Cathedral of Junk

Went to an event organized by the Museum of Ephemerata at the Cathedral of Junk this past weekend. I’ve been living in Austin for a while, and I’ve been a part of some of those things that “keep Austin weird,” so when I saw the cathedral, I was surprised that I had never even heard of it—much less seen it–before.

It’s extraordinary.

Every once in a while I encounter an artifact that rises above its humble materials and primitive construction, ennobled by the dedication of its creator to become something almost sacred. This is one of those things.

I saw it at night, and need to see it in daylight.

The Trouble with 37th Street

I lived on 37th Street during the Christmases of 92, 93, 94, and 95, and was an enthusiastic (if not always artistic) participant in the whole lights display. I have always thought the lights were wonderful, and that they helped create a sense of community on that street that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve stayed closer to the folks I knew from 37th Street than any other neighborhood I’ve lived in.

In recent years, the light show has shrunk. I believe the Christmas just past will be the last.

The Chronicle just ran an article on the diminishing lights, fingering absentee landlords in California as the ultimate culprit. This is nonsense. Mike Dahmus used this as a jumping-off point to complain about low-density student housing.

The reason that 37th Street is going dark has to do with people and personalities. It has something to do with landlords as well, but a homegrown one.

People leave

Jamie and Bob were the original instigators of the whole show. Robert later joined in and, with his volcano and motorcycle, put up one of the three showcase displays on the street. Robert and Bob have both left; Jamie is leaving. Ray was also noteworthy for his car-hedge of lights. He’s gone. There’s just not that much holding the street together anymore.

The real-estate market

There are a lot of rent-houses on that block, but there were a lot when I lived there too—I was in one of them. Eight of those rent-houses are owned by a local guy, whose name seldom passes from my lips without being preceded by the word “slumlord.” In fact, he owns 308, which Jamie once occupied, and which under this guy’s stewardship has been home to a meth dealer; I believe it was more recent occupants of that house that Jamie got into a fight with (as mentioned in the article). When I was living on the street, I believe the same guy owned the same number of houses on the street. 308 was unoccupied—it was owned by this guy, who was undertaking an extremely desultory and dubious expansion and renovation of it. All of his houses are messes, only rentable to less-discriminating students.

Note the way this article changes gears in such a way that you’re not supposed to notice:

Neighbors partly blame changes in the neighborhood on irresponsible and absentee landlords. “We didn’t demand all we could get from the houses,” Pine said. Now, eager to reap the highest rents possible from the maximum number of tenants, greedy landlords are letting “kids get away with murder and won’t do anything about it,” he complained. [Emphasis mine]

The irony is that Ray himself once owned most of the houses in question, and sold them to people like this guy.

Barnes – who counted five homes that have changed hands this year on 37th Street, compared to what he said is usually one

If you want to place the blame somewhere, you could also blame the outrageously high property taxes in this state (and rates of increase in those taxes) that force people out of their own homes once their neighborhood becomes sufficiently desirable. This increasing churn rate is not unique to to 37th Street–it can be seen throughout the surrounding neighborhood.


When I lived there, there was, shall we say, an institutional memory for the lights. There were enough people on the street to enforce certain social norms. Jeannie would lecture visitors who left trash behind, and there was a strong anti-commercial sentiment on the street. So there may have been a broken window effect in action: by dealing with minor infractions, major infractions never happened.

As this institutional memory left with the old-timers, street hawkers moved in and the scene became rowdier. Another less public aspect of this is Jamie himself. While Jamie has never openly appealed for money, he has always been the recipient of spontaneous largesse from visitors to his backyard. The amounts of money involved are considerable, and this created animosity between Jamie and some of the other old-timers, who felt that he should donate the money, share it out, or simply not make it so obviously easy for visitors to give money to him (he kept up clotheslines with clothespins where people can hang money). I have to believe that this friction within the street’s micro-community must have caused some old-timers to lose interest in maintaining the street’s Christmas zeitgeist.

. . .

It pains me to write all this, rather, it pains me that all this is so. Living on 37th Street was a great experience, and it is sad that the community that made the lights possible no longer exists.

