Austin embraces the weird

AUSTIN, Texas -- Leslie Cochran has run for mayor here three times.

Leslie is a 60-year-old, bearded, cross-dresser/homeless activist with his own corner -- 6th and Congress. He has his own Wikipedia and Facebook pages, and even finished second in the 2000 mayoral race.

That's Austin.

It's unique, diverse and tolerant.

"Austin is a place where someone can put a toilet in their front yard, stick a flower in it and call it art," Joshua Long said. "You have a guy stacking bicycles in the shape of a Christmas tree or a guy that builds Godzilla out of beer cans. In Austin, that is cool. It's accepted."

Long should know. He wrote a book on what makes Austin unique: "Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance."

It's the places and people of Austin that make it so different -- Vince Hannemann's Cathedral of Junk, Beth Thom's polka-dot lawn, Stefanie DiStefano's Mosaic Bridge on El Paso Street, and the student found in a full bear costume on the north side of the University of Texas campus, incoherently growling early Sunday morning. According to the police report, he did not realize he was outside of Jellystone Park.

All of it adds to the weirdness of Austin. And almost everybody who comes to Austin -- and they are coming by the thousands these days -- seemingly embraces the weirdness.

It's practically the city's motto. Take a walk down South Congress, Lamar or 6th Street and you're bound to see a T-shirt with the phrase, "Keep Austin Weird."

The shirts were the brainchild of Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople, and John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records. In 2002, the two were worried about the encroachment of a Borders bookstore. They used the slogan in their campaign to support local businesses, and it has stuck.

"When people move here, Austinites take it upon themselves to indoctrinate them to what Austin is all about," Long said. "That has led to acceptance and tolerance."

It has also led to an influx of those seeking a cultural experience. The genesis of the counterculture experience saw a doubling of university enrollment throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

That was an experimental time in the United States, and those in the Southwest who wanted to experience something new came to Austin. They came to listen to Willie Nelson at the Armadillo World Headquarters, to revel in the incredibly cheap cost of living, and to experience art and culture that was not on display anywhere else in the region.

"A lot of what made Austin weird were the economics," Long said. "To live here, even up into the '80s, was just incredibly cheap. So you had all these people coming together, living in these co-ops, with all these rooms in a big house, and what else did they have to do but think about conspiracy theories and build yard art?"

Once word got out of this cultural oasis, and its music scene, more and more people moved to Austin. They have stayed and invited others, changing the size of the city, but not the spirit.

Sure, some of the old mainstays, such as GM Steakhouse, Paco's Tacos and Mad Dog & Beans, have gone by the wayside. But there are still places like Nau's Enfield Drug, Dirty's on Guadalupe Street and the Dry Creek Saloon off Mount Bonnell Road, where a piece of old Austin can be soaked up.

There are also new places and venues that have the old Austin vibe, including the Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress Avenue, where they serve chocolate-covered bacon and the soda fountain still works. Or the South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery, where you can order a fried avocado taco from one trailer and move to the next for an Abe Froman -- the sausage king of Chicago -- from Man Bites Dog.

Take a trip across the bridge from either of these new Austin favorites and you might even find Leslie. He's still there, at 6th and Congress, on most days. But if you can't get by to see him, no worries ... there is an app for that.

Seriously -- iLeslie.

Yeah, Austin has changed and it has stayed the same weird, unique, tolerant place it has been for the past five decades.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation

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