The VICE Guide to Austin
Make Austin weird again. A local's guide to the ATX.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Welcome to Austin! We don't know what the fuck is going on either!
The "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers pretty much only show up on sorority girls' 4Runners now, and a more common one these days is "Welcome to Austin, Please Don't Move Here." Everyone and their cosmic Cowboy uncle has an opinion on how Austin has changed; it will be the primary conversation you have with Uber drivers. For good or ill, that's open to debate. An area of town you haven't been to in a few months can still look completely different (condos, always condos), and the list of iconic establishments that are now but foundations for "boutiques" continues to grow. Black flight is a real thing here as the city becomes more homogeneous, with more and more design-focused white yuppies coming every day to take advantage of whatever they can.
The irony isn't lost on anyone. The same "authentic" things that made Austin appealing in the first place—the strange little blueberry in a cherry pie, the arts scene that's a shotgun wedding between hippies and cowboys, cheap housing, SXSW—are pretty much being smothered by progress and brands and the commercialization of a special thing. All the best and worst parts of gentrification. It's a mini tech corridor, still a proponent of music, and very livable if you make a few sacrifices.
The result is a town in flux, suffering growing pains and undergoing a learning curve. On the same street, you'll see start-up jocks, old Austinites of lore, hipsters, health food and yoga cultists, "gosh, y'all" Southern belles, and plenty of cowboy boots. It'll take you longer than imagined to find someone who's actually from here (everyone's so young!). In other words, it's a super interesting time to be here. It won't ever be like it was or how it's been advertised, but that's OK. This is the new-ish land of opportunity. Come on in, the water's fine enough.
NEIGHBORHOODS WE TOLERATE
In the midst of its rapid rise as a city of importance, Austin is still trying to figure out how to define itself, not just compared to other cities, but the areas that comprise it. Yes, everyone knows The Drag, and Dirty Sixth, and the other main booze-and-food strips people seem to frequent. And yes, while the city has its official list of "districts," you'll have to do better than saying "Old West Austin" or "Judge's Hill" when talking with others. Everybody knows Clarksville's where all the rich people live, and Hyde Park's classy in that old Austin way. But everyone seems to have a personal, and personally revealing, opinion about the Realtor®-friendly use of SoCo for South Congress. And do all the new shops on South Lamar mean that it counts as its own area now, too? More often than not, navigation and bearing-gathering revolves around singular places. This being a young person's town, those singular places are more often than not coffee houses, bars, or taco shops. Oh, you live by Paco's Tacos? Gimme 20 mins. Ugh, yes, traffic on I-35 just keeps getting worse.
Dirty Sixth/ Red River
No one with any sense actually likes Dirty Sixth. It is like every boorish, loud, overcrowded party street in every major town, complete with "shot bars," cover bands, and the kind of people you would never associate with in public or private. As if that weren't enough, the number of police who stand guard during the busy hours lend the street an extra sense of menace. Day time ain't much of an improvement, as it's taken over by the aggressively destitute (the homeless shelter is the next block over), and the aroma of stale piss is so strong as to overwhelm those simply driving by.
The area gets a little better just a few steps away from the drunken horde, with a few decent locations like the Southwestern-horror-punk bar Casino El Camino offering legendary burgers and Bloody Marys, as well as Easy Tiger, half a block from the highway that divides this downtown district from the East Side. Inevitably, you will find yourself on Dirty Sixth, often when some friends visiting from another Texas town will want to meet up in that area because they, like tourists, don't know any better. Just brace yourself and do what everyone else is doing: get sloppy drunk to dull the pain.
It's weird how things can change in just a few city blocks. All but capping off the horror of Dirty Sixth is Red River Cultural District, which, while still crowded and full of untouchables, is somehow, magically, ten times better than Sixth Street. Perhaps it's the fact that the city insisted on adding "cultural district" to its official name. More likely it's the Texas-favorite fare (pizza, barbecue, Mexican), and gay-friendly venues like Barbarella and Cheer-Up Charlies keeping everyone honest. Not to mention the fact that, unlike Dirty Sixth, drunk pedestrians must keep to the sidewalks, as people do in civilized societies. Not only can you spend an entire night on Red River without once stepping foot onto Dirty Sixth, it's much advised.
It's hard to put a finger on what makes Rainey Street both appealing and suspect. For one, it's an actual neighborhood. As in, every bar is a converted house. Just a few years ago, Rainey seemed like a small, boozy oasis, with a great BYOB open-air restaurant, G'Raj Mahal Cafe. Now, with high-rises being built on both sides, G'Raj having been turned into a glitzy brick-and-mortar spot, and more and more people flooding in on the weekend, the area can feel a little claustrophobic. There's not much difference between the various bars, although beer lovers gravitate toward Bangers and its massive tap selection. The crowd, too, is hard to describe. No one's unpleasant, per se, but if Dirty Sixth is where the dropouts and college sophomores go to party, Rainey is the spot where the preppier, upperclassmen go to get hammered.
East: 6th, Chavez, Manor
Austin doesn't really have "districts." Or rather, we haven't come to a unanimous consensus, due in large part to the fact that the city has developed so rapidly. We're still trying to get our bearings. But for simplicity, just about anything east of I-35, south of Manor St., and north of the river is considered "the East Side." Basically, those are the areas that the city used to force its ethnic populations to live, which are now being infested by yuppies.
East Sixth, of course, is the heart of hip Austin. But please-please-please don't make any references to "Brooklyn" while you're there. Yes, you'll see a higher concentration of hipsters here than any other area of town, but for a mostly young white crowd, it feels surprisingly diverse. Condos and boutique-looking businesses are sprouting up on any parcel of land big enough for an outhouse, so the area is likely in phase two of its "cool" demise. But the area is just the right size: bustling and busy without feeling cramped. And it includes a variety of watering holes, including local favorites like Violet Crown, The Liberty, and Rio Rita.
East Chavez is experiencing a sped-up version of East Sixth's development, and of Austin's in general. Traditionally a Latino neighborhood, a few remnants like the restaurant Juan in a Million remain. But when a local piñata shop was unceremoniously torn down by developers to make way for a goddamn cat cafe, Chavez became the evil poster child for the Austin's relentless gentrification. The area still looks rough around the edges, and the neighborhoods immediately around the street still look homely. At last one immediately popular bar has sprung up, Stay Gold, while a couple others that look suspiciously cat-friendly have opened recently. Maybe do a little something on that street, then meander up a few blocks to East Sixth.
While not exactly right nearby, Manor Rd., up near 22nd St., has that Austin-y feel of being a little worn-in yet working on reupholstering. Crowd-wise, it's kinda the hippish kids from East Sixth who finally made salary and don't feel like raging all night. The higher-end Salty Sow is there, catty-corner to El Sapo, a Tex-Mex burger joint in a converted gas station/auto shop. Then, of course, there's the famous Mi Madre's and the original, can't-lose El Chilito. The new-ish bars are relaxed if mostly forgettable, and every tattooed technophile packs into Thunderbird Coffee to steal the WiFi. Bike a few blocks south to the Austin Daily Press and Bennu Coffee (open 24/7) on MLK. And for the adventurous, go another mile south to the hip bar/cafe/grocery store Quickie Pickie on 11th.