keep Austin.

My boyfriend and I have been lazy slugs all weekend. We didn’t want to cook on Saturday night (or Saturday lunch, or Friday night), so around 5:00 on Saturday, we started debating where to go for dinner.
“You know what I’d like?” I said. “A fruit salad. I would love a nice fruit salad.”
“Where do you want to go for that?” he asked.
“I can think of two places where I’ve had a good fruit salad: Mother’s and Katz’s,” I told him. After a little more discussion, we decided on Katz’s, which had more choices for him for dinner (especially if he wanted meat—Mother’s is vegetarian).

We drove down Mopac, counting the number of people on cel phones to pass the time, talking about whether or not it’s worth it for me to consider a hybrid car when I buy a new one (not for another year at least) because I don’t drive on the highway very much and would it make that much of a difference for the amount I drive? Maybe I should just get a Honda Civic. Feeling lazy, discussing theoretical and non-pressing issues, we sailed down Fifth Street to Lamar.
“I see a construction sign,” I told him. “It says ‘Special Event Ahead.’ Construction is not a special event in this town.”
Without much warning traffic stopped, dead, with no sign of moving ahead of us. I peered around a giant Toyota SUV and noticed that a few blocks down, only one lane of traffic was open.
“I see people,” my boyfriend said, and sure enough, I could see a little bunch of a dozen people, all in white t-shirts, walking around a corner onto Fifth Street.
“It looks like a race, except no one is actually running. A charity walk? At this time of day?” I was appalled. It was about 5:45 pm. Races do not start in the middle of the afternoon. Was someone insane? Even a charity walk would be difficult at that hour. Luckily for whatever group it was, the day was unusually overcast and not too hot, but it was still warm and humid and no fun to exercise outdoors.
It wasn’t even fun to sit there in the air-conditioned car and crawl down the block, waiting for the next possible street to turn left and get away from the mess of traffic. We passed a block of what I thought were rather ugly apartments, which reminded me somehow of the tenement houses in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but which turned out to be expensive new condos.
“I wonder if that isn’t that Keep Austin Weird 5K,” I told my boyfriend. “But what kind of idiots would schedule a 5K for mid-afternoon?”
I vaguely remembered reading about the Keep Austin Weird 5K from a blog entry on Amblongus earlier in the day. The entry noted that the 5K couldn’t be very much in tune with its theme if it were sponsored by a big car dealership. He had a point.
In fact, he had a lot of good points about the whole “Keep Austin Weird” theme, and I recommend reading the whole entry.
If you don’t live in Austin, and maybe if you do, you probably don’t know the whole story about the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan.
According to a New York Times article (I make no guarantee that link will work), a few years ago an Austinite named Red Wassenich came up with the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and printed bumper stickers with it, with profits going to an animal rescue society. He also started a Keep Austin Weird Web site with examples of Austin weirdness. The slogan caught on all around town.
A lot of local businesses (Chuy’s, BookPeople) put “Keep Austin Weird” on the fronts of t-shirts and their company logo on the back. A local t-shirt company printed a lot of “Keep Austin Weird” t-shirts and mugs. Everyone loved the idea of keeping Austin weird and everyone, from big businesses to local actual weird people, used the phrase. A friend of mine went to Eeyore’s Birthday dressed in a “Keep Austin Drunk” costume.
One reason the slogan might have caught on was a downtown development battle going on at the time. Groundbreaking started on a mall at Sixth and Lamar, a part of downtown that was being taken over by new development. The new mall was supposed to include a huge Borders Books and Music, which could potentially harm the nearby local/independent BookPeople and Waterloo Records/Video out of business. After a lot of protesting from Austinites, Borders pulled out of the deal (although the shopping center is still being built).
In 2002, a local company that had been printing the “Keep Austin Weird” shirts and mugs, Absolutely Austin (aka Outhouse Designs and Nobonz, Inc.) applied for a trademark on “Keep Austin Weird.” Red Wassenich tried to challenge the trademark application, believing the phrase belonged in the public domain, but eventually had to drop the matter (probably it was a financial drain). The t-shirt company won in late 2003.
That’s right, Austinites, “Keep Austin Weird” is trademarked. How do you feel about using the slogan now?
The original Keep Austin Weird site has a bitter tone to it now. The author invites Austinites to find their own weird slogans and events and things, and to shun the now-trademarked slogan.
“Keep Austin Weird” rings a little hollow these days. Local businesses use it in a campaign to encourage Austinites to shop locally. And now we have a Keep Austin Weird 5K race with dozens of sponsors, many of which are not independent local businesses.
I didn’t realize much of this on the drive to Katz’s, though. I was busy wondering who would schedule a 5K in the middle of August in Texas. My parents were heavily in the running scene when I was growing up and I remembered hearing stories about casualties to the heat during summertime races … which were scheduled in the morning. I am still baffled about why someone would schedule even a walking event at 5 pm in the summertime, unless they wanted to Keep Austin Dehydrated and Sunburned.
While there may have been a legitimate race at the beginning of the Keep Austin Weird 5K, by the time we got to Katz’s, only walkers were left. The waitress seated us by the windows, where other restaurant patrons were having a fine time watching and commenting on the walkers. People were dressed in tutus, in grass skirts, in drag, on rollerskates, cowgirls and cows and Catholic schoolgirls and one woman in shocking hot pink. Some people wore the race t-shirt (when I was growing up, there was an unwritten rule that real runners do not wear the t-shirt for the race in which they are competing, but rather something older to show their experience. I have no idea if that is still the case). Most people were amiably walking in groups, pushing strollers, chit-chatting with friends and having a nice afternoon walk downtown.
A lot of downtown restaurants had set up “Weird Stops” where they gave away food to the 5K participants. Like an aid station in a legitimate race, only instead of water and sports drinks, people got pizza and fries. The “Weird Stop” across from Katz’s was sponsored by Opal Divine’s, a fine local restaurant/bar, and by … Mr. Gatti’s, which has a delivery store on Sixth Street.
We ate our dinner while watching the last walkers straggle around the corner. The fruit salad was very good, although my boyfriend ate nearly all the banana out of it.
As we finished eating, I looked across the street at the old building that once housed a favorite local bookstore of mine, Adventures in Crime and Space. The bookstore had been forced out of the building a few years ago because of high rents and ended up closing for good. (You can still order from it online, though.) I think the building also housed the Austin offices of the Texas Triangle newspaper. I noticed something I hadn’t seen before—from where we sat, you could see the remnants of an old sign painted on the side of the building, for “Something Bros. Grocery and Market” from who knows how long ago. A little bit of forgotten history.

