The Austin you know was sculpted years ago
Why did the 1970s leave such a strong imprint on Austin culture?
On Saturday, March 19 — as the 30th annual South by Southwest Festival wound down to a close — South Congress Avenue swam with locals and tourists.
Though the weather had turned chilly, folks dressed in funky outfits strolled slowly up and down the wide sidewalks. Peaceful and relaxed, they stopped to chat, to drink in some street music, or to browse the hand-made crafts hawked by outdoor vendors. Some ventured into shops or eateries, virtually all of them locally generated.
At scattered spots along the way, eager young activists used their charms to sign up passers-by for idealistic causes. Every once in while, one could catch the foxy whiff of a still-forbidden substance.
If the alert observer squinted very hard — and blocked out decades of intervening memories — one could almost be transported to Austin’s Drag along Guadalupe Street opposite the University of Texas campus in the 1970s.
Sure, the hair is shorter, the crowd is more varied, the causes have evolved, and the prices on those modish crafts have skyrocketed. Yet so much about Austin’s culture in the 2010s reflects an unmistakable provenance in the 1970s.
What was it about that fervent era — when “hippies” took over the Austin City Council, music sprang up on every street corner, nightlife extended well into the morning, the counterculture spawned its own version of a start-up revolution, and people of color finally secured a grasp on the levers of power— that left such a seemingly permanent imprint on this city?
And why did that decade’s counterculture become what is now arguably Austin’s dominant culture, as the New Austin of the 1970s confronts the Newer Austin culture of the 2010s?
Intrigued by the number of local hotspots that celebrated their 40th anniversaries recently, we asked several dozen thoughtful Austinites who remember that time to share their reflections on how that decade affected this one.
Retired advertising executive Forrest Preece — an Austin native whose family goes back generations in Central Texas — shares a telling memory.
“One weekend in 1972, a friend from Houston came up to visit,” Preece recalls. “On Saturday, we ate breakfast at Cisco’s and we were driving back to my house. I had stopped at a light on West 45th Street, when my pal laughingly said, ‘Austin is such a hippie town.’”
A rusty Volkswagen Beetle pulled up to their left.
“I glanced over and saw that both guys in it had hair down their backs,” Preece continues. “The fellow riding shotgun turned, checked us out, decided that we were cool, then with surgical precision lifted a roach clip to his lips and took a hit. That moment was so perfect, my buddy and I could only stare at each other, speechless.”
Preece thinks many such events from the 1970s paved the way for Austin as we know it now.
“Like the incident at that stop light, the counterculture that had been brewing here in the previous decade turned to the establishment,” he says. “Both sides took a look at each other, and decided that, yeah, they could co-exist.”
Savvy public relations executive Elizabeth Christian, whose parents served as civic leaders in the 1970s, starts with the numbers.
“I think a big reason the ’70s were so seminal to Austin’s development is purely demographic,” Christian says. “Everyone talks about the 1960s in this country. But Austin was still a very young town then. The population had been relatively small and stable for a long, long time. Then the Baby Boomers of the 1950s started graduating from high school and college in the early ’70s.”
Eddie Wilson, founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters, mischievously adds some nightlife numbers.
“In 1973, the Texas drinking age was lowered to 18,” Wilson recalls with a glint in his eye. “For the first time, clubs stayed open until 2 a.m. Liquor by the drink came in. Sixteen-year-olds with their sisters’ IDs came in. That got the 35-year-olds off the sofas and back on the streets. … And the Austin music scene went from almost nothing to more than you can count.”
Wilson recalls that any bar or club that came with a concrete slab big enough to hold a band became a music venue overnight.
Earlier, in 1971, the quickly adopted 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had lowered the voting age to 18 countrywide, creating a whole new bloc of voters in Austin. Not every young Texan could vote right away, however, since several counties insisted that college students cast their ballots where their parents lived.
That blocking maneuver was thwarted eventually. As was other rearguard resistance to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — colorfully retold in activist attorney David Richards’ essential memoir of the era, “Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State.”
As Richards points out, the youth vote helped fuse a coalition of students, African-Americans, Latinos, environmentalists and labor that spawned vast demonstrations, the election of people of color, and the “hippie” City Council led by former campus activist Jeff Friedman, who rose to the mayor’s office in 1975.
