More on Austin Traffic, Emma Lou Linn, Austin Anniversary, Texas Images, Texas Maps

landoffice2Five very recent stories from this desk seem to have caught the readers’ imagination. Happy holidays!

TRANSIT: Is traffic altering the way that Austin socializes? (More than 3,500 social media shares so far.) “A gilt-edged card slides out of a hand-addressed envelope. You have been invited to the social event of the season. Then your heart drops: “Event starts promptly at 6 p.m.” Not in Austin, it doesn’t. Not unless you live walking distance from the venue. Luckily for your social columnist, he can exercise that option often. Otherwise, one faces a heroic battle against almost insuperable traffic. For some party guests, this fight can turn into a lengthy campaign. A host and a guest can reside as far as 75 miles apart and still claim to live in the Austin area.” http://shar.es/13VlZe

SCHOOL: The truly remarkable life of Emma Lou Linn. (More than 700 social media shares so far.) “In 1975, a divided Austin City Council considered renaming 19th Street after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Newly minted Council Member Emma Lou Linn — only the second woman, after Emma Long, to serve in that capacity, although she was soon joined by Margaret Hoffman and Betty Himmelblau — listened as J.J. Seabrook, president emeritus of what was then Huston-Tillotson College, spoke eloquently in favor of the proposal. Then he collapsed. “As he fell to the ground, I ran to him and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Linn, now 78, told one historian. “Unfortunately, Seabrook died. But a photographer snapped a photo and it circulated nationally! That brought me great praise from many groups, but threats from a few.” http://shar.es/13VZmk

 HISTORY 1: Mesmerizing images of early Texas. (More than 300 social media shares so far.) “The man stares into the camera with dignified authority. His dark hair is brushed back unfussily. A large, shiny bow around his neck matches the sheen of his loose jacket. This image from the mid-19th century — discolored by time but crisp in every detail — is among the most compelling in a small exhibit of early photographs at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in the state Capitol complex. The portrait is all the more intriguing because the subject’s name is unknown. “We guess that he was a man of some affluence and prominence,” says John Anderson, preservation officer at the archives. “We would love to have some solid leads on who he is. This is a full-plate ambrotype, which would have been relatively expensive for its time, though more affordable than a daguerreotype the same size.” http://shar.es/13VZ5n

HISTORY 2: Unearthing map gems at the Texas General Land Office. (More than 200 social media shares so far.) “With great care, they roll out the oversized drawer. Inside is a rare pearl: An enormous 1879 map of Texas. Composed by draftsmen Charles W. Pressler and A.B. Langermann for the Texas General Land Office, it was rolled up and unrolled countless times to help answer official questions about land rights. So in 2000, this tattered map was sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., for revival. This is the same company that preserved Lewis and Clark’s journals and the Emancipation Proclamation.The conservators there painstakingly reconstructed this essential document. “Now it’s flat, that’s great,” says Susan Smith Dorsey, director of technical services for the Land Office. “What do you do with it? So we bought the largest map cabinet available so it could be housed flat.” http://shar.es/13Vwgm

HISTORY 3: Happy 175th birthday, fair city. (More than 100 social media shares so far.) “Happy dodransbicentennial. Or if you must, septaquintaquinquecentennial. No matter which multisyllabic term you chose, come Dec. 27, Austin turns 175. That seems like a long stretch of time. Yet resident Frances Sneed Simnacher, interviewed here earlier this year, has lived through 102 — or 58 percent — of those years. We’re a relatively young city, if a resident — still living in the house where she was born, east of Montopolis — can recall more than half of its collective civic history.The Austin History Center toasts the 175th anniversary with a small exhibit that takes Austin “From Cabins to Skyscrapers.” It remains on view at the center’s handsome Beaux-Arts building at Guadalupe and West Ninth streets through March 22.” http://shar.es/13VwYt

Best Texas rivers: Lower Rio Grande

The Rio Grande looking upstream from the Roma bluffs.
The Rio Grande looking upstream from the Roma bluffs. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL: The last major Texas river. The Rio Grande staggers the imagination. Almost 2,000 miles long, it defies the type of river tracing that Houston buddy Joe Starr and I have ardently pursued for the past few years. The Texas-Mexico border alone is 1,000 miles long, which Keith Bowden tackled by kayak and canoe, then recorded in “The Tecate Journals.” The Rio Bravo is also beautifully revealed — in fragments — in Jan Reid‘s magnificent collection, “Rio Grande,” which I dipped back into this week on our 32nd Texas river tracing. Joe and I made a deal: Tracing the river’s whole length by car and on foot would take months. Also, in past years we have explored its banks in and around El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, as well as spots in Colorado and New Mexico. Our missing link was the Valley. So we spent a long December weekend soaking up the Rio Grande from the bluffs of Roma to its quiet terminus at Boca Chica. It turned out the most gratifying of our tracings so far. It also pointed the way for three week-long, sweep-up tours of the final 18 Texas rivers.

