There Goes the Neighborhood

Austin Dispatches
No. 92
Sep. 27, 2006

Change is the constant these days. I’ve got to change my doctor,  my bank, my telecom provider,1  at least a half-dozen white dress shirts,2  and at least one social network – but that’s another issue.3 

Recently, I’ve had to consider changing my neighborhood, too.

In early July, the city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department sponsored charrettes for a 2,300-acre section of Austin that includes my home.

“Charrette” is an architectural term for an on-the-spot design effort.  The term is originally French for “cart.”4  In this case, they’re putting the cart before the horse. Any way you call it, the whole thing lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

These public workshops, facilitated partly by a friend on the local salsa scene, were the latest stage of a 30-year plan. In early 2002, the department mailed out questionnaires as the first step toward imposing its "Neighborhood Plan” upon the residents and businesses of what it designates the North Burnet/Gateway Neighborhood. This bureaucratically designated “neighborhood” (in reality, four disparate and distinct neighborhoods) is bounded by U.S. Highway 183 (Research), Braker Lane, MoPac Expressway, Walnut Creek, and Metric Boulevard.5

The plan is to create a comprehensively planned, mixed-use district out of what’s mostly light industrial.6  Moreover, both the Capital Metro commuter rail line and potential future Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail line run through this area.7  Much discussion at the July 2006 meetings I attended concerned where to put the rail station.

With one notable exception – me – the worldviews ranged along the statist spectrum. No wonder my rent has gone up. I’ve tried to mobilize the local grassroots for four years, but there aren’t any.
At one meeting, I spoke briefly with this grubby, ponytailed graybeard who turned out to be a city official, somebody Sullivan, who openly extolled using the zoning ordinances, and the grantable exemptions thereof, to manipulate redevelopment: "A quid pro quo for design standards," he said.8  Appearances aside, I think he and Richard J. Daley would have a lot to talk about.9

Sadly, the organizers, including the government officials, have a better understanding of market forces than most of the citizens who attended. These people vociferously wanted more “out-of-the-box” planning for pedestrian-oriented redevelopment. Some woman from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization said the shortage of parking spaces in North Austin is “regulatory driven, not market driven.”

Gary Bellamy, of Land Design Studio, emphasized the planners aren’t using eminent domain to seize private owners’ properties, threaten existing neighborhoods or displace people. That’s good. That approach is regularly abused because planners hate piecemeal development, and the cities want expanded tax revenues, which is easier to get from commercial retail.10

If centralized planning could be done, they’re the people who could do it. But of course, centralized planning can’t be done effectively.11 

Specifically, comprehensive urban planning is driven by fads, to where planners have come full circle and started promoting what their predecessors squelched decades ago: dense mixes of homes, businesses, and offices, with a lot of street life. Now the planners call it New Urbanism and act like nobody ever thought of it until they came along.12  How did people manage before the existence of college degrees in urban planning? The real answer: a helluva lot better then than now.13

And as “Live and Let Live” host Gary Johnson pointed out, most of the City’s involvement translates to a bunch of people writing each other checks. These bureaucrats aren’t even really doing any planning, because most every property in the area that can be developed already has been; the newest developments are going ahead anyway. The bureaucrats are really just playing catch up so they can act like they contributed more to the area than a lot of headaches, such as the existing street layout.

Elsewhere in the Neighborhood…

Meanwhile, a former client has moved out of its office at Highway 183 (Anderson Lane) and Burnet Road to a larger facility off Kramer Lane.14  Nearby, ownership is changing hands for part of the Braker Center office complex, at Braker Lane and Metric Boulevard.15 

Albertson’s at Lamar Boulevard and Braker closed, after the chain was drubbed in the Austin market by H-E-B and Wal-Mart.16 

Half Price Books has opened a new store at the Parmer Crossing shopping plaza. It replaces the store in Corporate Center off Highway 183 (Anderson Lane).

Across the street, Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza opened in The Market at Parmer Lane. What the Irish have to do with pizza, and why a name from the British Isles is supposed to inspire culinary confidence, is a mystery to me. For that matter, why are so many pizza parlors stuck with some Olde English name and décor?