Economic building blocks
Before the 1970s, the city’s urban economic engine ran on two primary pistons: state government and the University of Texas. Then came IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Tracor and other imported or homegrown tech companies.
“The arrival of those large companies and the executives who came with them changed Austin in a very significant way,” says former Mayor Gus Garcia. “Probably including having some kind of effect on the city’s cultural identity.”
Retired administrator Fred Thom arrived in 1968 and remembers when IBM setup its manufacturing plant here. Besides the boost to the economy, IBM helped change the way business was done, some of that culture imported from a previous plant in Lexington, Ky.
“Affirmative action had a very positive impact on IBM Austin,” Thom says.“ Our African-American coworkers were very active in the community. Our Austin senior management was very instrumental in helping to develop programs at St. Edwards University, and many employees were also involved in Aqua Fest.”
To bring newcomers up to date, the Austin Aqua Festival, staged annually from 1962 to 1998, combined outdoor music concerts with watery events. To give you a sense of its original family orientation, the first headliner was Art Linkletter, a TV personality best known for interviewing small children.
The arrival of regional banks, formerly forbidden by regulatory law, gave Austin a fresh shot of capital in the 1970s.
“Most of my classmates in the ’60s had moved to either coast, Dallas or Houston for jobs,” says Charlie Betts, former director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. “Expanding job opportunities in the ’70s began the in-migration that has been economically rewarding to most of us, but also has also brought unwelcome changes to many ways of living.”
And it wasn’t just big firms. These days, the word “entrepreneur” is hard to avoid in Austin. Yet in the 1970s, Austin nurtured countless new businesses, many of which still thrive, in part because of local brand loyalty. In fact, though Austinites often mourn the passing of Liberty Lunch, Les Amis or the Armadillo World Headquarters, dozens of defining 1970s institutions lived on (see the lists with this story).
Dining was a fertile arena for start-ups. In 1975, for instance, newbies Jeffrey’s and Fonda San Miguel catered to the city’s new-found culinary aspirations, and Thundercloud Subs and County Line barbecue satisfied more prosaic tastes. All four survive today.
Although it never made as much money as some had hoped, the music business, fronted by Willie Nelson, likewise reflected an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a subversive rowdiness, described in detail by Jan Reid in his book, “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.”
A key event was the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion, an outdoor, mostly country precursor to Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic.
“The Reunion helped spark the rise of progressive country music and recognition of Austin as a music hub,” Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski told the American-Statesman in 2012. “Without it, Willie might have gone back to Nashville … and the great migration of musical talent from around the state, nation and world to Austin would have never happened. And without Willie, there would be no high-tech industry, no creative class, no Live Music Capital of the World designation, no ‘Austin City Limits,’ and no South by Southwest. Honest.”
Fairly quickly, the musical revolution was adopted by a newly nimble generation of business promoters.
“Music was becoming a trademark in the U.S. as (the long-running KLRU show) ‘Austin City Limits’ put us on the map,” Betts says. “A low cost of living was attractive to musicians who could find a day job to supplement their musical aspirations. Not too long afterwards, the Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau recognized that music could be great for business and visitors.”
The politics of protest
“The wheels almost came off the wagon in Austin in early May of 1970,” Richards writes in his memoir. “The expansion of the war into Cambodia in the spring of 1970 revived the (antiwar) movement and the National Guard killings of antiwar protesters at Kent State in May brought emotions to a fever pitch. Austin at that moment was already boiling over on a related local issue, the repeated refusal of the Austin City Council to allow the Student Mobilization Committee to hold an antiwar march on the city streets.”
Confrontations — some of them violent — met antiwar protests in April and early May 1970. As an enormous crowd gathered on May 8, however, Federal Judge Jack Roberts ruled that they could march. As 20,000 demonstrators headed from campus to the Capitol, police opposition melted away.
What began as a potentially explosive march ended peacefully — “almost gaily” — the American-Statesman reported. The goodwill lasted, at least for awhile, and the cross-cultural detente reached from Hippie Hollow to parts of East Austin.
