Spending four days with a couple hundred of the smartest, weirdest and most public-spirited people in North America, as the Triad City Beat staff did on July 7-10 for the 2016 Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention, would be awesome no matter where it was held.
But the fact that the setting was Austin, Texas — a phenomenal city where I spent four formative months as a newly minted 21-year-old in 1996 — was doubly amazing.
I can’t do justice in this space to the strange and varied set of experiences that made me fall for this city in the first place, but returning gave me both a sense of nostalgia and wonder at how far it’s progressed in the meantime.
I tried to tease out a couple facets of Austin’s magic that might be transferrable to Winston-Salem or Greensboro, and quickly realized that the essence of Austin can’t be extracted. It developed the way it did because of specific circumstances. A liberal oasis in a deeply conservative state, it’s lovable weirdness likely comes from being a university town isolated from other population centers by vast geographic space. Exposure to Eastern religion and mysticism from the university no doubt allowed the psychedelic rock scene to flourish in the mid-1960s. The musical admixture of the blues, Western swing and Latin, and culinary traditions of Tex-Mex and soul food could only coexist at the crossroads of the Deep South and Southwest. There’s a reason why Austin produced the outlaw country movement in the 1970s and a sensational guitar slinger like Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980s. A city knit together by a laid-back culture and an ethos of creativity over materialism, ironically, was perfectly positioned to attract the creative-class talent that drove the tech boom from the 1990s onward.
So what would be an example of a tiny slice of Austin that we could transplant to the Triad? I’m tempted to mention the cycling infrastructure: Protected cycle track with physical separation from both car traffic and pedestrians along Guadalupe, the main drag along campus, and bike turn-lane queue boxes on the South 1st Street bridge are two examples. Yet I feel confident those kinds of innovations are going to happen in Winston-Salem and Greensboro as a natural consequence of demand from high-earning, tech-savvy millennials, supportive city planners and rising fuel prices.
I’m thinking about something subtler: a ramen joint [see also “The functionality of eating in Austin, Texas”]. The Triad City Beat crew’s last-night outing to Ramen Tatsu-Ya seeded the idea. We don’t have ramen restaurants in the Triad yet, although the basic idea of an Asian noodle dish with a savory broth and lots of add-ons should be familiar considering how much we love pho around here. Although the concept is similar, the result is completely different, with ramen using a miso base and wheat noodles. But I don’t want to get to hung up on the food.
The production model of this kind of food service is based on speed and customer volume with pre-made broth and noodles, enhanced by spicy “bombs” of chilis, garlic and the like, augmented by extra toppings like braised pork belly and pickled ginger. Really, to be honest, this model probably works with any kind of noodle restaurant.
What I loved about the experience is that within minutes of taking our place in the long line stretching along the side of the restaurant, a convivial host came out and took drink orders, so that soon we were sipping sake cocktails as we waited to get in the door. It didn’t hurt that there was a long awning to provide relief from the brutal central Texas heat and a watercooler bungee-corded to a support post — with free refreshment, of course.
That’s really the essence of Austin — a hip, urbane experience in a laidback setting. And I think it’s transferrable to the Triad. The location on South Lamar Boulevard was nothing special — a stretch of busy highway — and I can totally imagine a place like this on Peters Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem or Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro.
Now the line around the side of the building — that might be a tall order.