The Changing Face of South Congress

by Graham Haskin

I love South Congress. I live in South Congress and have for 3 years. I was incredibly lucky when I moved to Austin and, knowing nothing about the city, found a good house in SoCo for a good price. I love being able to walk down the street and window shop, people watch, and then end up at what is probably my favorite coffee shop in all of Austin, Jo’s Coffee. Then I walk back to my house with a little more people watching, window shopping, and music listening. It’s peaceful. It’s nice It’s my happy place. But if you have been to South Congress lately, you’ve noticed that it’s changed.

The streets have been repaved all the way from Riverside to Oltorf, and all the parking spaces have been changed to angled, back in spaces. There are stoplights on every cross street. I’m pretty sure that the city is going to tear out all the sidewalks and re-lay them. Old shops have closed and new ones have opened.

So what does this mean for SoCo itself? It means that everything is going to change. Not just in terms of the streets, but also the shops, the feel, the passage. Here’s my concern, and it may be completely unfounded, but it’s still a concern. By upgrading all the streets and turning SoCo into a pedestrian friendly zone, more people will come (if you build it…). Then the shops will become more expensive and upscale, because SoCo is the section that brings in money. And that’s what I’m worried about. Perhaps it’s better to say that the shops along here are funky. Interesting. Unique. They’re part of what defines SoCo. Part of what makes me happy to live here over anywhere else in Austin, and, in some ways, part of what makes Austin, Austin. So my concern is that we’ll get the ritzier chain shops. Neiman Marcus, Gap, etc. and honestly, I don’t think a big corporation is going to be able to bring the same level of quirky that SoCo has right now.

Can you picture it? Going down to South Congress and feeling out of place if you don’t drive a Mercedes? Walking along the street and seeing men in suits, Bluetooth headsets in their ears, each one a clone of the next? Being frowned upon by the shop keepers because you’re not wearing a brand name? You may laugh at me, say I’m being excessive, but I’ve seen it happen. Anyone know Boston? I lived there for several years and saw Newbury street change. Newbury street was always a high-end part of Boston, there’s no denying it, but there were plenty of fun, funky shops on it. In the 4 years I lived there, I saw those shops get forced out by rising rent, only to be replaced by a shop that practically charged you $100 for walking by. The march of capitalism is hard to slow. It takes a concerted effort on the part of people to halt that march, and few people, if any, are willing to take up the call.

I guess I have to ask the obvious question, though. Is this change really a bad thing? Sure, my knee jerk reaction is to say that we would lose the essential feel of SoCo, but would we? The streets needed repaving and the sidewalk needs a refresh. Now, I don’t think that all these new stoplights were needed (it makes driving down South Congress a b****), but what has or will it hurt? Nothing except my drive time, so far. Or perhaps an even better question: Will Austinites let it happen? We pride ourselves on “Keep Austin Weird” and SoCo has always been one of the epicenters of weird. Perhaps the high-end shops would come and Austinites would keep them weird.

Does it seem like I’m flip-flopping my opinion? I am. I’m worried because SoCo is such a pivotal part of the Austin experience for me, but I also understand that the end has not come, nor can I see that end. Maybe the end will be better. Maybe SoCo will become such an awesome place to live (I should say even more awesome), that I’ll never want to leave. Though the summer heat might still drive me away. So I’m going to do what I shouldn’t do and say I don’t know! Only time will tell! All those other platitudes! Sound cheap? It is, and I know it, but I honestly can’t decide. So write in, let me know your two cents. I’ll use the best comments in a follow up article once the whole remodel is over and done with.

Oh. And if anyone knows what the public art sculpture at South Congress at Live Oak is or is supposed to be, please tell me.