Joe Bryson, known as “Mr. Inner Sanctum” after the iconic record spot, cites anti-establishment businesses that grew up at the time, especially on or near the Drag — the epicenter of the local counterculture.
“In my mind, the ‘scene’ coalesced during that time,” Bryson says. “In the late 1960s and early ’70s, we became a culture unto ourselves. We were able to elect a mayor and council members. The vast majority of people in this culture came together to protest our involvement in Vietnam.”
Integration, begun in the late 1940s and attended by decades of protests and lawsuits, also ushered in critical change.
“Leaders in the community were already talking about looking for ways to bring ‘the minorities’ into the mainstream of politics in the city,” Garcia says. “I firmly believe that the arrival of minorities in the political and social areas also changed the cultural identity of the city.”
Wilhelmina Delco was among the first, elected to the school board in 1968. She was followed by Richard Moya, John Treviño, Gonzalo Barrientos, Dawnna Dukes and others. The long Economy Furniture strike, protests against powerboats on what is now Lady Bird Lake, and street support for the United Farmworkers expanded the political impact of Latinos.
From the first Earth Day on March 21, 1970, green activists battled developers who sought to profit from the city’s expanding economy, a combat chronicled in “Environmental City,” a book by William Scott Swearingen Jr.
“There was a great deal of excitement in the 1970s,” says environmental attorney and activist Rick Lowerre. “That we could make a difference and enjoy life at the same time: It was a feeling in Austin that did not exist in Dallas, Houston and most other cities — with the possible exception of Berkeley or Boulder.”
Some would argue that the activist culture that overthrew the old business establishment in the 1970s still sets the agenda in largely liberal Austin today. The same city that barely gave Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter a win over President Gerald Ford in 1976, for instance, went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in the past two elections.
And the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, started in the early 21st century, at times seems a clarion call to maintain the former counterculture’s hold on its hard-won soft power. Just as Old Austin resisted the ardent New Austin of the 1970s, the victors from that decade face a vastly more varied and just as energetic Newer Austin today.
Cultures in full contact
Many of our respondents use three words to sum up the strange melding of cultures in the 1970s: “Armadillo World Headquarters.” The odd, half-outdoor, extremely eclectic venue tucked behind other buildings at South First Street and Barton Springs Road seemed to embody the possibility of cultural disruption.
“Soap Creek Saloon, actually, had more to do with sinking the nail of the times — hippies mixing with rednecks — than the Armadillo,” Wilson says. “We were more ‘All in the Family’ by comparison. Soap Creek was out of town. Right before your eyes, you could see the rednecks coming out of the hills with the slightly longer hair. It was the hippie chicks’ fault.”
In the traditional arts as well, relatively well-heeled backers and ordinary families shared equally in events such as Fiesta at Laguna Gloria and the hillside musicals at Zilker Park, although performances there go back to the 1930s.
“Art was no longer the subject for the wealthy and elite,” philanthropist Luci Johnson says of the ’70s. “We all were discovering its magic. … It surely was the time when Austin decided to embrace art and artists in all of their diversity.”
Still, cultures really did collide.
The aforementioned desegregation led to busing. When white students refused to attend classes at black schools, the district closed Kealing Junior High and L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin, sending all African-American students far from their home bases.
“Serious disturbances flared at schools receiving bused students initially, but (it) soon simmered down,” says Billy Harden, longtime educator and executive director of the Spectrum Theatre Company. “This single event changed the course of East Austin for good and thus changed the inner core of African-American culture. … Many families were forced to move out of East Austin so that their children would be closer to the schools they were forced to attend.”
Just as in the rest of the country, traditional attitudes and countercultural forces continued to clash long after the decade ended. And the personal stakes were high.
“The horrible drug laws created an attitude of distrust for authority,” says advocacy marketer Sherry Matthews. “I arrived in 1969 just out of college and was going to work for the American-Statesman night desk as a lowly copy editor until I saw the Sunday editorial by a then editor, whose name escapes me, that suggested people should shoot the asses of offensive skinny dippers at Hippie Hollow with buckshot! I was aghast.”
Although she cherishes fond memories of the 1970s, Matthews thinks some of that cultural polarization persists today.