First Night

Other cities have been doing this for some time, and now Austin is holding its first First Night, which will turn the downtown area into a big arts festival on new year’s eve.

I’m going to be a performer—there will be a total of five fire troupes (including Sangre del Sol, who are amazing, and our own troupe, which we are calling Pyrogenesis) performing at Auditorium Shores, in front of the skeleton of the old Palmer events center. The fire extravaganza will supposedly be running from 8:00 to 11:00 PM (add N minutes to allow for disorganization); our troupe is smack in the middle.

Every time I mention First Night to friends, they say “wha…?”. I’m sure this blog entry will make up for the paucity of publicity the event has been getting.

And my pretty countryside had been paved down the middle

Construction machinery for SH130

Rode out FM 969 to Webberville today. Saw this and moaned “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

Any road construction around Austin is going to be controversial, and SH130 is no exception.

Originally sold as a bypass for I-35 to allow long-haul truckers to speed past the congested parts around Austin, even TxDOT claimed it would yield only a 4% reduction in traffic on I-35.

The notion that this is really intended as a bypass–if it was ever taken seriously–is clearly off the table, as it is clear that there will be an interchange here, about halfway to Webberville. There’ll be another one on the other side of Manor as well.

There are a lot of smaller and organic farms out along this way, but suburban-style development has already encroached. This is going to speed that process along and help kill another one of the things I like about living in Austin: being able to ride my bike out into the countryside.

No place like home

Gwen and I did the AIA Austin Homes tour over the weekend. It was a mixed bag.

There were eleven homes on the tour, of which we saw eight, I think. Of these, there were two houses that we could imagine, at some point, aspiring to live in. The rest were straight out of lifestyles of the rich and famous; I’m pretty sure one of them had been featured in Met Home.

Gwen and I are closing on a new house soon. It’s not a big place–in fact, at 1100 sqft, it’s about as small as we could comfortably go. Before we even move in, we’re going to have a contractor move some walls around to optimize the use of space. We’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty, measuring how many linear feet of bookshelf space we need and figuring out how to allocate it. Things like that. We’ve got some money to spend, but not a fortune. In short, we’re dealing with a lot of constraints, and trying to be creative and efficient within those constraints. We were hoping to get some good ideas for our own project.

Most of the houses we looked at on the tour were not designed around constraints. We looked at two that happened to be next door to each other (at 2406 Woodmont and 1710 Forest Trail) where the client’s brief to the architect seemed to be “make it as big as possible, and spend as much money as possible doing it.” There’s no question that the workmanship was excellent, and the houses lacked nothing. But they simply to piled on one feature after another, as if the architect never had to make any hard decisions about how to fit something in. The Woodmont house was nice but uninspiring, and seemed more designed to look good in a catalog than to be lived in. A professional decorator had done the kids’ rooms, which showed no sign of their occupants’ personalities. The Forest Trail house we positively disliked–all dark wood and raw stone, as if to resemble a castle with central air and heat.

We looked at another place (1400 Hardouin Ave) that was a remodel of a really excellent early-modernist structure, where the architect had knocked some walls down, redone the kitchen, that sort of thing–the same kinds of things that Gwen and I are contemplating, only on a grander scale. We chatted with the homeowner and architect for a few minutes about the house, and the architect mentioned not being able to do certain things because of the budget. After we walked out, Gwen and I looked at each other and both started saying “what budget?”. The remodel budget for this place was clearly a lot more than our entire house + remodel budget.

We really did like one of these fantasy houses–the one I think was in Met Home (2806 Robbs Run). It was about three times larger than anything we could imagine wanting, but there were some good and interesting ideas. The shape of the place was like two tall, narrow barns running parallel with a glass box in between. The glass box was the staircase; at one end there was a massive screened-in porch with a fireplace (which, I must say, seems like the only logical place for a fireplace in a town like Austin). Everything about this place was obviously thought through and built to withstand a nuclear attack–the open-tread stairs felt like poured concrete. And–bonus–they showed excellent taste by displaying a painting by our friend Stella Alessi by the front door.

