Keeping Austin weird: 9 times 'the People's Republic of Austin' was more progressive than the rest of Texas
There's a reason Austin is known as that "blueberry floating in a bowl of tomato soup," even if the phrase was not meant to be taken as a compliment. "The People's Republic of Austin" has a history of doing things differently than the rest of the state sometimes.
Whether being thrown around by Texas' longstanding Republicans, like when Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated "getting out of the People's Republic of Austin," or embraced by Austin's leftward-leaning, the phrase was coined for Austin's stark departure from the values of the rest of the state.
But what actually sets Austin apart from the rest of Texas? Here's how Austin has been more progressive than the red state it's in.
1. The local mask mandate is still in effect
Masks are still required in Austin. (Pexels)
Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order that 100% reopened Texas last month, the city of Austin fought to continue to mask use through a loophole allowing the city health authority to make COVID ordinances. Though Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the city, Austin stood its ground and won when Texas Judge Lora Livingston ruled the city could keep its mandate.
2. Project Connect passed, despite big tax increase
A rendering of what Project Connect will bring to Austin. (Capital Metro)
Despite the $7.1 billion price tag and a 20% increase to the city's property tax rate, Austinites passed Prop A in November, a.k.a Project Connect, with flying colors. A long time coming, voters rejected two other light rail proposals in 2014 and 2000. Project Connect is expected to be partially complete by 2030, a long investment, but is expected to reduce Austin's worsening traffic, provide transit equity and reduce the city's carbon footprint.
3. Cannabis has been decriminalized
Austin does not make arrests for low-level marijuana offenses. (Pexels)
Former police chief Brian Manley announced that APD officers would no longer make arrests or write tickets for low-level, non-violent possession of marijuana offenses on July 2, 2020, six months after Austin City Council ordered APD to do so. After Manley argued against the order, saying it was still illegal on the federal level, Austin City Council voted to no longer pay for marijuana testing, which severely impacted the chances of achieving conviction. Of course, Austin stoner Willie Nelson rejoiced, announcing a cannabis line and convention earlier this year.
4. "Black Austin Matters" mural
Black Artists Matter is painted on East 11th Street in Austin. (Lars Plougmann/CC)
Setting the city apart from other big metro areas like San Francisco, New York and the rest of Texas, The Austin Justice Coalition and Capitol View Arts decided to keep focus local when they painted "Black Austin Matters" instead of "Black Lives Matter" on Congress Avenue, leading up to the Texas Capitol, on June 16, 2020. While Dallas was the only city in Texas that beat Austin to the punch, painting the resonant phrase "Black Lives Matter" in front of Dallas City Hall, Austin's was the first city-sanctioned mural and the only city with two declarations; on East 11th, the same organizations painted "Black Artists Matter" in support of not only Black Austinites, but Black Artists who have been keeping the arts alive in Austin for decades.
5. Austin embraced the Green New Deal and is working toward greener energy
Austin has been forthcoming with plans to be a greener city. (Capital Metro)
The highly-contested Green New Deal, brought forth by U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to try and curb greenhouse gas emissions, was formally backed by Austin City Council in May 2019. Though the deal did not pass, some council members called the resolution "a win/win for everybody," as it addresses issues Austin currently deals with: natural disasters and carbon-based transit. Known as Flash Flood Alley, Central Texas is no stranger to inclement weather and one resolution in the Green New Deal called for cities to hire a "resilience officer" to guide Austin through future environmental challenges. Austin still has yet to hire said officer but City Council has recommended it on more than one occasion. The second resolution called for cities to lower the carbon footprint through greener transit options. As part of Project Connect, Austin has committed to purchase only zero-emission electric buses by 2022 (and they even have USB ports). The City also plans to integrate 125 new electric bikes in addition to the 200 already on the streets.
Additionally, Austin Energy has made a commitment to shift to more use of renewable energy with a solar, wind and biomass plant.
6. Austin is a "Freedom City"
In an ongoing battle to address immigration and racial disparities in the city, Austin City Council voted in favor of "Freedom City" policies in June 2018. In two resolutions, the City committed to the reduction of arrests for low-level charges, as they contribute to racial disparities in the Travis County Jail system and deportation. The City also vowed to create policies to protect immigrants, such as informing them of their right not to answer when asked of immigration status and document the circumstances that led to the question being asked. The policy is the first of its kind in the U.S.
7. Austin's total reverence for Leslie Cochran
Colloquially known as "Leslie the homeless man," Cochran was ahead of his time. A cross-dresser, though he would likely be known as a "queen" in today's terms, Cochran became famous for strutting around the streets of Austin in a leopard-print thong and platform heels. Cochran became the epitome of weird in Austin, running for mayor three times, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was an outspoken advocate for homeless rights and justice against police brutality. The city was completely devoted to Leslie; he died on March 8, 2012, after a head injury in 2009 left him in declining health. The date was declared "Leslie Day" by former mayor Lee Leffingwell. Hundreds gathered at Cochran's memorials, a "Love for Leslie" parade and he is still known for being a symbol of tolerance.
8. “Keep Austin Weird” was popularized by a desire to keep businesses local
Keep Austin Weird can still be found on bumpers around town. (Al Mendelsohn/cc)
Local Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich called his local radio station to make his annual donation in 2000. Asked by the host why he was donating, Wassennich said it "helps keep Austin weird," and a local brand campaign was born. The slogan was written on bumper stickers by Wassenich and his wife and popularized as a movement. Quickly picked up by Waterloo Records and Book People, which sold bumper stickers as well, the phrase became synonymous with local businesses. When chain bookstore Borders tried to move in, on 6th Street and Lamar in downtown Austin, across the street from the original Book People and Waterloo, it was heavily opposed by the community and local nonprofit, Liveable City. In the end, Borders pulled out of the development and small businesses won. Austin stayed weird.
9. Austin is the only “topless tested” city in Texas
A nude notice sign sits outside Hippie Hollow at 7000 Comanche Trail. (CC)
Technically women can go topless anywhere in Texas, according to advocacy group GoTopless, which cites that the Lone Star State is one of "top freedom" among a majority of other U.S. states. However, Austin is the only "topless tested" city in Texas, and one of only 15 cities total, meaning our local women are more likely to free the nipple. Austin doesn't have any local public nudity laws but that doesn't mean you can't be arrested for disorderly conduct or lewd behavior. If you want to don your birthday suit, you might be better off heading to Hippie Hollow, Texas' only nude park.
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.