Then I noticed the sign in the front window and I realized why the front of the building looked so stripped-down. The building is scheduled for demolition. It’ll be torn down, and something trendy and metallic and corporate will appear there in the next year.
Keep Austin weird, indeed. We’ll be lucky to keep it at all.

5 thoughts on “keep Austin.”

  1. There’s got to be some appropriate grassroots action to take against trademark hijacking of this kind, but I can’t think of what it would be. Other than making your own Keep Austin Weird paraphernalia. Maybe there could be giant silkscreening parties?
    As for the hybrid — you may not drive enough, period, to justify a fuel-efficient car. But if the issue isn’t total driving but highway driving, then you should know that stop-and-go driving is where a hybrid actually gets most of its fuel savings. Not only is the electric motor more efficient than the gas engine at low speeds but it even recovers energy when you’re braking. If you did all of your driving on the highway, that would actually be a reason *not* to get a hybrid.
    Which your geek boyfriend no doubt discussed at length. :-)

  2. Please don’t violate others’ trademarks, no matter how unfairly they were obtained. You expose yourself to civil damages, plus you have to pay the holders’ attorneys fees if the holders prevail. It’s not worth the risk as a form of protest.

  3. Prentiss, I think that Austin weirdness isn’t sufficiently conveyed through silkscreening. However, I could see having a party out in my backyard where we used sponges and tie-dyes and rubber bands to create “Keep Austin” t-shirts. Without the “Weird” part, REM, to avoid any trademark violation.
    I will say that so far the trademark holders have not done much to enforce violations, which must be going on all the time around here since the phrase is so popular. That could weaken any legal battles later, couldn’t it?

  4. About the race t-shirts: yes, that’s definitely still the case. Wearing the race t-shirt during the race immediately brands you as a first-timer. (Actually Rob refuses to wear a shirt at all unless it’s about 30 degrees. But then he’s weird.)

  5. Yes, failure to police a TM would result in a finding that it was abandoned. But do you want a couple of years of litigation on your hands before you win?
    The “Keep Austin,” period, shirts sound fine (though note that I am not an IP lawyer, and this is based on a class I took pass fail 15 years ago, plus what I’ve picked up by osmosis since).

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