One wacky fantasy house (101 Vale) we looked at was designed by its occupant, a man appropriately named Duke. This was an enormous, rambling house detailed all over the interior with rough-hewn cedar (bark still on), which served for door frames, table legs, countertops, etc. There was a lot about this house that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but it definitely did have personality. It also had a secret passageway, which I commend.

There was a pair of townhouses (4905 Woodrow) by our not-so-favorite design-build shop, metrohouse. These are the guys who don’t believe in closets, and sadly, these were the only houses that were really built on something approximating a middle-class budget. These guys had constraints. Unfortunately, they don’t do a very good job working within them. They put in one or two marquee features on each house, and cheap out on everything else. The nicer of the two houses had an ipe (say ee-pay) deck and a beautiful tiled soaking pool, a screened-in porch that opened to the interior through a glass garage door. But all the windows were of the same grade you’d find in a shitty apartment building. Floors were painted concrete or plywood, walls were cinderblock or corrugated sheetmetal. No thanks. Their floor plans are confusing, if not downright hostile. One of the two houses had an industrial staircase athwart the front entry, positioned such that a tall person will nearly bean himself upon walking in. That same house had countertops made of galvanized sheetmetal that had been nipped, folded, and riveted down at all the corners, resulting in sharp edges guaranteed to draw blood whenever you accidentally walk into one; one of these is in the bathroom, and just slightly overhangs the doorway, practically inviting you to do so.

The houses we liked best were both remodels/additions. These were both outside our budget, but were what marketers call “aspirational”–that is, the sort of thing we could reasonably aspire to someday.

One (1113 Mission Ridge) was apparently designed by its occupant, and had a beautiful, low-key atmosphere. There was a huge glassed-in entry area that looked straight through to a small pool in back, but conducts to the common room to the right, which has an office off to one corner, and a hallway to (apparently) the original part of the house, which now has the bedrooms for the parents upstairs and the kids downstairs. There was nothing precious about this place, nothing staged, but it had all kinds of details that showed thought–the parent’s bedroom created a symmetric layout with a semi-open closet under the eaves on one side, and a semi-open bathroom on the opposite side; the bathroom itself was symmetric, with a sunken tub in the middle, shower to the left, and commode to the right (each in enclosures). That kind of logical thinking carried through the house, with details you might not even notice, intelligent connections between spaces, and so on.

The other of the two add-ons (1315 Cullen) preserved more of the function of the original structure (a bungalow from the 40s or 50s) as the main part of the house, with a small addition on the back, a deck, and a new guest cottage. Walking in from the back yard, we entered what might be called a mud room if it weren’t so pleasant, which led through a galley kitchen that had been jazzed up with weirdly angled counters that somehow worked well, and then onto the living room. This connected to a private suite of rooms (bathroom, office, and craft room–?) that had no doors except a big sliding door isolating the suite. The interior had probably been gutted down to the sticks, and the quality of the finish-out was beautiful. The interior was pretty conventional, but the exterior had some interesting materials choices, including a fence and a gate made out of hardipanels, giant exposed OSB beams in the construction of an awning over the yard, etc.

The homes tour cost $50, or you could do it a la carte for $5/house. Gwen and I were comped tickets because her office designed the brochures. It wasn’t worth anything near the asking price, but we’re glad we saw it. It was useful for us to see how certain kinds of lighting or furniture work in actual homes, and we saw lots of stuff we wished we could do, but not a lot in terms of design that we could emulate.

The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups

Recently finished reading The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups, by David Ansel.

David is a friend (he was also the officiant when Gwen and I got married), and it’s not every day that friends have books published (unless you’re a friend of John Grisham’s), so this is pretty neat. Bad part first: I thought his writing was a little gimmicky–I know half the people in the book and they aren’t all quite that jaunty. He invents a character to give the story tension and conflict, which I don’t think it really needs.

But it was a fun read. I guess that’s inevitable when you know have the people in the book, and most of the locations. It’s a real love-letter to south Austin, something that will be cited as a source of Lost Austin someday (perhaps October) when Austinites are waxing nostalgic about how much better things used to be here. It also contains a number of soup recipes (imagine!), some of which I may try once the weather cools off a bit.