On July 25, KAMX–FM reported an auto collision at MoPac and Braker Lane. On Aug. 2, I witnessed the aftermath of a multi-car smash-up on the northbound lane of MoPac, just south of the Parmer Lane intersection. On Aug. 31, I witnessed the aftermath of a multi-car smash-up on Stonehollow Drive near the access to ACC Northridge. On Sep. 1, an auto collision occurred at the corner of Stonehollow and Gracy Farms Lane. It must officially be fall.

Austin Death Watch

The local ruling elite’s impingement on my quality of life extends beyond my neighborhood. The City Council has voted to limit the size of houses, and thus infringe on the rights of property owners.17  Also, such interference increases the cost of housing beyond its natural level. The likelihood that I can afford to live within city limits diminishes with each year.18

Meanwhile a nonprofit spent $8 million to convert a hotel in South Austin into affordable housing.19  I’ve driven by that place for years and it’s an isolated place. For all their hand-wringing and pretensions to moral superiority, yuppie pinkos don’t want smelly, drug-addled, unpredictable bums around them, either. This is their way of getting street bums away from the rest of us, as opposed to the old-school methods of cracking open their skulls or dousing them with gasoline to drive them out of town.20 

Of course, since these same pinks put the screws to us on housing, as described above, I could end up living in that motel, too.

On the other hand, the Council also voted to allow dogs at restaurants.21  In other words, you can’t smoke in a bar,22  but you’ve got to share where you eat with dumb, panicky, toothy beasts that shed, drool and roll around in their own feces given half a chance. Not even Molly Ivins is that obnoxious. 

Some other recent lowlights:

Austin Police Chief Stan Knee got the boot, or elbow. Officially, he resigned to teach police work in Afghanistan, but he’s really just going there for some peace and quite.23  His interim replacement is Cathy Ellison, the Condoleezza Rice of Austin law enforcement – a nontraditional representative of a government institution and practice founded upon dubious premises.24  Meanwhile, city officials plan to cut police overtime by 25 percent to rein in ballooning expenses.25

I received a flyer from Verizon touting the free grand opening of something called the South Park Meadows. The text gave me the impression this place was a smaller-scale version of the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in San Antonio. But a letter to the Statesman pointed out that the South Park Meadows used to be a music venue. Now it’s a shopping center.26

All joking aside, GM Steakhouse at 626 N. Lamar Blvd., depicted in “Slacker,” has closed. Not even the Chronicle could manage more than a sympathetic shrug to the demise of the once-popular greasy spoon. Maybe the owner didn’t kiss the Chronicle’s ass enough. However, upon reflection, I must concur with the Chronicle’s shrug. I breakfasted upon a big chicken-fried steak with gravy and a side of hash browns there, probably soon after I’d settled in town, and I remember being unimpressed. It’s one of several longtime eateries in town that left me wondering if Austinites were too stoned or hickish, or reliant on drug-contaminated memories, to realize these places weren’t that good.27

The Chronicle speculated a bikers’ turf dispute is behind a gangland-style slaying outside Saccone’s Pizza in March.28

The Rolling Stones, an occasionally tolerable limey rock band from the ‘60s fronted by financier Sir Michael Jagger, is supposed to perform at Zilker Park in October. This means either Austin has reached the big time, or that the Stones aren’t as big as they used to be. Probably the latter.29 

Cultural Canapés

Speaking of lame limey acts, lawyers for the ex-porn starlet wife of decaying aristocrat Sir Paul McCartney are extracting a huge chunk of his ill-gotten fortune in increasingly nasty divorce proceedings. The Boomer icon seems to have fallen for his own lyrics  – “all you need is love” – and didn’t prepare a pre-nuptial agreement.30 

Robert De Niro donated his old stuff to the Harry Ransom Center at UT.31  In the movie version, De Niro’s character would’ve worked himself into a snit over the absence of storage space in his New York tenement. Then either he or his shrewish wife, played by some Italian broad, would get the idea to donate the stuff to the center for a big tax write-off. Hilarity ensues as he travels to Austin, browbeating and yelling at every slowpoke yokel who gets in his way.32

The New Jersey government shut down for lack of a budget. More importantly, so did the Atlantic City casinos.33  Sounds like a good premise for a “Sopranos” episode: “In a freak twist, Tony is named acting governor when devastating scandals leave Trenton leaderless and unable to produce a budget. Can a Mafiosi make it as capo di regime in the statehouse, or should he have gone to law school first?”34 

