The Astonishing Transformation of Austin

Many of the well-off newcomers to Austin share this philosophy. “I struggle with entitlement,” Gottesman said. “I struggle with people who come here wanting to write their own rules. In Austin, nobody really cares who you are—but you’ll be respected if you contribute.”

“Trying to retrieve words we can’t think of is really the bond that holds us together, isn’t it?”

Cartoon by Teresa Burns Parkhurst

If you live long enough in a place, it becomes haunted by ghosts: memories of events and friends long gone still inhabit spaces that have been levelled and covered over by the unstoppable newness. It’s a form of double vision: you see things that are no longer there. That was on my mind as we drove a few blocks south, to Baylor Street, where a handful of mansions built by the old aristocracy—places where Black servants from Clarksville would have worked—have been handsomely renovated. The late Bill Wittliff, who was a dear friend, used to have an office in an old house on Baylor Street. Best known as the screenwriter for “The Perfect Storm” and the television adaptation of “Lonesome Dove,” he was a giant in the filmmaking scene in Austin and a mentor to young directors and screenwriters. His office was where a struggling writer named William Sydney Porter was said to have once lived. Porter had a day job as a teller at the First National Bank, and in 1894 he was accused of embezzling $854.08, which led to a five-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he decided to take the pen name O. Henry, and wrote some of the most enduring short stories in the American canon.

Speaking of ghosts, I recently went by a medical clinic on Cameron Road and instantly realized that I’d been there before. It had long ago been one of Old Austin’s weirder redoubts: the headquarters of American Atheists, founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who leaped to fame as a plaintiff in the 1963 Supreme Court case that ended mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Life called her “the most hated woman in America,” a title she relished. She spoke on college campuses and appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” She turned over bingo tables in a church and sued the Pope. She claimed to have “an alphabet of degrees—B.A., M.A., LL.B., M.P.S.W., Ph.D., J.D.” She was loud and arrogant and pompous, and almost single-handedly gave atheism a worse name than it already had.

In 1989, I wrote about O’Hair for Texas Monthly. When I arrived at the headquarters for our first interview, I was told, “Madalyn is napping. Would you like to take a look?” My guide led me to O’Hair’s office. Through a window, half a dozen admirers were watching the “first lady of atheism” sleeping on a couch, in a flower-print dress. “It’s a little like Lenin’s tomb,” my guide said, echoing my thoughts. O’Hair awakened, entirely unperturbed by the audience, and launched into a tirade about the government’s monopolistic control of information through the post office.

By the time I wrote about O’Hair, her public life had narrowed to a weekly show on Austin’s public-access channel, put together by her son and her granddaughter. Atheism was a family business. When I dropped in on a taping, she glowered and said, “You’re really dogging us, aren’t you?” She got even angrier as I dug into her background, exposing the manifold lies she’d told about her degrees and accomplishments.

After the article appeared, there was a knock on our door. A constable handed me a document that said, “YOU HAVE BEEN SUED.” It was already on the news. Friends were calling. They were annoyingly giddy. A Jungian scholar congratulated me, saying that O’Hair was an eruption of my unconscious. The local newspaper called it a libel suit, but the actual claim was that I’d used O’Hair’s “famousness” without permission—an odd line of attack for a champion of free speech. She never followed up, and the case was dropped from the docket. In 1995, O’Hair, her son, and her granddaughter disappeared, and several hundred thousand dollars were withdrawn from one of the organization’s accounts. Five years later, their dismembered bodies were discovered in a shallow grave on a ranch in South Texas. (I had nothing to do with it.)

Austin public-access TV also provided an early forum for the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who one time carved a jack-o’-lantern on air while ranting about Austin police officers using infrared cameras. Listening to Jones is like hearing Tony Soprano recite “Finnegans Wake” on amphetamines. When Linklater made “Waking Life,” he cast Jones as a raving madman driving around town with a P.A. system—an unintentional foreshadowing of what was to come. Back then, Jones seemed like another harmless Austin crank with a colorful ability to invent conspiracies on the fly—“this hyper guy that we’d all kind of make fun of,” Linklater has recalled.

I once spoke about Jones with the podcaster Joe Rogan—yet another Californian import. In 2020, he moved to Austin from Los Angeles, buying a lakeside estate. The following year, he invited me on his show. Rogan is five feet eight, but his shoulders are about as wide as he is high. He’s dauntingly muscular and tattooed, but despite his formidable physical presentation he’s friendly and amusing. The experience of being on his podcast is like having a curious fellow pull up a barstool next to you; three hours later, you’ve unloaded your life story.

Before the interview, we got our nostrils swabbed for a mandatory COVID test—which was interesting, given that Rogan had been strongly criticized for giving air time to vaccine skeptics. I mentioned that I had watched an interview he’d done with Alex Jones.

“What’d you think of him?” he asked.

“I think he’s a sociopath.”