David’s story, in case any of you don’t know it and can’t wait for the book to arrive, is that he quit a programming job suddenly, wasn’t quite sure what to do for work, and started preparing soup for friends and delivering it by bike. It caught on, and he now has an intergalactic soup-deliver empire. Well, it’s not intergalactic, but he has like a proper place of business and employees, and I hear he even delivers to the north side now.

The circle of life

I had this row of five theater seats–actually taken from a church, with slots for prayer books in the back–sitting around since 1998 or thereabouts. Never got much use out of them.

When Gwen and I moved, they were an albatross around our neck. Big, heavy, and hard to move–no room in our current, temporary digs for them. Tried to sell them, to no avail. Wound up moving them and storing them in the garage.

I tried listing them again on Craigslist just last night. By noon today, they were sold. And the really cool thing is, I sold them to Lovejoy’s, meaning that I can go and visit them whenever I want.

Although I really like Lovejoy’s, I’ve always been discouraged from visiting because of the cigarette smoke–it seems like an especially intense smoking environment. I I told the guy who bought them from me “I don’t want to get political, but I’ve got to tell you, I’ll be visiting you guys a lot more come September”–when the smoking ban goes into effect. It’s interesting that, rather than hunkering down, he’s spending money to update the place, although he also said he’d be counting on people like me. We chatted about the issue in general–he told me about the prodigious amount of cleanup that dealing with cigarette smoking involves, which is one thing I never thought of.

So if you ever find yourself in Lovejoy’s and park yourself on the seats shown here, you’ll know where they came from.
row of five theater seats

Art car parade

Had a busy Satutday. Gwen and I rode down to the farmer’s market, and then checked out the art car parade. There were some amazing creations in the parade. There was also a dismaying level of corporate sponsorship–it’s sad to see something so blatantly countercultural getting co-opted as a marketing opportunity.

I’ve posted some photos on flickr (by no means an exhaustive catalog of the entries, though), with comments on individual objets there.


Art Outside

Went to Art Outside at the Enchanted Forest last night. Fun. There was a lot of bizarre art there, of highly variable quality. High points: the giant welded mechanical musical instrument, the wind-powered spinning sculptures, the bone sculptures, the doll mashups (way, way back at the end of a trail). Low points: poetry readings and undirected jam-band ramblings. Some of the art was pretty sketchy. All in all, worth seeing though.

Go at night and bring a flashlight, as the installed lighting is inadequate.

The house for nudists

I was at the annual Blue Genie Art Festival last week. While I felt that the 2003 edition of this had gotten a little stale, there seemed to be enough fresh blood this year to make it worth attending. It was also fun because we seemingly ran into everyone there. And Sage & Zarah put on a show, which is always a treat.

Among the many people we ran into were Wells & Lisa of Ironwood–Wells made a couple pieces of furniture for me a few years back, and does really nice work. He mentioned that some of his stuff was going to be on display at an open house over the weekend, at a house by a local modernist architect. So Gwen and I were certainly interested, and yesterday, we went to check it out.

The development in question is a pair of houses–not a duplex (they don’t share a common wall), but built right up close to one another on overlapping lots. The location is 1903 Alegria, up around Arroyo Seco. Before we even got out of the car, we saw lots of People Like Us, which kind of creeped me out.

The architects (annoying flash-based site) have some good ideas and some stinkers.

The bad idea universally commented upon by the visitors is the absence of closets. I don’t mean the houses have inadequate closet space: they have no closet space. As far as I’m concerned, the first commandment of modernist house design is thou shalt build in lots of storage. Unless you just don’t have any stuff, modernism pretty much demands that your stuff be put away…and a modernist house needs to give you some place to put it. In fact, it’s hard to see where the architects managed to hide 1400 sqft on these houses without some storage. The first floor consists of a smallish living area and a kitchen with a derisory amount of counter space and storage; a small hallway at the back leads to a powder room and utility room. One wall of the first floor is monopolized by a staircase to the second floor; this has one of the really nice touches, a translucent plastic wall that should let in a huge amount of natural light (assuming it doesn’t crack or discolor).

