Rich Oppel, editorial advisor for Austonia, is the former editor of the Austin American-Statesman, Tallahassee Democrat and Charlotte Observer. The Observer won three Pulitzers under his leadership. He also has served as chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In retirement, he served as interim editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly and interim Vice President / development of Huston-Tillotson University.
Matias Segura swept his hand across a whiteboard in his office at AISD headquarters, describing how an entrance vestibule works. It might remind you of a sally port at a prison. The vestibule is designed to protect our children from the active shooters who have plagued our nation since Columbine in 1999.
“You start with the signage,” he said. “You know exactly where the entrance is, and that’s for first responders too. We really want to make sure we keep up with visitor patterns. If they come in, they go through a system. Driver’s license, background check, which takes about a minute. We have a software system.”
AISD Director of Operations Matias Segura explains the overall school construction and what the entry vestibule looks like. (Rich Oppel)
The vestibule has two sets of locked doors. The exterior set has an audio-visual intercom, operated by a desk officer who has a view of visitor parking, the building approach and the vestibule. If allowed in, a visitor is buzzed through and then faces questioning and clearance by the desk officer. The visitor is given a card-reader pass. If a second person attempts to “trail in” behind another visitor, he is trapped in the vestibule until his status is determined. The second set of doors, into the main school building, remains locked and shut. It is open when students arrive in the morning.
Thus, the days of walking into the school, maybe waving at the principal’s executive assistant and strolling off to the cafeteria for lunch with your daughter are gone, a relic of a more bucolic time when “active shooters” were never imagined. But one must ask, what do we give up for greater safety?
Austinites remembered the Uvalde shooting victims in a vigil at the Texas Capitol in May. (Tony Fuentes)
Some critics argue that we are at risk of losing traditional values in the redesign of schools, courthouses, hospitals, churches and shopping centers. Writing in The Washington Post, architecture critic Philip Kennicott said the nation’s gun culture “threatens an essential precondition for democracy: its public space… Ideals of openness, flow, transparency and access will no longer be sustainable.”
Segura contemplates the question. At 41, he has held his job as AISD director of operations for four and a half years. Prior to that he was a consultant who led the team to build Austin’s new courthouse. His Austin and Texas roots are deep. He was born here, graduated from Bowie High, and went off to Lubbock to earn a degree in civil engineering from Texas Tech. He returned to secure an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife Joy Burson-Segura have two daughters who attend AISD schools. Segura said he and his operations team love AISD, care deeply about their work, and want citizens “to see us as partners.”
Back to what we lose in hardening the schools.
Segura says, “We think about students’ health. Having daylight, bringing light into a hardened facility, being able to access outdoor learning areas, (which is) hypercritical, especially in what we have learned in the pandemic.” Segura doesn’t like the idea of moats around schools (exotic, expensive) nor of classroom bomb shelters (what would teachers and students think about their looming presence?), efforts that are being tried elsewhere.
Healthcare workers receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the AISD Performing Arts Center in Mueller in 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
AISD must juggle school security with the historic use of our schools for other purposes, such as voting, PTA-PTO meetings, community fairs, and, more recently, COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and food distribution. AISD does not want to end those uses, so the challenge is to design schools with separate rooms or places for those uses.
Clearly, Segura has thought about balancing conflicting equities. For him, it’s not all locked doors and blank brick or concrete walls. He stresses the importance of building a culture that includes shared responsibility of all school employees where, for example, a custodian could ask a stranger whether they have a visitor’s badge. All staffers should be well-trained in security measures, knowledgeable about new technology, and committed to working as a team to protect students, teachers and others. “We are working very, very hard on the culture,” he says. “Also, we need (financial) investment if we are going to move the needle.”
Kennicott, the Washington Post critic, quotes the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist and New York Democrat, who said, “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular era were. Surely, ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in darkness.”
But that was in 2001. What messages will Austin’s new public schools convey to future generations about our 2021 political values?
“First and foremost, these are education spaces that belong to our community. Our objective is to create incredible learning experiences for our students and at the same time ensure that the students and staff are safe.” He said he wants people to view schools as “inspired,” places where they would want to send their children. “Great things are happening in that space,” and that teachers see a place where they want to work and where they feel safe.
