for euthenasia.
Theroux adopted his mut in 2018 after Kuma was rescued—dirty and injured—from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey by A Chance to Bloom Dog Rescue, based in Conroe, Texas.
While Kuma is not from APA!, Theroux connected with the Conroe-based non-profit while visiting the Austin shelter, and he has remained "an enthusiastic supporter" ever since, Jefferson said.
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Six days a week, thousands of onlookers tune in to live streams to watch the pros rake it all in at high-stakes poker tournaments. The big-name poker players aren't in Las Vegas or even Oklahoma's finest casinos—instead, they're where Texas Hold 'Em gets its name.
Gambling may be illegal in Texas, but over a hundred poker houses are using a loophole to open up shop across the state, especially in Austin and Dallas.
The classic poker game is finally getting played for real cash around the Lone Star State thanks to an exception in Texas' gambling ban that allows poker games to be played in private residences. Instead of taking a cut from the pot like traditional gambling ventures, private poker houses don't make money from the results of a game; instead, they get their revenue from membership and hourly fees.
It's a business strategy that's gone (mostly) unchallenged by Texas politicians, especially as the industry begins to heat up.
Austin may now have around 20 poker houses around town, but it wasn't long ago that one stood alone like a small town saloon. The city's premiere poker house, Texas Card House, was founded in 2015 and has since grown to include a YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers, a wide range of gameplay and regular visits from big-name poker gurus like Brad Owen and Doug Pope.
David Lagana, a content creator who has worked in college sports and Hollywood, was brought into the scene in May as the house's live streams began to blow up. He said the live streaming battleground is only beginning.
"The space is ever-growing," Lagana said. "It's been interesting to try and find a lane that everybody can succeed. It's all about finding something that people want to watch on a nightly basis."
Can Player BLUFF Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen on LIVE Stream?
Watch now - https://t.co/4Wt4s5Z0V7@TheBradOwen @andrewneeme pic.twitter.com/Yg4R0c0sj2
— Texas Card House (@texascardhouse) August 25, 2021
Carolyn Hapgood, who has worked for Texas Card House for three years, has made a name for herself as a live stream producer, dealer and player herself with the company. She's seen Texas Card House grow from a two-room card house to the most well-known poker venue in Austin with another branch in Dallas.
"It was a teeny tiny little house with five tables, and that was the first legal card house in the state," Hapgood said. "And since then it's blown up."
Texas Card House dealer Carolyn Hapgood has been working with Austin's premier poker house since 2018. (Texas Poker House Austin/Facebook)
From $100 pots to buy-ins of $15,000 or more, Texas Card House has it all, especially as in-state players learn more about the game. Hapgood said there isn't really a typical poker player at the house—instead, the poker table forms an "interesting little ecosystem" that includes college students, a 93-year old Vietnam War veteran, online gamblers, old-school players and everyone in between. The diversity at the table has been enhanced even further by COVID as people clamor to return to in-person events.
But Texas Card House no longer holds a "royal flush" in Austin's poker culture. The Lodge, based in Round Rock, is now expanding to over 60 tables, the largest in Texas, while Palms Social Club, owned by Texas Card Houses' original owner Sam Von Kennel, brought service staff and a refined atmosphere to the Austin scene.
Hapgood said the base of poker players is very large and continues to grow, forming a community as players form friendships on and off the table.
"My favorite part of the poker community is how much fun we have," Hapgood said. "You sit at a table with eight of your friends, everyone's kind of just having a good time. There's a lot of players who will, you know, call or text each other after they're done playing, and they end up inviting each other barbecues, and going out to dinner with their families and stuff like that... those are my favorite people to hang out with."
Getting involved in the poker scene is as easy as tuning into a live stream, and Lagana hopes to see more outsiders like himself get inspired by poker in the future.
"It's kind of like life," Lagana said. "Life isn't just one hand to play... you're only in control of sort of what's in your hand (and) you can't play the card that you weren't dealt with. So it's really been a fascinating life lesson for me."
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From four-time Grammy-nominee turned big-screen actor, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton will debut in the sci-fi short film "Devexity," which is written, directed by and stars Austinites.
The film, brought to life by Austin-based filmmaker Luke Lidell, will premiere on Oct. 7 at the Native Hostel while Burton is in town for Austin City Limits Fest. Then, "Devexity" will head off to film festival screenings, according to a report by The Austin Chronicle.
Following Burton as the film's protagonist, named Jean, "Devexity" takes place across several different settings and surfaces an existential response from the watcher. Burton stars alongside fellow Austinites Ali Pentecost, Dominique Pitts and New Yorker Madison Murrah in the partially black-and-white film.
The film was shot over the course of four days in October 2020, which Lidell said was a challenge of "focus" and "trust" to create. With a variety of scenes and intertwining narratives, the film dives into the topic of virtual reality.
A musician in addition to a filmmaker, Lidell previously directed the film "Telekinetic" in 2018. The script for "Devexity" was written by Lidell with Burton in mind for the lead after meeting him during a music video project in 2017—Lidell said Burton helped him shape the characters along the way.
Now that the door has been opened for work between Burton and Lidell, you're likely to see the pair collaborate again—a Black Pumas documentary is being rumored.
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