The staircase lands upstairs at a small common space between two bedrooms, with no doors between them. The bedrooms are separated by a pair of back-to-back bathrooms, which are pretty nice and have big walk-in showers (no bath for you!) on slatted ipe floors. The floors in the shower areas are removable modules like miniature freight palettes, but the ipe slats are screwed into the floor in the rest of the bathroom, suggesting cleaning problems.

And no closets. I assume these houses are for two unrelated adults who have no clothes, no desire for privacy, and little desire to cook at home. I guess you could fill up the place with armoires, but what’s the point?

Another aspect of these houses that I found more philosophically offensive was the entrance. You need to go through the garage (or something that looks very much like a garage–perhaps it’s supposed to be an industrial patio with a garage door?) to get to the front door. The view out the nicely glassed-in front is of the garage, with the outside world peeking in through openings at the edges. This goes beyond a snout house and makes the garage (and by inference, the car) not only the front of the house but really the centerpiece of life in the house. You look out the front, you’ve got a view of your car. Super.

There was a zigzagging path alongside each house leading to a jewelbox of a back yard (with, amusingly, an underground watering system). These paths, which have a cinderblock wall hung with big iron planters on one side, and the milky plastic wall of the house on the other, are probably the best spaces in the entire development.

I didn’t bother finding out how much the houses are going for.

More on Mueller redevelopment

Because some commenters asked:

  • The Austin Chronicle just published an article on Mueller
  • The city has a not-very-friendly Master Development Agreement page, linking to a lot of information about the project. There is a citizen-oriented FAQ there, but it’s in Word’s .doc format (go figure). I have taken the liberty of posting an HTML version of the Mueller FAQ (apologies in advance–probably some formatting bugs).
  • There’s also an interesting set of design guidelines linked from the city’s page, but Chapter 1 clocks in at 38 MB for just 12 pages, and each page takes forever to render on my machine. I’ve extracted a couple of maps:
  • [Later]There’s a whole website for the Mueller redevelopment

In short, the general intent apparently is to integrate Mueller into the city fabric and make it a showpiece for New Urbanism; there are a lot of encouraging-sounding noises about being pedestrian- and bike-friendly, etc. While I have no doubt that there have been a lot of dubious decisions and questionable deals made in the process, I hope the product will be a benefit to the city as a whole.

Toll roads

Talk of toll roads have been much in the air around Austin lately, after CAMPO proposed a plan to convert segments of almost every area highway into a toll road.

Proposed tollroads map

(source: CAMPO “Adopted Tollroads Amendments.” Click for larger version)

My visceral reaction to this was negative, which surprised me: I’ve always been in favor of less driving, less sprawl, and honest road-pricing. Toll roads are consistent with all of these goals. So I decided to give the matter more thought, and I’m still against it in this case. Why?

Tolls seem to be imposed for one of a few reasons: to ration access to overused facilities (Singapore and London have applied road-pricing to downtown roads), to pay for expensive infrastructure, such as bridges, and as a general revenue-enhancement trick. The first two of these are reasonable, the last is unsurprising but infuriating. None of these apply to the current plan, except for the third, in an oblique way.

Although this plan issues from CAMPO, it benefits the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO is acting as TxDOT’s fall-guy. It is important to understand a few things about TxDOT:

  1. TxDOT does not exist primarily to improve general transportation in Texas: if it doesn’t involve new-road construction, they’re not particularly interested.
  2. TxDOT does not exist to maximize road-transport efficiency in Texas: they are really the Texas Department of Corporate Welfare for Construction Companies.
  3. TxDOT is the only state or local organization that takes planning seriously. Unfortunately, their planning reflects their warped perspectives. Other state and local agencies take their planning cues from TxDOT.

In most cases where toll roads are introduced, there’s a toll-free alternative. The CAMPO plan is no exception: new segments of non-tolled roads will be built alongside the tolled sections to be introduced. In other words, TxDOT gets to build more roads. So this is a boondoggle. It also means we’ll have the environmental fights over more green land getting paved over–in theory, this means there might not be untolled alternatives to the tolled sections. Assuming there are, though, one wonders how many people will use the toll roads. And the whole project promises to be expensive: $1.7 billion. Perhaps the tolls will pay for that. I wonder.