The Rio Grande impounded at Mission.
The Rio Grande impounded at Mission. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL 2: Eight hours on a smooth road. It takes less than three hours to reach Houston on a good day, then just over five hours to land in Brownsville, an old city that’s part of a sprawling, new metropolis. Tawny winter grasses alongside U.S. 59 and U.S. 77 — part of the planned Interstate 69, the so-called NAFTA Superhighway — make the rarely interrupted trip all the more pleasant. Once near Harlingen, palms replace coastal grasses, apt for the spot Spanish explorers called Rio de las Palmas for the wild groves that crowded the river’s mouth.  Once a patchwork of ancient border crossings, forts and irrigated farms, the Valley is now home to 1.2 million people, just on the American side. From Mission to Brownsville, its spine is a 70-mile-long freeway, lined continuously with the kind of freeway culture recognizable anywhere in this country. Yet off that thoroughfare are pockets of singular culture and more than 80 birdwatching sites, the organizing theme of this trip. Gov. Rick Perry‘s “surge” is evident everywhere. Every cut in a median hosted a highway trooper. Helping out were police, sheriffs, constables, border patrol and, on one back road, a truckload of nervous, laughing Texas National Guard troops. The only uniformed activity during our drives were escorting an ambulance and directing traffic around a community parade. Other fleeting glimpses of the local culture: Billboards for insurance, immigration or accident help — especially involving 18-wheelers — also for adult day care and every level of public and private education.

Pelicans soar at Boca Chica.
Pelicans soar at Boca Chica. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL 3: Our first stop: Gladys Porter Zoo. This is a big, modern zoological park at more than two dozen acres, built around a resaca, or oxbow lake. Richly landscaped, it rivals any big-city Texas zoo for variety of animals and novelty of presentation. For instance, I counted no less than seven giraffes and an equal number of very active lowland gorillas. One thing missing this warm winter afternoon: People. The lady at the butterfly house said she’d counted only six guests that day. Also, it being winter, much of the park was under construction. Some enclosures stood empty, others contained short-term visitors. Of course, it was our luxury to spend as much time as possible at each stop, which included quite a few endangered species supported by captive breeding programs. If you like zoos at all, this is a must-stop. We even spotted local birds like chachalacas, muscovy ducks, great kiskadees and golden-fronted woodpeckers poking around the enclosures. Time to play “If I Could Write a $1 million Check.” Then the money for Gladys Porter would go to all-new, larger and more current signs for the exhibits. Some appear to have been made of substandard material, fading quickly in the elements.

The silent square in old Roma.
The silent square in old Roma. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL 4: From Mission to Roma and back. Our first full day started at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park near Mission. This preserved patch of riparian thicket has been altered in recent years to respond to immigration concerns. It is also the HQ for the World Birding Center, an alliance of nine Valley sites that help stitch together the more than 80 viewing areas in this unparalleled magnet for bird watchers. Right at the park’s entrance at generous feeders were dozens of chachalacas, green jays, clay-colored thrushes and white-tipped doves, along with more familiar species. On a hike, we were swarmed by mosquitos, but still caught glimpses of warblers, vireos and other flitterers, but no ocelots or jaguarundis, of course. We headed west for the treasure of pre-1900 buildings in Roma, some rescued, some still crumbling. Even after reading about this collection around a traditional town square for years, still a charge to wander around practically alone. At one point, Joe looked across the river, thinking: Oh that looks just like Mexico. It was Mexico. After lunch, we headed back east to Anzalduas County Park, where we saw the Rio Grande impeded by a big dam and wandered the fields looking for perhaps a groove-billed ani. Lots of other birds, including the now familiar kiskadees!

