Friday, July 28, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 9

Growing pains: Lone Star style
Once upon a time, in a state far, far away, certain places were well-kept secrets. In Texas, those would have included the cities of San Antonio and Austin – each bordering on the mythical region known as the Texas Hill Country (an area of some rolling, hilly typography known more for its heritage and laid-back lifestyle).
Back in the day (which is ANY day other than today), each was considered to be “sleepy” communities – not known for their hustle and bustle but as a placed to “get away from it all.” Sure, San Antonio had the Alamo, Missions and Riverwalk, while Austin housed the state government and THE University (of Texas).
But in the mid-1970s, neither was considered to be bustling, brawling, booming urban mega-centers.
What a difference a couple of decades make. Today, each is virtually choking on its own gridlock because the massive population growth has outstripped the advance in the respective infrastructures – leaving some of us to shake our heads.
Here are the facts: San Antonio, once declared to be the nation’s largest smalltown, has moved past Dallas to become the country’s eighth largest city (pop. 1,236,249). Its media is fueled by gossip, its television news operates on the strongest “If it bleeds, it leads” premise and its political battles often result in people headed to jail.
While its culture is distinctive (a strong combination of Hispanic and Anglo heritage), it is still viewed as strictly a military city, being the home to three major military outposts – Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases (Lackland is the nation’s leading training facility) and Fort Sam Houston, which houses the country’s top medical burn unit. Leadership at Fort Sam dates to the time of Douglas MacArthur and a young Texas native from Denison named Dwight David Eisenhower.
It lacks many of the social amenities of far smaller cities and possesses only one major league sports franchise (the NBA Spurs) – the fewest among those in the top nine (San Jose, Calif. is 10th).
For the record, the top 10 cities by population are: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego (by a mere 500 people over San Antonio), San Antonio, Dallas and San Jose. Austin is 16th largest and El Paso is the 21st largest. Arlington rounds out the top 50 in that spot.
It just feels as if San Antonio has had its share of problems – namely highway expansion. Everywhere you drive in San Antonio, there are massive traffic jams due to lane closures for this or that project. Some of them have been active for almost a decade (notably around the U.S. 281-Loop 410 interchange near the airport).
Always a spaghetti system involving the interstates (where one stretch of roadway could represent two or three I-somethings at the same thing, causing massive Rand McNally confusion), getting around the city has been iffy at best. In the 1990s, engineers went to the multi-story method of building overpasses, which now reach high into the Alamo City sky to loop traffic over and above other hot spot intersections.
Never mind those with vertigo or adverse weather conditions, these monstrosities are just plain ugly. Yet they are becoming the norm (just ask Dallas and all its 10-story overpasses). How sad!
San Antonio is huge, but it hasn’t expanded as much as Austin, once a sleeper jewel in the Hill Country that folks thought would be a perfect retirement spot. Traffic stoppages reach as far to the north as Georgetown (30 miles away).
And now wonder! Outside of Las Vegas (which has ballooned at a rate of 85 percent), no American city has grown as much as Austin – at 41 percent.
This is what happens when that “Field of Dreams” voice speaks to hundreds of thousands of people at the same time – “If you build it, you can go … there.” And they did, along with Dell Computers and scores of other national corporations. In the 1990s, Austin became THE destination for relocating folk because of the lower cost of living (throughout the state) and the presumed lifestyle. Austin was THE laid back of the laid back; the foam at the top of each glass of Shiner Beer.
But it ain’t that way anymore. Traffic cannot be changed because of the double-decker fiasco that has limited options along I-35. Expansion at the university has swallowed center city land, causing facilities to literally be squeezed into place and the population needs have swallowed up communities like Pflugerville, Round Rock, Manor and other former burghs which had separate identities. Now, it’s just AUSTIN!
You can still find remnants of the old life – the old Willie, Waylon and the boys worshiped a long time ago. You can still western dance at the Broken Spoke to the sounds of the Geezinslaw Brothers, enjoy a good chicken fried streak at Threadgill’s and watch the power lunchers at Scholz Garden in downtown splendor.
You just can’t do it like before. When you went to that special store. The day the music died.
“So bye bye Miss Pecan Pie;
drove my V-6 down to Sixth Street
where the suds never dried.
Those good old boys sang like whiskey and rye.
Singing this should be the place that I try.”

Deepest apologies to Don McLean.

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