Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Some places about "place" to visit

Seeing as BlogRolling updates only erratically (if at all) these days and even my Technorati Favorites widget updates sporadically, I've been spending time yesterday and this morning actually clicking on links to see what's new among people I like to read. It's probably because this time of year involves travelling to see loved ones and friends, but several bloggers have been musing on place in recent days, as readers of this blog know that I have done of late.

During my recent visit to Austin, I thought some more about "going home with the Armadillo," especially in light of N. (she of Sine.qua.non) and her comment in that post. Below the fold, you'll find some of that reflecting, along with links to those other places.

As I write this post, I am wearing my prized "pumpkin" "Keep Austin Weird" t-shirt. Why the sellers call it "pumpkin" when it's clearly so burnt-orange that even Aggies would not be fooled is beyond me. Anyway, there's a story about how this slogan came into existence. I don't know whether it's true or not, but no matter: in the story, as with all enduring myth, one finds a core of undeniable truth that defies whatever "fact" might be brought to bear against it. The fact that I find that truth more ironic than anything else says much about what has happened to my birthplace.

The story goes that some Austin whose bubble had burst in the late-'90s both needed to pay the bills and wanted to promote Austin's high-tech industry. So, they hit upon the slogan "Keep Austin Wired" and hired someone to print up t-shirts. The t-shirts came back with "wired" misspelled as "weird." Yes. The, one dream having disappointed them, decided to trade on Austin's older reputation, in Texas, at least, for weirdness (read: most liberal city in Texas).

Once upon a time--the '70s--that weirdness was not a marketing tool but was genuine. Its house of worship, which N. alluded to in her comment that I mentioned above, was the Armadillo World Headquarters (the Wikipedia entry is more concise, and updated besides). It's a safe bet that, if not for his shows at the Armadillo and the buzz they generated, Willie Nelson would not have become the star that he did; we'd just know him for having written "Crazy" and "Hello Walls." It is for certain that Austin owes its worldwide reputation for its music to the Armadillo and the music scene it engendered.

While in Austin last week, I had occasion to pass where the Armadillo used to stand, and I thought, Back in the day, Austin was a funky little college town and capital city of 250,000 or so people . . . that desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a City. The obvious models in Texas were Dallas and Houston (odd, isn't it, how San Antonio, despite its size--third-largest city in the state--gets overlooked sometimes); since Houston didn't--and doesn't--have zoning laws, that meant Dallas. And that meant devaluing those things that made Austin distinctive in favor of things that signified "Bidness" (except, more often than not, as regards environmental concerns, as symbolized by Barton Springs). Now, the metropolitan area has quadrupled in population since the '70s. For better and/or for worse, people in Texas take Austin seriously as a City. And now, as one cruises along the main streets in South Austin, one finds a concerted effort to turn funkiness into a commodity--as something, now, to be officially proud of.

Now THAT'S weird: weirdness as business-mistake-turned-hoss-to-be-ridden. Co-opted weirdness.

So, yeah: Somebody has printed the t-shirt, and I've bought (into) it, wondering all the while just what state of weirdness I'm keeping Austin in. I'm old enough to remember Austin's earlier, genuine weirdness and, thus, old enough to know that the t-shirts and retro shops and all the rest are for the newer arrivals and tourists.

My colleagues who have visited Austin tell me how wonderful my birthplace is. I agree with them but have to tell them that it's become harder and harder to recognize it when I go back to visit.

My online friend Camille of 327 Market calls this sort of nostalgia for place "geopiety," a handy term I'd not known before (here is a concise definition). Recently at her blog, she recently posted about a boy she once loved because he knew the difference between the street he lived on and the all-but-identical street one block over.

Camille lives in the Bay Area; Conrad Roth has been in her neighborhood for the holidays and, on Christmas Day, posted this wonderful photo essay about his wanderings in San Francisco.

Jeremy Freese, a sociologist who elsewhere has noted that he's both amused and distressed by the fact that he's better known in academic circles for his blog than for his scholarly work (which is considerable), is visiting his family in his native Iowa. Going home is good, of course, yet he freely acknowledges, as do most adult children when they go home, that in some ways he just doesn't quite fit in.

Some places, one can only visit in a virtual sense. I will most likely never visit Mali but, as long-time readers know, I have posted before about that country's marvelous music. This Christmas, as a small treat to myself, I added another CD of Malian music to my collection, New Ancient Strings, by Toumani Diabaté and Ballake Sissoko. These are duets by Mali's foremost players of the kora, the 21-stringed Malian harp-lute you see pictured here. Simply-recorded, single-take, unrehearsed performances that are lovely and precise. As much as I enjoyed In the Heart of the Moon, Diabaté's duet album with Ali Farka Touré from last year, I acknowledge that it can begin to sound same-y after a few tracks. However, this album, released in 1999, has more melodic and stylistic variety. The Amazon link has its 30-second samples, but here is a love song from that album, "Salaman," in its entirety.

According to the accompanying booklet, this album is partly a remake of and partly a tribute to the 1970 album Ancient Strings, recorded by Diabaté's father Sidiki and Ballake's father Djelimadi and (still) held in such high regard in Mali that the national radio station plays it on major holidays, such as its independence day (September 22nd). New Ancient Strings was recorded on that day in 1997. Few songs, much less albums, become quite so linked with a nation's sense of itself that they receive such an official blessing as that.

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Camille said...

Hey John! I was disappointed to find your "geopiety" link is forbidden to the public. I couldn't find anything on wikipedia or

I always thought of it as "love of the land" or or the special holiness that the land can have. I ran into the word in "Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth" and was published by the Whitney Museum to accompany a show of the same name.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

Kevin Lynch, the Landscape Architect write about "a sense of place" which everything you are referring to - inasmuch as it is the totally of the experience and environment, including architecture people, environment, culture, music, food.....whatever distinguishes that place from another and makes you feel a part of or void of that place.