Gulls, terns and wading birds in winter plumage.
Gulls, terns and wading birds in winter plumage. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL 5: Up at dawn the next day for the Palo Alto Battlefield. Not so much out of interest in the Mexican War, but rather for some more recommended bird watching. In fact, we learned much about the Taylor campaign and the U.S. Army’s “flying cannons” at this excellently interpreted site, and, along the way, found only a few birds: Eastern meadowlarks, Western kingbirds and what we believe to be an Aplomado falcon (humor us). We stopped by the Palmito Ranch Battleground — last clash of the Civil War and very similar in circumstances to the earlier engagement — on our way to Boca Chica. This rough beach leads to the mouth of the Rio Grande, but the scattered fishermen and families didn’t seem to care. We got out and made a five-mile roundtrip hike to the mouth, passing by terns, gulls and wading birds in their confusing white-and-gray winter plumage. White and brown pelicans, along with cormorants, soared overhead, while great blue herons peaked out from the high-peaked dunes. Finally we saw the Holy Grail of Texas river tracing: A big river reaching the sea. It was only a few yards across and Mexican fishermen waded out into its middle stream. Thinking back, of all our river tracings, we’ve witnessed only one true, verifiable source (San Saba River) and one true, verifiable mouth that reaches the sea (Rio Grande del Norte).

The mouth of the Rio Grande at Boca Chica. Mexico is in the background.
The mouth of the Rio Grande at Boca Chica. Mexico is in the background. Photo by Joe Starr.

TRAVEL 6: A somewhat isolated land. Leaving the Valley, one could not help noticing the dearth of vehicles heading north or south. If counted together, the 1.2 million people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley would comprise the fifth largest metro in the state. And yet the NAFTA Superhighway was clear, even of 18-wheelers on a weekday morning. This fact underlined the impression that the Valley is unto itself, connected east-west by that long freeway, north-south by the river and its bridges. But not particularly interested in the rest of Texas to its back. Which explains some of its magic. We lingered at excellent eateries — Kiki’s, El Pastor and Camperos — and were always the only Anglos present. Same was true at the super-sized H-E-B we gleaned for grub. Clerks, except at the Hampton Inn, greeted us in Spanish and English. We overheard a good deal of idiomatically fluent Spanglish not like any other in the state. If anything, this made us hungry for more and more of the Valley. We ran across some of the crippling poverty endemic to the area, but we also found a place where people seem particularly settled and at ease in their part of the world.

Austin Traffic, Textile Launch, Longhorn Network and more

Kristen Plymale and Ana Lozano at Textile grand opening.
Kristen Plymale and Ana Lozano at Textile grand opening.

NIGHTLIFE: Like mushrooms after a rain, come the party places. All over downtown, they stand silent most nights. Passersby wonder at their creative presence, often decked out in the latest decor, but what role do these buildings play? Clubs? Eateries? High-tech offices? Nope. In fact, some two dozen mostly older buildings in Central Austin are party places, known in the biz as special events spaces. Yes, they are available for your office happy hour, your wedding or your charity benefit. But they really come alive during Austin’s mega-festivals, especially SXSW. A handsome newcomer, Textile, made its official bow last week. Jason Hicks and Dana Beyert from the Electric Company (Austin Music Hall) are the clever captains of this venture. There’s an inside-outside aspect to Textile that is particularly inviting. And it is right across the street from the Austin Convention center on East Third Street.

CITY: Story about how Austin traffic affects socializing stirs up some traffic online. Taken from my column in the Statesman: “A gilt-edged card slides out of a hand-addressed envelope. You have been invited to the social event of the season. Then your heart drops: “Event starts promptly at 6 p.m.” Not in Austin, it doesn’t. Not unless you live walking distance from the venue. Luckily for your social columnist, he can exercise that option often. Otherwise, one faces a heroic battle against almost insuperable traffic. For some party guests, this fight can turn into a lengthy campaign. A host and a guest can reside as far as 75 miles apart and still claim to live in the Austin area. Has our worsening traffic permanently altered Austin’s social habits?”  http://shar.es/13hgax

SPORTS: A great year to be a Longhorns fan. Sure, the transitioning football team wound up the regular season 6-6 and will be challenged by an old rival in the Texas Bowl. At the same time, however, the basketball teams are ranked Nos. 3 and 8. The volleyball team is seeded No. 2 in the NCAA playoffs. The swimming and diving teams are ranked Nos. 4 and 7. And we can see it all from the comfort of our overstuffed sofa, all thanks to the Longhorn Network. I have no idea how such a national cable network — a collaboration between the University of Texas and ESPN — works out a business model. But I can see why other teams — you know who you are — whined about it. If your teams are doing well, having all-by-your-lonesome network helps explain why there are pockets of UT fans from Alaska to Maine and beyond. One night recently, I returned home from my nightly duties to watch a basketball game, a volleyball game and the swimming invitational. Bliss.

