Friday, May 07, 2010

The Generation Gap and "Old" Austin, Texas

by Charles Hugh Smith

As a society, we have forgotten how closely knit, resilient and localized the economy and culture were just a few decades ago.

In response to two recent entries 1905 San Francisco: Great City, Low Energy Consumption and Adaptation, Habituation, Consumption and $9/Gallon Gasoline, correspondent Lynn M. shared these memories and observations about "old" Austin, Texas (along with a delightful memory of 1980s Naples, Italy).

As a society, we have forgotten how closely knit, resilient and localized the economy and culture were just a few decades ago. Our dependence on oil is not new, but our near-total dependence on immensely long and inter-dependent supply chains is a recent phenomenon.

"The Generation gap" we experience today seems to have yawned wider than the much-hyped (at the time) "Generation Gap" in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Lynn references in her commentary.

Your recent piece on 1905 San Francisco calls to mind a few thoughts about past local (Austin, Texas) conditions.

1. ca. 1935 -- My mother grew up at the edge of the University of Texas original 40 acres campus in the middle of town – they had a garden, a donkey, chickens, and a milk cow, which she milked. This is in the 1930s, less than 20 years before I was born.

2. 1939 -- The streetcars stopped running in 1939 (my mother remembers the exact day). I think the car dealers and tire dealers did them in.

3. ca. 1962 -- The ice cream man who came by had a wooden cart. It had two wheels. He pushed it. He was thin. This is a hilly town. And a lot of the streets were not paved…

4. ca. 1963 -- … until the mid 1960s, including where I live now (my grandmother’s home – a mile or so from the house above, where the family lived until 1940). At that time the property owners paid to pave the part in front of their property. My grandmother paid twice because the house is on a corner. Most people now cannot conceive of unpaved streets. Such a thing is uncivilized. The younger urbanites complain that there are not sidewalks everywhere they might want to walk and cannot conceive that one can walk on the public sidewalk easement along the curb. Nor that not that long ago they as property owners personally would have paid to have the sidewalk built. And they certainly can’t conceive of using a baby as a traffic calming device (as below). The municipal government must provide. Unfortunately, we, the city that never has the problems that other cities do because we are too cool and weird (our weirdness now being officially sponsored by Dell and other corporations), are facing down big budget problems.

5. ca. 1966 -- Until the mid to late-mid 1960s I regularly saw an old man driving a team of mules hitched to a buckboard a block from this same house. So Austin had at least one person using wagon transportation until 1965 or 1966.

None of this is all that long ago, but it is alien as the Old South or the Mayflower or the Gold Rush to most people today. I finally understand the Generation Gap that was so often discussed in the 1970s. I said it didn’t exist. Grandmother said it did. She was right.

And on traffic, regimented vs. free-form. I visited Naples, Italy, in the 1980s. My friend and I walked or took taxis or the train – we did not rent a car. Traffic was chaotic to someone who was accustomed to traffic signals that actually functioned and who generally obeyed the law (that’s me). All the cars were dinted and dinged, small, and quick. A standard way of maneuvering in dense fast traffic was just to bump and jostle your way through. And everybody honked. It wasn’t angry like here – it was just a way of letting other people know what you were doing.

And crossing the street on foot? Very different from the “jaywalkers will be fined” mindset of the US. Nobody paid any attention to the traffic lights, working or not, and the sea of cars never stopped unless pedestrians won a game of chicken. At one point at a major 6 lane street full of cars my friend and I waited and waited for a gap, as did a young, well-dressed Italian couple with a baby in a stroller. We all kept peering to our right, waiting for a chance to go, but futilely, until the couple pushed the baby carriage into the street and just walked in front of the cars. We all crossed safely behind the baby. Everybody did what everybody (except the Americans) knew to do. Naples is a grand city, at least until Vesuvius blows again and ignites the gasoline in all of those cars. I understand they have an evacuation plan to drive in a predetermined manner away from the volcano. They are probably doomed.

Thank you, Lynn, for a very informative and thought-provoking commentary.

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