Voters in AISD will decide Nov. 8 on a $2.44 billion bond package to provide “funding for improvements to enhance safety, centers on equity, benefits every campus, and addresses affordability,” according to AISD officials.
If you are a committed, grunge-wearing resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy–almost automatic–to look at Texas as an extraordinarily dry, hot and culturally oppressive place that is better to avoid, especially in the summer. Our two granddaughters live with their parents in Portland.
Recently we decided to take the older girl, who is 15, to Dallas. Setting aside the summer heat, a Portlander can adjust to the vibes of Austin without effort. So let’s take Texas with all of its excesses straight up. Dallas, here we come.
Our 15-year-old granddaughter and her sister, 12, have spent summer weeks with us, usually separately so that we could better get to know each individually. In visits focused on Austin and Port Aransas, the girls seemed to be developing an affection for Texas.
Houston and Dallas are two great American cities, the 4th and 9th largest, each loaded with cultural treasures, each standing in glittering and starchy contrast to Austin’s more louche, T-shirts and shorts ways.
Three hours up I-35, Dallas loomed before us as a set of gray skyscrapers in a filmy haze, accessed only through a concrete mixmaster of freeways, ramps and exits. I drove with false confidence. Be calm, I said to myself, it will all end in 10 minutes under the hotel entrance canopy. And it did.
The pool at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. (Crescent Court Hotel)
We stayed three nights at the Crescent Court Hotel ($622 a night for two queens), a high-end hotel in Uptown, patronized by women in white blazers, business people in suits, and tall, lean professional athletes, their shiny Escalades and Corvettes darting in and out, and other celebrities like Bill Barr, the former attorney general who shoe-horned his ample self into a Toyota.
Each morning as I walked to Whole Foods for a cappuccino, a fellow identified by a bellman as Billy the Oilman arrived in his Rolls Royce Phantom. Where does he park? “Wherever he wants to. He likes the Starbucks here.”
We garaged our more modest set of wheels for the visit. We were chauffeured for tips by Matt Cooney and Alfonza “The Rev” Scott in the hotel’s black Audi sedan. They drove us to museums, restaurants and past the enclaves of the rich and famous. In Highland Park, The Rev pointed out the homes of the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman along with the family compound of the Hunts, oil and gas tycoons.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Cartier and Islam” exhibit (until Sept. 18) attracted an older crowd; the nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science was a powerful whirlpool of kids’ groups ricocheting from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the oil fracking exhibit. Watch your shins.
A Geogia O'Keeffe oil painting called "Ranchos Church, New Mexico" at the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art. (Rich Oppel)
For us, the best museum was the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, a 50-minute, madcap drive away via a 75 mph toll lane along I-30. Don’t try it during rush hour. The Carter has an exquisite collection of Remington paintings and sculptures and an excellent array of 19th and 20th-century paintings as well. Pick one museum? The Amon Carter. Peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, free admission and small enough to manage in two hours.
The Fort Worth Stockyards, a place of history (with a dab of schmaltz), fun and good shopping, filled one of our mornings. The 98 acres brand the city as Cowboy Town, with a rodeo and a twice-daily (11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) cattle drive. We shopped for boots, drank coffee and watched the “herd” of 18 longhorns. So languid was their progress that if this were a real market drive the beef would have been very tough and leathery before it hit the steakhouse dinner plate.
The cattle drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Rich Oppel)
But we could identify: the temperature was 97. “I saw a dog chasing a cat today,” said the emcee, deploying a very old joke. “It was so hot that both were walking.”
With limited time, we chose three very different restaurants:
- Nobu, in the Crescent Court Hotel; Jia, a modern Chinese restaurant in Highland Park; and Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth. Nobu’s exotic Japanese menu set us back $480, with tip, for four (we had a guest), but it was worth it.
- Jia was an ordinary suburban strip mall restaurant, but with good food and a reasonable tab of $110 for four.
- Joe T.’s is an 85-year-old Fort Worth institution (think Matt’s El Rancho but larger), a fine Mexican restaurant where a meal with two drinks was $115.
Sushi at high-end restaurant Nobu. (Crescent Hotel)
It was all a splurge for a grandchild’s visit. Now we will get back to our ordinary road trips of Hampton Inns, where a room rate is closer to the Crescent Court’s overnight parking rate of $52. And to corner cafes in small towns.
