Southern Hospitality: How Austin’s Quirky Community is Moving South

This story was part of a group reporting package put together by myself and some of my fellow journalists. I wrote the written portion, viewable below, as well as put together a Storify. The entire package can be seen here.

Photo: Tessa Meriwether

Photo: Tessa Meriwether

A busy night at Moontower Saloon doesn’t feel too far removed from a small-town keg party. You drive up a dirt path, where a man shines a flashlight in your car, checking IDs. You keep moving on back to the vast parking lot that is really just a large plot of dirt. And then, on foot, you work your way back to the bar, where people are everywhere, leaning over pool tables and crowded around fire pits. A few play washers over by the outdoor bathrooms that are fashioned to look like outhouses, but are actually quite clean. It’s a little too cold for sand volleyball, but the option’s there if you want it.

It seems like a nice place to hang out with friends, even if they’re friends you don’t know yet. Like regular customer Sal Bartone said: “You get a lot of good people out here and a lot of good times. So, it’s not just for people to drink the alcohol or whatever–it’s just a community group and just having people together.”

Moontower manager, Eddie Erdwurm, elaborated.

“I call it a ‘rustic neighborhood bar,’” said Erdwurm. “Really, we’re just a neighborhood bar on steroids.”

It isn’t just Moontower that gives off this neighborhood vibe, either. It’s South Austin as a whole. The scene in this part of the city is slowly, but surely, expanding, based largely on its community feel. But also because it seems to encompass something that other parts of Austin may have lost.

People say it all the time: Austin has changed. It “isn’t what it used to be.” Numerically and practically, they aren’t wrong. Austin had a 12 percent population increase in just the three years between 2010 and 2013, and then it grew by more than 22,000 people in the following year. According to an article from the Austin Business Journal published in 2014, a net amount of 110 people move to Austin every day. And the changes don’t stop with the population growth. To accommodate all of these people, the city is constantly tearing down buildings and homes to build new residences, hotels, and businesses. To go to downtown Austin’s website’s “emerging projects” page is to find a list of 46 projects either planned or already underway. The changes are constant and unyielding.

Multiple attempts to contact city council members for comment on Austin’s changes were made, but no answers were received.

With these changes comes a cultural problem. Austin has long been known as a place that prides itself on individuality, on being “weird.” And this metropolitanization of the bulk of the city has made many wonder if Austin can keep its quirky cred. Some establishments, like Maria’s Taco Xpress on Lamar and the Cathedral of Junk on Lareina are keeping the weird alive, but there is a tension between the quickly growing city and its long-standing reputation.

Al Billings, a musician and longtime resident of Austin, is one person who thinks the city is losing its weirdness.

“I think it’s getting more smoothed out,” Billings said, of Austin’s “weird” culture. He added that even the music scene today is different: “The music’s not local anymore…The sound’s all the same, the compression’s all the same.”

Billings remembers the way Austin was twenty years ago, before the massive population increase.

“In those days, there was no crime in downtown Austin. Zero. And so I could walk all the way from down at Riverside and Congress all the way down to 5th Street, without ever being bothered by anybody,” said Billings. “Walk up and down the streets and see everybody playing music. Everybody. Stevie Ray Vaughn would be in there, his band [Double Trouble] would be in there…Everybody was on the street, everybody was there, and they were playing.”

While the city is still known for its music, Austin as Billings describes it is not the Austin of today. But, according to residents of South Austin, their neighborhood is where long-time Austinites have found a less hectic, more nostalgic vibe.

“All the Austinites have decided to move even more south, because downtown is just crazy, so they settled on this place,” said Erdwurm. “The ones who’ve been around for a while, they don’t like dealing with the yuppies on the West side, the hipsters on the East side. North just doesn’t seem to have that character that South Austin has. Nobody likes to deal with downtown traffic. So, I think that’s why they moved down here.”

And the emphasis on community and shared experience mentioned previously also adds to South Austin’s charm.

“I was born and raised here,” said Kara Jo Sanders, another Moontower Saloon regular. “If I go to Central Austin or I go to North Austin, and I sit there and ask somebody where they’re from, they can’t tell me they were born and raised here. I feel like I’m in Africa when I go to North Austin or Central Austin because they don’t even know anything about Austin. If you come South, everybody knows everybody here. We’re Austinites. This is our ground.”

Bartone agreed.

“The people here are more friendly, they’re more open. They feel like more family. Like, when you go up north, it’s more–I don’t know–it’s more snobbiness and how much money you make and everything else,” said Bartone. “And down South Austin, it’s just family.”

Erdwurm agreed as well, saying it is the people that make South Austin establishments like Moontower what they are.

“What makes this bar is not just the place but the people that come here,” said Erdwurm. “Our regulars are incredible, they’re just laid back people and they range. Our oldest, I think, is 86, and he’s here a lot. All the way down to 21 and everything in between. Every lifestyle and age you can think [of]. So, it’s pretty much crossing paths.”

It remains to be seen just how much Austin’s rapid growth will continue to change its culture and communities. But in the meantime, the South is doing its part to keep Austin weird.