Another reason is the bait-n-switch feeling the plan leaves in my mouth. Although I live in central Austin, and live most of my life in central Austin, even I find myself increasingly dragged to the fringes of the city because that’s where so much retail has moved to. Austin, for worse (definitely not for better) has grown up with a sprawl-oriented model of development, and everyone who lives here (short of Amy Babich) in some way must accommodate that. Now CAMPO tells us, now that we’ve been suckered into this topology, that we’ll have to pay for that trip out to the Salt Lick, down to my friend’s place in Oak Hill, over to the bike store on 360, out to the UPS station.

Finally, most people don’t like pay-as-you-go. We don’t want to think about the money being taken away from us each time we use a service: we’d rather pay a big upfront fee (even if it’s more than we’d otherwise pay) and not have to worry about it after that. While some moderation in road use would certainly be a good thing, demand for the roads is probably more inelastic than a smoker’s demand for cigs.

Rajamani at One World Theater

Gwen’s been a fan of Oliver Rajamani for quite some time, so when she found out he was having a CD release party at One World Theater, she figured it would be a good show and a good excuse to see what that venue is like for a relatively low ticket price.

The show was pretty good. I have mixed feelings about Rajamani’s music: he’s good at what he does, and I do enjoy some of his stuff, but some of it gets into these aimless, hypnotic jams that don’t do much for me. But when he’s good, he’s good. He had a good band assembled around him, too, including an acquaintance, Steve Marcum (one of the original instigators behind the full-moon drum circle). He also had Nagavalli Medicharla, a female vocalist, on stage with him. She wasn’t in the show much, but she was one of the high points–she has a voice that really makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I’m looking forward to hearing the album, as I expect it will probably edit the rambling bits out.

Neither Gwen nor I had ever been to the theater before. While the grounds are great, and the building is really interesting from the outside, the room itself is no great shakes. The acoustic seemed fine, and there didn’t seem to be many bad seats in the house, but we were expecting something a little more interesting. Gwen pointed out that the wings set up on stage were obvious afterthoughts that didn’t fit in with the rest of the building at all.

After the show, there was a reception downstairs, where I ran into one of my Japanese teachers from back in the day and one of my fellow fire-freaks.

Beyond Black Rock

Last night Jo’s Coffee hosted an advance screening of Beyond Black Rock (surprisingly, not in the IMDB), a documentary by Austin locals about Burning Man.

Quite a crowd turned out: the entire parking lot behind Jo’s was jammed full–perhaps 500 people. Some of my fellow fire freaks and I were going to provide a little pre-show warmup; as it turns out, I was the only one of the people slated to perform who actually did show up; the guy who was supposed to be coordinating this (and shall remain nameless) called me at the last minute to inform me of his non-appearance and, implictly, to hand off the baton. There were plenty of fire people there, though not many actually had their rigs with them, but in the end, four of us went up and burned, and there was much rejoicing.

Oh yeah, the movie! Enjoyable. Focused a lot on the people who organize it and the organization of it; also featured at some length a couple of artists (including the amazing David Best) who were putting in installations there.


Synchronized swimming. What can you say? Well, the Ho’s website (actually, that’s a dated version–the current one seems to reside only in Google’s cache) has some pomo feminist claptrap, but basically it’s campy good fun. Elaborate costumes, live band, big friendly crowd.

I dug up some pictures from a 2003 performance


Spotted the premiere edition of Spot Magazine sitting on the free-literature shelf at Flightpath today. For those who have not heard of this ground-breaking, earth-shattering, epoch-making periodical, it is a content-lite lifestyle magazine for trendy Austinites and their dogs (though there’s a token article for cat-lovers too). This is almost certainly the most unnecessary exercise in print onanism I have ever seen.

Do we need this? Does anyone need this? Has there been any unmet need for a designy magazine that advises you whether you should take your dog in for reiki treatment (for crissakes), reports on the way dogs fit in with the local music scene, or profiles of pet-friendly workplaces? Going out on a limb, I will answer that with a No. I am amazed that this wankfest made it past the five-minute “wouldn’t it be neat if” bull-session, and not only that, somehow actually got made. Anyone want to bet on whether we’ll see an Issue 2?