“He’s not,” Rogan said. “He’s a head-injury case. I was a cage fighter. I’ve known a lot of guys with head injuries.” He had asked Jones if he’d ever had a serious concussion. Jones had replied, “I’ve been piledrived,” meaning that he was turned upside down and his head was pounded into the concrete. He was thirteen or fourteen years old. Rogan had pressed him about how that might have changed his personality, but Jones was evasive. Jones did say, “I had brain damage—there’s no doubt.”

Is Jones’s story true, or yet another thing that he has confabulated in his strange mind? I met him at a party fifteen years ago. I had never heard of him. My book about 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” had recently come out, and Jones wanted to offer his own theories about how it was a setup job. He backed off when it was apparent that I knew considerably more about the tragedy than he did, but after that conspiracists who called themselves 9/11 Truthers began showing up at my speeches, trying to get me to admit that the government was in on the attack. They even insinuated that I was a part of the conspiracy. Much of their dogma issued directly from Alex Jones’s damaged imagination.

Everywhere in town, you see new apartments and condos and houses under construction, but Austin can’t keep pace with the boom. The university has been buying up properties for subsidized faculty housing, as N.Y.U. does in Manhattan, because professors have been priced out of the market. Students, meanwhile, have been stranded by rent hikes and a scarcity of campus housing. The pressure goes all the way down to tract homes at the bottom of the market. People who can’t afford to live anywhere in Austin either leave or wind up on the street.

In 2019, the staunchly progressive city council decided to “decriminalize homelessness” by lifting a ban on public camping. The plan’s architect, Councilman Greg Casar, a Democrat who had spearheaded the defunding of the police—and who is now a thirty-three-year-old congressman representing the east side—was accused by opponents of trying to make homelessness “more visible” in order to advance the cause of free housing. Immediately, tent cities popped up under freeways and in public parks.

I like to run around Lady Bird Lake, and its shoreline became clogged with tents and tarps and cardboard shanties. Admittedly, it was an ideal campsite, but runners reported being attacked by people perceived to be mentally unstable. In 2020, the city cut back on the park patrol, and huge piles of trash accumulated along the shore and spilled into the lake.

Austinites were shocked and conflicted. A bipartisan pac, Save Austin Now, got a measure on the ballot to reinstitute the camping ban. It passed, by a landslide. But the question remained: Where should the homeless go? It was an agonizing dilemma, especially after the pandemic had taken hold. Governor Abbott ordered the Department of Transportation to clean out the encampments below overpasses, but that only brought more tents and cardboard shelters into parks and onto sidewalks. Defiant campers pitched tents around City Hall. Mackenzie Kelly, a council member, tweeted, “I’ve been harassed and screamed at with obscenities walking out of city hall. One of the men had a metal pipe and at least one knife. I do not feel safe.” Eventually, police began enforcing the ban, and the campers moved back into the parkland woods and the undeveloped tracts where they had once lived. But the homeless problem lingered, along with a lot of ill will. Austin had been thrust into the same political battle that has been fought for decades in San Francisco, without meaningful solutions. In Austin, the issue stirred to life a conservative constituency that few realized was present in the city.

I recalled a protest held in 1988, when the city tried to enforce the camping ban. A group of homeless men “kidnapped” a gosling named Homer (actually, they’d bought him at a country store, for sixteen dollars and eighty-seven cents) and threatened to eat him if the city didn’t propose various reforms, including affordable-housing measures. Roger Swanner, one of the goosenappers, told the Austin American-Statesman, “We just want the people of this city to realize that we’re human beings and should be treated that way.” To keep Homer out of police custody, they launched a Styrofoam barge into the lake, complete with a makeshift cabin. It reminded me of Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi. Homer the Goose became a celebrity. He got to meet Willie Nelson. He led parades down Congress Avenue. He was detained during a housing protest. The city council ultimately agreed to meet with the homeless delegation, to little effect. In 2004, a handsome shelter opened downtown, but it had about a hundred beds—far fewer than needed. Homer ended his days in an animal sanctuary, but he succeeded in making homelessness an issue in a characteristically Austin fashion. The politics of the city weren’t as brutal then, but they were just as feckless where homelessness was concerned.

Texas was the first state to pass a law, based on a model bill issued by Joe Lonsdale’s Cicero Institute, that makes camping in public places a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a five-hundred-dollar fine, and prohibits state funds from going to any city that doesn’t enforce the ban. It’s designed to keep homeless people out of public view.

In 1998, Alan Graham, a former real-estate developer, took aim at the problem, as an act of Christian charity. Two years earlier, he had been on a Catholic men’s retreat and was inspired to create Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which delivered food to homeless Austinites. Then, in 2014, he built Community First! Village, in eastern Travis County. The development currently provides housing for four hundred people. An official head count in 2021 found nearly thirty-two hundred Austinites experiencing homelessness, including people living in shelters. A more recent head count in San Francisco, a smaller city, tallied nearly eight thousand—the great majority unsheltered.

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