12/30/12

walking in austin: north to south, east to west


Saturday morning bright-eyed and bushy tailed, up and at 'em early. Underestimating the size of a small city and the proximity of landmarks to locations, I find myself at the State Capitol almost 45 minutes early for a walking tour. The sun is warm but the temperature is its exact opposite and by the time the doors open (downtown Austin is sensibly closed until 9am on Saturdays), I have caught a chill. 

The complimentary tour, courtesy of the Austin Visitor's Center is led by Elizabeth a local transplanted from New Jersey and includes myself and a couple from Washington, DC.  We are led from the steps of the capitol to its grounds, learning about the building's history, Austin's early bout of building fires and notable figures in the building of the city's footprint. Elizabeth describes the origin of the six flags of Texas, the seals that are prominently embedded in the granite banner above the south entrance archway. She then leads us down Congress Avenue towards Sixth Street pointing out the blend of architecture and sharing feudal stories of who built what and why, including the challenge to have the tallest building in downtown Austin (currently occupied by The Austonian, a condominium complex at 200 North Congress Avenue in the heart of the Warehouse District). 

The most interesting portion of the tour includes the history of the Norwood Tower the first multi-use high rise in downtown Austin which featured the first-ever motor ramp parking garage and custom residences with terrace rooftops and gardens. Hazel Butler, a socialite of the times conceived the idea of adding a penthouse duplex, the first of its kind in Texas atop the Tower where she and her husband lived for 35 years. The apartment is currently part of the Johnson family estate, used mostly by the heirs and descendants of Lyndon B & Lady Bird Johnson.  

Breakfast afterwards at the 1886 Cafe located in the lobby of the Driskill, where I strike up a conversation with my server Blair, a native of New Zealand. When asked for a recommendation of what to do next she happily points me in the direction of SoCo (aka South Congress), Austin's equivalent of Greenwich Village. And so after a hearty meal and a change of clothes, I retrieved the car and headed across the town lake to check it out.


The SoCo strip is approximately 12 blocks long lined with funky boutiques, antique consignment, restaurants and a slew of food trailer parks. Visitors park on the main thoroughfare (back angle only, a new skill accomplished), as one needs a residential sticker to park on the streets perpendicular to the main drive. The vintage selection is circa 70s and 80s, the most entertaining shop Uncommon Objects houses antiques and finds from estate sales in a selection of heavily curated life-size diorama booths. I find a few treasures there and at Parts & Labour, a co-op style boutique selling "All Texas all of the time."


My main reason for coming to SoCo sits at the corner of South Congress and Monroe, Allens Boots the recommended source for Western footwear with an overwhelming selection of designers but mostly Lucchese, Old Gringo, Corral and Yippy-Kiay. The place is packed, and despite attempts to find a salesperson to help with sizing, I find myself relying on the rent-a-cop at the front door for his sound advice. He is after all wearing boots with his uniform. I try on what seems like a 100 pair of boots feeling like Cinderella's stepsisters searching for that one pair that fits "just so,” with no success. 

I round up the afternoon with a short nap before heading out for Saturday night. This town is all about the music and a little bit about the food. After a late dinner at Moonshine (rated #2 on Urban Spoon's best of Austin list) I moseyed over to Maggie Mae's to hear the sounds of Ulrich Ellison and the Tribe. The band features a talented violinist that makes the set. Outside 6th street is hopping with an eclectic mix of music lovers and an assortment of Anime enthusiasts (dressed in alien and fantasy costumes, all in for the local convention) on the lookout for their next musical destination. The crowd brings the best of Beale Street + Bourbon Street + Bleecker Street to the dozen or so genre choices offered at the local venues. And unless a known musician is playing, i.e., David Ramirez at The Parish which I missed, one must rely on their ear to lead them to discovery. A funk band at the 311 Club captures my attention and the wedding party cutting up a rug proves to be a complementary form of entertainment. I close the night at Coyote Ugly's Stage on Sixth where London Calling, a honky-tonk country blues band sings a stream of modern day mash-ups.


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