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Austin and Everything Else 4: Secret Histories

Austin and Everything Else is an ongoing outlook on the largest city for game development in America's second-largest state for game development, for the sake of everyone who's ever considered, had in the past, or currently lives here.

John Henderson

February 5, 2016

5 Min Read

There are still old-timers in Austin that remember how it was possible to come here with nothing, and live. Not make a living, but live. That sort of thing creates a mythology that resonates today. Even among game developers.

Austin's counter-culture was born in 1970. That's when three things happened at roughly the same time: 

  1. The Summer of Love came and went in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and hippie culture couldn't afford the rent anymore.

  2. Willie Nelson, who is from Texas (Abbott, a wide spot in the road closer to Waco than to Austin,) but needed to go to Nashville to make his bones as a singer-songwriter, migrated back, and chose Austin to stay. 

  3. A National Guard armory got renovated and turned into a honky-tonk. Having a half-cylinder roof, the building lent itself to the name, Armadillo World Headquarters.

The result: Austin's counter-culture became rooted heavily in live music. People would come to the Armadillo to watch Willie Nelson play. Or Booker T. and the MG's. Or Janis Joplin. This being Texas, the locals were variously known as the “cowboys,” the “rednecks,” or “Bubba” -- and then there were the "hippies," at the time still integrating into Texas culture. That's who you'd see once you got inside the Armadillo, brought together by good shows they both wanted to see.

As Molly Ivins described the scene at the time, “the cowboys started growin' their hair long, and the hippies started wearin' hats and boots, and pretty soon you couldn't tell 'em apart.”

Little was going on industry-wise in 1970s Austin. Other than government and the University of Texas at Austin (the “yewn-versty,” rhyming with “thirsty,”) there weren't many large employers. Being a college and “gummint” city, there were lots of service jobs: running the counter at the grocery store, cleaning tables at a cafe, and the like.

What there was lots of, was cheap rent. If you didn't mind lots of roommates, Austin was a place to “just be.” This attracted the sort of dreamer-artist-misdirected-ambitious sort that might not make it in too many other places.

What happened next? Well, the Armadillo closed after a 10-year run. The block where it stood at the corner of Barton Springs Road and South 1st Street is now a parking lot for city offices. But there's a plaque by the sidewalk, near where it used to be.

Before it closed, the Armadillo helped inspire the local public TV station, now known as KLRU, to create a live music show. Begun in 1974, Austin City Limits is the longest-running live-music show on TV. Its 40th season in 2014 began with Nine Inch Nails and ended with the Foo Fighters.

Willie Nelson turned 82 in 2015. In 2012, part of 2nd Avenue was renamed Willie Nelson Boulevard. A statue of Nelson now stands outside the Moody Theater, where Austin City Limits tapes now. A plaque marks its dedication: on April 20, 2012. (It was also at 4:20 in the afternoon. Nelson was on hand and performed an original song, “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”)

Beyond that, Austin has a 45-year history of people going to see shows. Just about every bar where you can buy an alcoholic drink, has a stage. If it's not music, it's comedy, theater, improv, dance or something so experimental there isn't a word for it.

Most of the bars are still downtown, though. The old employers, plus titans of finance like Frost Bank and a whole lot of real estate developers, are squeezing available housing space. "Luxury" is a term I read a lot more often than "affordable" on new apartment projects.

"Convenient" is an accurate term, but convenient to what? If you had a "gummint" job and needed to go to a building on the Capitol grounds, Travis County's building or the federal courthouse, I'd understand. And if you're the type that likes being able to walk to a bar to sit and watch a band after work, that would also make sense. It's not as though downtown is the only place in Austin with office space.

The economics don't work, though. Downtown rents have increased 34 percent between 2011 and 2015 (about 8.5% a year,) so says Mike Kennedy, managing director of the local Avison Young real estate office. Those looking at $2 a square foot per month as a reasonable deal might not realize the wages are slightly lower for Austin than most of America. (Unless you're a dentist or a human resources pro, oddly enough.)


If you've followed this column thus far, you probably noticed that it's not about game development. Not much, anyway. I want to thank everyone who's been following it so far, and for the encouragement of Jon Jones, Alexander Brandon, Jill Friedman, Paul Russel, Jennifer Bullard and Frank Coppersmith, along with a lot of folks in and around the Austin area.

I'm fascinated by all the things that lead up to people making up pastimes, toys and time-wasters generally referred to as "games." That includes where they live, who they associate with, how they regard themselves and each other, and where their means to live comes from. I believe the degree to which people could feel like part of something larger of themselves is important -- no matter if their team of fellow developers is 1, 5, 50 or 100 people.

Real places, therefore, still matter. Even in the age of the Internet. Besides the goal of trying to give Austin a voice that game-dev circles could recognize, I'm trying to write something on a regular basis.

Your feedback is very much appreciated, not just for my sake. If there's anything you'd like me to write about that I haven't, please let me know.

Helpful Austin link: ATX Urbanists, a Facebook group about people concerned with the political climate surrounding greater Austin and what it means for its near future.

More to come.

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