As much as I enjoy traveling to other cities and towns, Austin is the city of my heart. So, on the occasion of this Valentine’s Day, allow me to wax poetic on the subject – at least for a paragraph or two.
It probably goes without saying, but as a native Austinite, this city has always fit me like a glove, or maybe she has simply molded me to her hand. It’s where I grew up, got an education, worked with interesting folks, raised kids, and made great friends … all who still live here with the exception of a few audacious stragglers. The Capitol and the University of Texas have long been anchors of my personal compass, both geographically and intellectually. And speaking of geography, who can fault Austin’s, nestled at the foothills of the Hill Country, straddling the banks of the Colorado River?
As a lifelong Austin resident (except for an 18-month sojourn in Peru), one of the things I appreciate most is the fact that I never get lost. It’s an easy city to navigate as long as you have an idea where you last saw the UT tower or the Capitol. Of course we have some weirdness such as RR 2222 becoming Koenig Lane and then becoming Hwy. 290 E. And then we have our quaint mispronunciations of streets like Koenig, Guadalupe, or Manchaca, wherein we took foreign names and bent them to our will or simple ignorance.
But I want to applaud our forefathers and mothers (can I hope there were some?) from the late 1800s who decided to cast aside the names of the east-west streets and simply assign numbers to them in ascending order from Town Lake northward. Before that, the east-west streets were named for trees. For logical reasons, First Street was called Water Street, but moving north, the street names were Live Oak (2nd), Cypress (3rd), Cedar (4th), Pine (5th), Pecan(6th); Bois de Arc (7th), Hickory (8th), Ash (9th), and in between UT and the Capitol was Magnolia Ave. (19th), to name just a few.
Imagine how difficult it would be to find your way downtown and beyond if we had to guide ourselves with some unsystematic list of the tree genus. Without numbers, we’d have no idea how far we need to go – or have yet to go – as we journey north-south.
We’d be like Houston, whose downtown streets are a hodgepodge of Texas heroes and various places. Lacking rhyme or reason, the streets are named after Texans — Rusk, Pease, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lamar Streets. But why do they have a Capitol Street when there is no Capitol? Louisiana Street? What’s up with that?
I will admit that Austin’s downtown north-south streets are a bit challenging, but at least they are laid out according to a recognizable theme, assuming you know your Texas river geography. Simply put, the streets from west to east (after West Avenue) are named in order of the rivers beginning with the farthest south (Rio Grande) and ending with Sabine (which for some reason is out of order with Red River). Clear? It may not be perfect but at least it’s a system that can be understood with a bit of map study.
Maybe that’s why my rational mind resists the name changes our more recent leaders have approved, renaming 1st and 19th Streets, Cesar Chavez Street and Martin Luther King Blvd., respectively. As my navigation language prefers numbered streets, I have to mentally translate before I give directions in honored-personage language. Someone once accused me of being politically incorrect by referencing, in a moment of forgetfulness, the old numbered street name instead of the current one. But I felt no remorse – after all, the Mopac highway signage continued to indicate Cesar Chavez as First Street until about a year or so ago (about 2010). It was renamed in the mid 1990s, but apparently it takes a while for these changes to stick.
But even more disturbing is the recent trend of naming just a few blocks of one of the numbered streets. Part of 26th street was renamed Dean Keeton Street, and a couple of blocks of 2nd Street are now Willie Nelson Blvd. Don’t get me wrong – my dad thought Page Keeton was a great dean of UT Law School. And I first met Willie Nelson when I was 16, long before he adopted my hairstyle – not pig tails, but long and flowing – and have loved his music ever since. But why take a perfectly helpful numbered street and confuse citizens and visitors who are already struggling with the order of Texas rivers?
Frankly, why can we honor folks with statues? Stevie Ray Vaughan’s likeness in bronze has worked out well. Tourists and music fans seek it out to take a photograph with it. It’s become a city icon in a way that a name on a street sign could never be.
This phenomenon of naming partial bits of street is beginning to take on shades of South American cities where street names change to a different General, Admiral, or famous date in history, every two blocks or so. I used to think South Americans just had too many folks they needed to honor, but upon further reflection, it may be a practical way of keeping any group who thinks about a coup d’etat or similar rebellion from getting organized. If they can’t find each other, how can they mobilize their forces?
So could it be that our city leaders are slowly but surely dismantling our orderly system and imposing the South American model to divide and conquer the old-time Austinites? Once we start losing our bearings, can our freedom be far behind? Is it a mere coincidence that City Hall is situated between Cesar Chavez and Willie Nelson Blvd? Maybe that’s part of a plot to keep old-time Austinites from meddling in City affairs?
I hate to say this, but once we start getting lost in our own city, folks, that’s the beginning of the end. And when we start hearing GudaluPEH instead of GuadalOOP and ManchaKAH instead of ManCHAK, South American model creep is in the final stretch. We can go ahead and throw in the towel.
To forestall that day, I ask that we unite against any further renaming of our Central Austin streets. After all, there is safety in numbering.