I glanced at the headlines and the news hit me like a kick to the gut. I knew then Mickey Spillane was dead as hell. The press pounded out the pulpiest prose in praise of a damned good yarn spinner. There was nothing left to do except hoist a cold one. Here’s to you, pal.35 

The “Miami Vice” movie was worth seeing just to learn I’m a better salsa dancer than two of the main actors. Meanwhile, a dance major and a dance instructor have each told me I was good dancer, and another partner asked if I were Puerto Rican because of my ability on the floor.36

For Dad’s birthday, I’d decided on a gift of marzipan. The hard part was finding it, even on the Internet. I couldn’t even recall having tried any before. By chance, I was walking by the candy counter at Whole Foods downtown, while another customer was ordering some. I looked again and realized I was directly facing a big display of the pastry, molded to resemble fruit.

Of course, I couldn’t risk sending Dad something like that without sampling it first. In this case, two pieces, each about the size of my thumb, for $2, or $13/pound. As I slowly nibbled on the marzipan, a familiar taste triggered memories of Christmases past. I had eaten it before, but nobody called it by its name. Still, for the price, I ought to have heard an angelic choir, or, as with Proust’s madeleine, at least been inspired to write a massive novel. That must’ve been some cookie. Then again, I’m not a neurasthenic, name-dropping, social-climbing, homosexual French Jew from the Belle Époque. For which, I think, all and sundry are grateful.37 

On the Town

July 13: Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin played at Antone’s, as part of its 31st anniversary party.38  While there, I encountered Badnarik campaign staffer Jon Airheart.39

July 22: I guested on “Live and Let Live” to discuss the city’s neighborhood plan. Then I went to The Copa. I was stumbling around half blind because I didn’t insert my new contacts just so. The women I danced with had expressions of “Oh, he’s interested in me.” At least, that’s how they looked when I could focus my vision, in between trying to remember the name of the woman I was dancing with, and the proper frame and footwork during the dance.

Interestingly, neither my new contacts nor my new glasses have prompted comments from people, i.e., “Hey, you’re wearing contacts.”

Aug. 27:  As a post-Hurricane Katrina benefit, Jazz kitchen hosted a New Orleans Sunday brunch buffet. It was dry and bland – attributes not normally associated with that city’s cuisine.40  Likewise, the live music was dry and bland, a hackneyed Disneyfied Dixieland heavy on the cut-time banjos.41  It was enough to give jazz itself a bad name. 42

You’d think a city with a reputation as funky as Austin’s, paying tribute to another funky city, could do better than some Rotarian luncheon from Duluth.43  As Chronicle TV critic Belinda Acosta wrote in a different context, the theme to “Keep Austin Weird” is “white affluence masked with funkiness; a surface wildness ruled by conventional values; and the most annoying trait of all: plucking cultural symbols, language, or icons from ‘the other’ to accessorize.” 44

Sep. 2: I walked into Central Market and salsa music was on the sound system. I locked eyes with the nearest attractive woman in the produce aisles. The dancing went pretty well, until the staff grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me out of the store.

“You’ll never eat chèvre in this town again,” a clerk said, dramatically wiping his hands against each other. “And you were supposed to make that turn on the fifth beat.” Everybody’s a critic.

Sep. 9: The Chronicle celebrated its 25th anniversary with a free gallery show of its photos at the Austin Museum of Art. Natch, I went for the free food and a chance to see the inside of this place for the first time. I ignored the photos – published as a supplement in the Sep. 8 issue and sped through the paintings while looking for the restroom. Glad I didn't have to pay to see the museum’s collection. The food was OK, though. Then I danced at The Copa for about two-and-a-half hours with a succession of luscious exotic women from around the world.45 

Media Indigest

The Statesman’s June 29 entertainment supplement contains a feature on regional beauty pageants, but the contest winner on the cover has eye bags and a double chin.

Esquire offers advice on how to create a dimple below the knot of a necktie. Amazingly, I’ve never seen advice on that in a men’s magazine before. Dad taught me that years ago, but I thought it belonged to that repository of forgotten knowledge.46

Family Matters

Finally, I welcome the birth of my newest nephew, Nicholas:




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28 Smith. “The Hells Angels Hit.” AC 19 May 2006: 32+.
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46 “The Rules of Wearing Shirts.” Esquire July 2006: 58.