I wasn’t even planning on driving down to Austin for South by Southwest this year. I’d been to the event in 2011 and 2012, and the second time was largely an exercise in frustration. One year seemed to make a huge difference in the number of cars and degree of chaos. So I swore off returning for that particular reason. But certain things came together recently to compel me anyway, especially the invitation of a friend from Finland, so down I ventured. In some respects, I wish I hadn’t.
Austin is one of my absolute favorite cities. It’s got a character truly all its own. The “keep Austin weird” signs you encounter offer a hint to what you can expect if you stray from the beaten tourist path– and even if you don’t.
I’ve been visiting since I was a kid, when my parents would wind our motorhome through neighboring verdant hills and finally into the city proper. My brothers and I had a blast at oh-so-cold Barton Springs. When my parents moved to Roundrock for a while, I’d visit as often as I could manage. Hanging out in an old record store on Lamar, camping with friends on the Colorado River, or just driving around inhaling the ambience… I relished every trip. And when I had sons of my own, I brought them down and introduced them to the same experiences. Seeing topless women at Barton Springs jumpstarted puberty for them, I’m sure.
So when I think of Austin, it’s warm memories like these that tint my perceptions.
I fully expected to deal with more of the chaos this year, and revelers did not disappoint as you can see in the photos posted after this piece. There’s no getting around it when you dump thousands of people into a city that strains to accommodate them. But this trip I listened to a resident relate her own exasperation with the event, and realized just how much I had been looking at it through rose-colored glasses.
So I decided to view it instead through the lens of that 20-something cowboy rocker who enjoyed ambling lazily down 6th Street with his best friend in the 1980s to check out up-and-coming bands. Not to be simply cynical, but more objective. I didn’t like what this revealed.
South by Southwest participants claim to be all about disruption. It isn’t their shiny me-too startups that drive this as much as their hubris. Playing resident devil’s advocate, I realized that while visitors certainly bring in a huge amount of money, I couldn’t see where it was going. Why hasn’t Austin been transformed over the years of SXSW largesse to be more walkable? Why is parking such a hectic, piecemeal ordeal? Why is mass transit lagging behind other cities?
Where is all that SXSW money going?
I’d come to the conclusion in 2012 that the event had grown too far beyond its grassroots, and maybe needed the music/film/interactive segments to be broken into wholly discreet parts scattered across a much longer time frame. Perhaps scattered across multiple cities, even. Why not hold the film portion in Fort Worth? The music portion in San Antonio or Denton (the latter has a start on it, and even possesses some of that Old Austin charm)? Why should Austin bear this locust-like invasion entirely on its own?
I’m even more doubtful now that I’ll be returning for the event in the future. I don’t want to be a part of that again. I mainly come to see friends, but I can do that under less frenetic contexts.
Partially as penance, I entered the upcoming Longhorn Run (my first ever). The funds from this event directly benefit local causes. I’m sure the 5K alone will beat the remaining guilt out. ;) Plus, I’m hoping to hang with friends who were smart enough to vacate Austin during SXSW.
I’ll wrap up by simply sharing photos and comments from the experience below: