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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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Austin's tintype revival: How one local photographer is making heirloom-quality portraits in the digital age
In the backyard of Justine's Brasserie, a "super-sexy," late-night French bistro at the east end of Fifth Street, behind the new pandemic-friendly dining cabanas and just next to a lit-up pagoda, is a small trailer.
Inside is a kind of old-fashioned photo booth. Wood-lined and hung with haunting tintype portraits—printed on glass plates, similar in style to a daguerreotype—the studio is modeled on traveling wagons from the Civil War era.
British fine art photographer Adrian Whipp first learned about the tintype process while in school for visual communication. But he didn't think of it as a modern process until he discovered the work of John Coffer, an American tintype photographer who traveled across the country with a horse-and-wagon in the late 1970s and early '80s, taking portraits of Civil War reenactors. "It was just such an interesting story that it stuck in the mind," he said.
Adrian Whipp is the photographer behind Lumiere Tintype. (Jonathan Canlas)
Using Coffer's photography manual, Whipp taught himself the recipe and process, which he described as chemically similar to black-and-white film photography. In 2013, after a few years of trial and error, he opened Lumiere in Austin. The timing was inauspicious; many local portrait studios were closing due to the growth of digital photography. But the business has been busy from day one. "That need, I think, that people have for a portrait that lasts, I don't think it went anywhere," he said. "People still want an heirloom, something that they can put on a wall and hand down to their kids."
In the pre-pandemic period, Lumiere was based at Justine's most of the year, except for a summer traveling season. Over the course of a typical evening, Whipp would develop 30 to 35 tintype photographs, starting with families and babies in the early evening before ending with tipsy adults sometime around 2 a.m. "I'm pretty good at wrangling drunk people these days," he told Austonia. "People do cut loose a little bit in the evening."
Last March, however, Justine's closed for three months due to COVID-19. As soon as it reopened, Lumiere resumed business, with a few modifications. Now customers schedule an appointment in advance online; there are around 20 slots per evening. This process is a little bit more orderly than the old walk-in system, Whipp said, but there are still elements of spontaneity.
Tintype photography is finicky. Temperature changes, humidity levels and contamination can all interfere with the final photograph. "Pretty much every night something goes wrong," Whipp said. Sometimes it adds to the photograph, but other times it compromises the quality.
Some of Whipp's subjects can also prove challenging. He loves shooting kids, especially those whose families have returned to his studio year after year, and pets, but the intense flash required to produce a clear photograph can be startling. "It's pretty high stakes," he said.
Once Whipp takes the photograph, he begins developing the plate, submerging it in a tray of solution. "That's kind of what people pay for," he said. "That experience of watching the film develop. It's almost as magical as the film itself."
Whipp mostly runs Lumiere on his own, although he receives a lot of support from his wife, Lauren. A couple of assistants also help him on commercial and editorial shoots, which he does four or five times a year for well vetted clients, such as fellow Austin businesses Helm Boots and Revival Cycles. Where a photographer using a digital camera might deliver 15,000 photos, edited and photoshopped, at the end of a multi-day shoot, he might have 40 tintypes. The upside, however, is "a campaign that looks like really nothing else on the market," he said.
Digital photography is even more dominant than it was when Lumiere opened nearly a decade ago. More than three in four Americans own a smartphone, which likely has a camera roll with thousands of personal photographs. A formal, one-shot portrait may seem outmoded, but Whipp's schedule remains booked thanks to word-of-mouth referrals and walk-ins. "It's funny to see people kind of put their phones down and stare into the fixer tray," Whipp said of his nightly routine. "Not many things can do that."
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The spirit of Austin legend and acclaimed singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is alive and well as the late artist's family and the Daniel Johnston Estate auction a brand-new, never-before-seen and unconventional piece.
Titled "Daniel Johnston is Alive Somewhere," the piece was released on the auction site foundation app on Friday at 2 p.m. It will be available for 24 hours on auction as a nonfungible token, also known as an NFT.
NFTs are tokens that represent unique digital items, like artwork, video, audio and other forms of creative work. At 4 p.m., the piece was bidding at just over $3,000.
Though on a different medium than Johnston's traditional works, the whimsical piece features six of Johnston's signature "friendly frogs"—the very same that adorn Guadalupe Street and 21st Street—over a keyboard excerpt from Johnston's song "Fly Eye," from his 1985 release "Continued Story." The happy multi-colored frogs blink individually while responding "Fine thank you," to the evocative question, "Hi, How are You?" which shares the name of the artist's 1983 album.
This is the first of several pieces of art that the estate plans to auction.
Johnston passed away in Waller, Texas, where he lived next door to his parents, in 2019. The art piece, an authentic drawing by the celebrated artist, was discovered shortly after his death and became the foundation of the final product. Fittingly, Johnston was famous for merging visual art with his music.
Dick Johnston, the artist's brother, said it was important to Johnston that people were able to enjoy his creations and he was always open to embracing new technology, despite his internet-free lifestyle.
The Johnston Estate also launched a new website, which will sell drawings and post galleries. Known for his childlike qualities, many of the pieces in his array of works are drawn with colored markers and pens.
Honoring a spirit so widely celebrated in Austin, The Contemporary Austin Jones Center will host "Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams," an exhibit that intertwines his visual art and music. The exhibit will run from Sept. 11—the two-year anniversary of his death—through May 20, 2022.
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Austin loses another signature part of its culture with the closing of I Luv Video, the famously off-beat paradise for movie buffs, whose owner announced on social media late Tuesday that "circumstances have forced me to close permanently" after nearly four decades in business.
The shop is putting its entire archive—more than 130,000 DVDs, Blu-rays and VHS tapes—up for sale, with owner Conrad Bejarano expressing hope that someone will purchase the entire collection of "rare and unique videos for the connoisseur" and make it accessible to the public.
Bejarano urges anyone interested to call 737-990-9572.
The post struck an instant nerve among its Austin supporters, who were able to buy, trade and rent videos that can be impossible to find or stream online - which is, incidentally, the single biggest threat to video stores across the country in recent years.
The shop billed itself as the world's largest independent video store, providing endless rows of movies for browsing and discovery. Many mourned not just the collection but the brains behind it, as its staffers - like those of many independent specialty shops - were a walking encyclopedia of movie facts, a database unrivaled even by Google.
"I'm a professor, and going to I Love Video was like visiting a research library," one commenter wrote. "The staff is so sharp! I could ask, 'what are your favorite car chase films from 1974?' And they would lay out a dozen without consulting a database, just experience. I lived in New York City before Austin, and there was nothing like I Love Video there. I will miss you and your team of experts."
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