Onward through the fog
Some Austinites remember the 1970s through a haze of pleasurable memories.
“Purely and simply, Austin was pure and simple in the ’70s,” says TimMcClure, co-founder of the GSD&M ad agency. “This was pre-Californication.… Nothing was wrong, so everything was right, right down to dancing ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ at Charlie’s Playhouse, then moseying over to the Chicken Shack after hours to soak up all the evening’s illegal alcohol.”
Those pleasures led to a radiant, almost self-contented vibe.
“When I moved to Austin at the very beginning of the 1970s, one of the first things I was told was that it was the cheapest place in America to live,” says Bobby Bridger. “This of course was music to a struggling singer-songwriter’sears. But the second thing that immediately caught my attention about Austin was something very simple: I had never been in a town where everyone was so proud of where they lived.”
Those who recall the 1970s as a golden age can be divided into two classes: Those who believe the soul of Austin is already irretrievably lost, and those who think that Old Austin and New Austin are melding into even better city.
The latter attitude is wrapped up in the physical redevelopment of downtown.
“The discussion on central city revitalization was institutionalized in the business, cultural and architectural discussion in late 1970s,” says former Mayor Lee Cooke. “That began the 24-hour livable central city with a strong tax base for the school district and reversed a dying core that has impacted so many American cities.”
Another legacy of the 1970s was the historic preservation movement, which attempted to balance the needs of Old and New Austin.
“Historic preservation was recognized as an important factor in maintaining the character and fabric of our city,” Betts says. “And that’s what makes our city unique, what makes Austin, Austin.”
One area of activity — charity — would not catch up with other rapidly accelerating sectors until the late 1990s, in part because of the banking and real estate bust in the 1980s. But the seeds of Austin’s culture of philanthropy were planted by the 1970s.
“All of these were catalysts that changed the dynamics and diversity of all aspects of our community,” says civic leader Dan Bullock. “More jobs, more money, more demand for cultural diversity, more philanthropic potential, expanding creative classes.”
Impressions are refracted through personal memory. Interior designer Fern Santini does not so much romanticize her youthful attraction to Austin and its mix of musical cultures as she considers the time a lesson in growing up.
“Austin in the ’70s was about music for sure, but it was really about diversity, embracing it, not being afraid,” Santini says. “Celebrating our differences, learning from one another, being creative. Taking chances. Sometimes magic comes from breaking the rules, or not even knowing what the rules are. Living life by the seat of your pants for a few heady years is a great education in the world. It certainly was for me.”
Austin by the numbers
In 1970, Austin’s population stood at around 250,000 and the metropolitan area included almost 400,000 people. The median household income was $7,300 ($47,000 in 2016 dollars) and the median price for a single-family home was $16,500 ($106,603 in 2016 dollars). Austin was not yet reliably blue during the 1970s: In 1976, Democrat candidate Jimmy Carter barely beat Republican President Gerald Ford in the city.
In 2016, the city’s population has risen to approximately 927,000 and the metro area is estimated to have reached 2 million residents. The median household income is now $52,000 and the median price for a single-family home is $255,000. In 2012, President Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney by 24 percentage points within the Austin city limits.
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They started in the 1970s
… and survived
Austin Community Foundation
Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
“Austin City Limits”
Austin Renaissance Market
Breed & Co.
Center for Maximum Potential
County Line Barbecue
Callahan’s General Store
Cheatham Street Warehouse, San Marcos
Fonda San Miguel
Highland Mall (in transition)
Hole in the Wall
Kerrville Folk Festival
LBJ Presidential Library
Mary Moody Northen Theatre
Northcross (in transition)
Old Pecan Street Café
Save Barton Creek Association
Settlement Home Garage Sale
Shakespeare at Winedale
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise
Texas Chili Parlor
The Garden Room
Waterloo Ice House
Whole Earth Provision Co.
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic
Women & Their Work
They started in the 1970s …
These businesses and events are no longer around, but in several cases, their influence on the city and its culture is still felt:
Armadillo World Headquarters
Austin Opry House
Castle Creek Saloon
Inner Sanctum Records
Mad Dog & Beans
Magic Time Machine
Steamboat on Sixth
Sundance Records in San Marcos
Third Coast magazine