Austin has long been touted to be a “weird” city that is very different from the rest of Texas— but what it means to “Keep Austin Weird” has changed dramatically in recent years. “Keep Austin Weird” started as a slogan for a campaign to save small local businesses from closing. However, this foreboding statement from the staff of a local restaurant really says it all. In 2016, when Tex-Mex cafe Opal Divines closed their original location on South Congress, the restaurant team said: “Austin’s ‘Keep Austin Weird’ fascination is fading into a search for the latest and greatest new restaurant/bar/concept.”
Where does the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” come from?
The phrase “Keep Austin Weird” was first said in the year 2000 by Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich. Upon being asked his reasoning for donating to a local radio show, Wassenich replied, “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird.”
Subsequently, the term “Keep Austin Weird” was adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance and used to launch a campaign. “Keep Austin Weird” served as a mantra for local Austin businesses as they tried to survive the financial implications of the large tide of new people moving to the city.
Local graphic design house Outhouse Designs owns the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and designs tourist merchandise. Interestingly, the company has allowed the trademarked slogan to be the name of an event promotion company. The event promotion company will promote any business’s event, whether it’s local or not, if the business will pay a fee. I am assuming this because they have not specified otherwise on their website. In my view, this practice business corrupts the message of “Keep Austin Weird.”
Monetizing Austin Culture
In order to understand what Keep Austin Weird means, you have to understand just how widely the phrase has been used to sell Austin as a city. Every time I’m in the Austin Airport, I meet the gaze of the headless mannequin in the BookPeople storefront. The mannequin creature is wearing a psychedelic colored tie-dye tee that reads KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD. Then, beneath it in small lettering, it says Support your local businesses.
Local bookstore BookPeople was the one who spearheaded the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign with this tourist merchandise. They did this with the goal of preventing a competing chain bookstore from opening up down the street on N. Lamar Boulevard. Needless to say, they were successful at this. As of 2018, Waterloo Records and BookPeople have sold 400,000 “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers.
This phrase gave Austin a peculiar allure, one that contributed to the population overgrowth. In the last five years, Austin has gone from being a bloated city of 1.9 million people to one boasting a population of nearly 2.3 million. The rising rent costs and the rapidly evolving tastes of the new population has led many local restaurants to close their doors.
Now the phrase, “Keep Austin Weird” brings to mind the new swanky concept restaurants the city has to offer. Local hospitality giant McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality (MML) has monopolized the Austin restaurant industry by creating “concept” or themed restaurants that are by no means authentic to any particular cuisine. They have also managed to buy a few classic “Austin” restaurants and have made them more palatable to new audiences.
Ski Shores, Cafe Josie, and Sweetish Hill Bakery now all fall under MML’s domain. By taking control of these businesses, they are saving them from completely closing. This is pretty cool, however, the “authenticity” MML builds their restaurants around is eerily misleading.
MML opened a “bodega” themed restaurant in an old tire shop in East Austin called Lou’s. I spent a summer working at Lou’s and if you want to read more about that, see the section below. Lou’s sold American Spirit cigarettes with lighters branded with the company’s logo. However, with the kale salad being one of the most popular menu items, the restaurant didn’t exactly attract a smoking clientele. When Lou’s first opened up, it caused a lot of controversy. Neighboring residents protested over the restaurant opening– saying that it was gentrifying the neighborhood.
MML recently opened an Italian restaurant called Sammie’s inside the old Hut’s Hamburgers building. Sammie was apparently the name of the “patriarch” of the family who originally owned this building. When you look at the restaurant’s website, it is trying so hard to be authentic. On the homepage of the website, there’s an old photo of some women standing out front of the building, ostensibly the relatives of Sammie? But who knows? Upon closer inspection, the sign on the building says that it was a fried chicken restaurant. The original “Sammie” had nothing to do with spaghetti and meatballs, but the name of the game is selling authenticity– not being authentic.
A Struggle for Identity
In conclusion, the evolution of the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” reflects the dynamic changes in Austin’s culture and business landscape. Once a rallying cry for local authenticity and resistance against commercial homogenization, it has now become a marketing tool, a symbol of the very gentrification and commercialization it originally opposed. This shift illustrates the complex interplay between local identity, business interests, and cultural change in a rapidly growing city.
As Austin continues to expand and evolve, the original spirit of the phrase challenges both residents and visitors to consider what truly constitutes the heart and soul of a city amidst its ongoing transformation. The debate over what “Keep Austin Weird” means today is more than just about a slogan; it’s a reflection of Austin’s struggle to maintain its unique character in the face of relentless modernization and commercial pressures.