Did Dallas change our 15-year-old’s view of Texas? “Yes. I think it’s a lot cooler than I did. The fashion, the food.” So, not only Austin is cool. Take Texas as a whole. It’s a big, complex, diverse and wonderful state.
PORT ARANSAS–This is not Hilton Head or Palm Beach, with white tennis shorts and BMWs at the CVS. It’s quintessentially Texas, a beach where F-350s line up at the town’s three stop lights, and kids from Amarillo stare slack-jawed at “the ocean” for the first time.
Now Father’s Day and the 4th of July approach, and a string of 100-degree days lurk ahead in Austin. Here’s our survival guide to Port A.
The average July high in Austin is 95 and in Port Aransas 90.3.
Cars lined up on the beach during Memorial Day weekend. (Rich Oppel)
Driving from Austin, the trip is 200 miles or more. That can take four to five and a half hours, depending on time of day and route. Three strategies:
- Our favorite: Take toll road SH 130 south to Lockhart and take U.S. 183 to Refugio, left on Texas 774 and follow your navigation to Aransas Pass, then left on Texas 361 to the ferry to Port A. Tips: Leave early. Avoid late Thursday or Fridays. Check the Texas DOT website for ferry wait times, which vary from 15 minutes to an hour.
- Second strategy: If the ferry line is long, detour from Bayside south of Refugio to Corpus Christi and come up Mustang Island on highway 361. This adds about 30 miles.
- A no-toll route: Southwest on I-35 to San Antonio, then south-southeast on I-37 into Corpus, north on 361. I-35 can be nerve-racking getting out of Austin and going through San Antonio. I-37 is blissfully boring. About 250 miles.
On the way in, refill your tank at the H-E-B in Aransas Pass, cheaper by a quarter a gallon than any fuel you’ll find on Mustang Island.
Sights and sounds
As you drive through South Texas you will see fields of pump jacks and wind turbines as well as fields of corn and soybean and red brangus ranches. Near the Port A ferry, huge turbine blades made in Europe are stacked high. This is a working port, but it is fast-changing.
- Check VRBO for a condo. The big condos lining the beach (Aransas Princess, The Dunes, Sandpiper, Sea Gull, Mayan Princess and more) have a few pricey rentals left, with a 2-bedroom typically going for $250 to $700 a night.
- Camp on the beach. Buy a $12 annual permit at the IGA or any convenience store, and park between markers 0 and 62. Bring a sturdy tent; it can be windy. A trailer or RV are even better.
- Rent a cottage off the beach. Scores of new stilt houses and multi-family dwellings were built after Hurricane Harvey laid waste to Port A in 2017. Factoid: The average elevation of Port A is 7 feet. Even cheaper than a Port A back-island rental: Find a place off-island in Rockport or Corpus Christi.
Our favorites are the Venetian Hot Plate, Roosevelt’s, Tortuga and Fins. For a cheeseburger, fries and a beer with a Gulf view, the Beach Lodge. There are 60 restaurants on Mustang Island, and the lines are long in the summer. Get there early or late, or order takeout–which is available at many places. Make reservations at the high-end places. Dress is casual. Anyone with shoelaces is way overdressed.
Fun things to do
- Rent a beach cart. They’ll run you up to $150 a day. Port A is one of the few places in Texas where they can be operated by unlicensed drivers 16 and older. Cart rental places outnumber seagulls.
- Cast a fishing line off the South Jetty, and then watch petroleum tankers and cargo ships glide through Aransas Pass, coming from or going to Corpus Christi docks.
- See hundreds of species of birds at the Turnbull Birding Center.
- Eat seafood at Snoopy’s Pier, overlooking Laguna Madre, on South Padre Island Drive 20 miles south of Port A. Afterward, take the kids to Scoopy’s next door for ice cream.
- Ride slowly along the beach and people-watch, or park and stroll or run along the wide strand. Watch the sunrise at Horace Caldwell Pier.
- It’s red snapper season. Take a head boat out of Deep Sea Headquarters for a $125, eight-hour trip 20 to 30 miles out. Limit out with two 16-inch or larger snapper. Great eating.
Port A has gotten expensive since huricane Harvey. Labor costs are skyrocketing because waiters, cleaning people and store attendants can’t find affordable housing on the island. If you haven’t been there in a few years, expect sticker shock.
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