Dancing with the Stars Austin, Peter Nappi Pop-Ups, Early Texas Images

Rose Reyes and Peter Nappi during Pop Up Party at Hotel St. Cecilia.
Rose Reyes and Peter Nappi during Pop Up Party at Hotel St. Cecilia.

CHARITY: Guess who was totally charming? No kidding, former game show host Chuck Woolery. Smart, funny, quick-witted. Come to think of it, that should go with his TV territory. Now living in Horseshoe Bay, he served as one of three rollicking judges for Dancing with the Stars Austin, which benefits the Center for Child Protection. The long evening at Hyatt Austin benefited from animated auction crying from Heath Hale and crew. Then came the game of risk: Which local celebrity would best execute a dance style with a pro partner? Winners — athletic all — were Katrine FormbyCassie LaMere and Francie P. Little. I tell you, I was forced to miss this essential Austin benefit last year and was so pleased to pick up where I left off. Serious fun for a serious cause.

Nate Boyer and Brooke Williamson at Dancing with the Stars Austin.
Nate Boyer and Brooke Williamson at Dancing with the Stars Austin.

STYLE: Every single item appealed to me. That hardly ever happens with menswear. Except during certain seasons at Stag on South Congress Avenue or the Armani store at the San Marcos Outlet Mall. Odd pairing, I know, but they came together in leatherwork of Peter Nappi, the Italian-inspired-and-made apparel, footwear and accessories based in suddenly cool Nashville. Pop-up stores and parties at Hotel St. Cecilia and Hotel San Jose showed off the lovelies to their best advantage. I also meet some incredibly interesting folks who appreciated fashion but didn’t live for it. Bit of news: Peter Nappi is looking for a bricks-and-mortar storefront in Austin. We discussed the pros and cons of various retail districts.

Jordan and Katie Jaffe at Dancing with the Stars Austin.
Jordan and Katie Jaffe at Dancing with the Stars Austin.

HISTORY: Mesmerizing early Texas images. Taken for my story in the Statesman: “The man stares into the camera with dignified authority. His dark hair is brushed back unfussily. A large, shiny bow around his neck matches the sheen of his loose jacket. This image from the mid-19th century — discolored by time but crisp in every detail — is among the most compelling in a small exhibit of early photographs at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in the state Capitol complex. The portrait is all the more intriguing because the subject’s name is unknown.” http://shar.es/13qbBq

Darlene Love at the Paramount, Ho Ho Blo Style Show, Cristina Balli and more

Darlene Love's Wall of Holiday Love at the Paramount
Darlene Love’s Wall of Holiday Love at the Paramount

MUSIC: Talk about a Wall of Love! First drinks with Rick Reeder, Jim Ritts and Lisa Jasper. Then two hours of pure sonic joy. Of course we had applauded Darlene Love‘s huge comeback success in “20 Feet from Stardom,” her Oscar night thrill and her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 50 years in the music biz. But I didn’t pay attention to the seasonal timing for this concert at the Paramount Theatre. Love blasted out four or five tremendous songs from the Phil Spector Christmas Album — my all-time fave — and included a couple of hilarious digs at her former mentor/tormentor. For me, the best concert of the year.

Ho Ho Blo fashion show at the Jaguar/Land Rover dealership. Photo by Ashley Beall.
Ho Ho Blo fashion show at the Jaguar/Land Rover dealership. Photo by Ashley Beall.

STYLE: A novel twist to fashion. Someone had to explain it to me. Why were we attending a runway show in a car dealership? And what was the twist? Actually, it was Tribeza’s Ashley Beall who explained to me that the show was organized by Blo Blow Dry Bar on West Fifth Street to benefit Kids in a New Groove, which helps foster kids with music mentoring. Unbeknownst to me, Blo is an international concept salon that offers a quick wash, dry and styling for (mostly) women on the go. They don’t cut and color, just get you to your social event looking sharp. The fashion show, naturally, emphasized hair in an informal setting with a fresh set of eyes. (Beall was among the only scene regulars whom I recognized at the event. Love that.)

Texas Folklife's Cristina Balli
Texas Folklife’s Cristina Balli

ARTS: Knowing her folkways. Taken from my story in the Statesman: “Folklorists tend to spread out from the classroom or laboratory to the field. Cristina Balli’s journey reversed that pattern. The former social worker grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, surrounded by folk music, art, poetry, rituals and foodways. She wasn’t trained as a folklorist. Yet her curious mind and empathetic spirit took her through a labyrinth of experiences that led to Texas Folklife, the Austin-based nonprofit that she helms today.” http://shar.es/13XuVm