I weave through the city.
The squirrels keep up; they understand
the urge to race in the dappled light.
A recorded voice drawls out, slow and Texan:
“The walk sign is on to cross 24th street at Lamar,”
and the woman at the crosswalk repositions her earbuds.
She runs north, and I, south– past Shoal creek looking rocky
and innocent, as if it did not flood west downtown just last year
and the year before that.
A girl’s dog pulls her to the ground straining to greet me.
“He’s excited to see you,” she pants. I understand
the urge to run toward the new and the strange.
The silvery exhale of a bus
matches the uneven pulse of
my breathing as I see my city’s skyscrapers
like a collective shout, loom over the 15th street bridge.
Living in a city is like lying eye level with the grass,
watching it grow.
Austin’s major arterial highway is over 50 years old and ready for a makeover. Every rush hour, commuters get to look forward to driving on the second most congested highway in the state. People may envy Austin’s tacos, but no one envies our traffic. Congestion and ageing infrastructure necessitate reconstruction and as the Texas Department of Transportation reviews options for I-35’s downtown Austin stretch, Mayor Adler has asked Austinites to support one specific concept: lowering the highway between 15th Street and Cesar Chavez, adding 2 lanes in each direction, and creating the possibility of a cap over sections of the lowered lanes.
Mayor Adler is joined by multiple urbanist organizations and architects in the quest for a reconnected urban corridor. That is one goal of depressing I-35 through downtown: increasing community and connectivity between the east and west sides of our city. For many years, the highway has served as a barrier between East Austin and Downtown by impeding foot traffic and serving up a hearty helping of exhaust and noise for humans so unfortunate as to stray in its vicinity without a car.
As the mayor and the Downtown Austin Alliance write, the lowered highway option for I-35 will benefit our community by:
- Adding capacity for vehicles on I-35, including toll-free express lanes for transit vehicles. Having protected lanes for buses to bypass traffic will encourage the use of public transit, which will help to remove vehicles from Austin’s busy roadways.
- Improving safety and mobility for pedestrians and cyclists
- Enhancing east/west connectivity for both vehicles and pedestrians
- Reducing noise pollution from the highway for the area surrounding I-35
- Creating the opportunity for “cap” infrastructure along the downtown corridor of I-35. This will provide residents and stakeholders the opportunity to create an iconic, privately-owned deck park above the state’s most congested highway, benefiting future generations of Texans.
Take a moment to watch this concept video of the proposed lowered highway:
This option gives Austin the ability to reconnect its east and west communities, forming a more complete and sustainable city. The “depressed” highway began to gain popularity years ago, but there are still many of us who have no experience with the idea. An example close to home is Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, which is always a highlight of my trips to the DFW metroplex. The park is full of vitality: urban adventurers of all ages lounge on the grass, stroll the sidewalks, and squint at the many food truck menus. In the midst of the park’s greenery it’s hard to believe there’s an eight-lane freeway beneath you!
Depressing the highway has reconnected Dallas’s downtown core. Connection and community are about much more than financial prosperity, but Dallas has certainly benefited economically because of Klyde Warren Park. D Magazine’s Christine Perez wrote, “When the 4.5-acre deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway opened in the fall of 2012, no one could have predicted the profound impact it would have on the Dallas commercial real estate market.” An early impact study estimated that the park could catalyze $350 million in new development. But the real number has risen to over $1 billion as of January 2016.
Lowering I-35 prepares Austin for future development in a way that modifying the existing concept cannot. Below is a video of the Texas Department of Transportation’s other option: widening I-35 without lowering it. This proposal allows for no more traffic capacity than the first option, and leaves the east and west sides of the highway permanently divorced from one another.
With this model, the highway bisects a potential community, hindering connection and property value. Conversely, the lowered option gives Austin the opportunity to grow back together, allowing the highway to serve the city rather than blight it. Let’s make Austin more than a great place to eat tacos.
If you want the Texas Department of Transportation to lower I-35, use this form to send an email to James Bass, TxDOT Executive Director.
Every year when South by Southwest is over,
the airport fills with jostling and bags
and a collective sigh of Californians and New Yorkers
being packed into planes like potatoes
every which way, sometimes stacked.
And Austin returns to introspection.
Inspection! Tester of spring, the wind crescendos
and asks the leaves, “Are you sure?”
They hold tight through the tossing, the winnowing billows
that ask every branch, “Do you mean it?”
They pass. Like a second fall, the air is confettied
with brown leaves and weak ones flying,
embarking; but the younger leaves cling desperately
to dynastic continuity.
For you, there is a time to withstand every gust and to be “wick”
as a secret Yorkshire garden, but there is also a time to
be carried away; to be packed into planes.
Someday green leaves will turn old and pray-
for strength not to hold on, but to pass away.
It is a time of both going and staying
here every year in the spring.
The airport fills with leaving,
but the leaves in Austin cling.
this post first appeared on: Torrey Gazette
“I can tell whether someone is a good person by how they react which they accidentally step on a snail.”
We were standing on the sidewalk on South Congress- my photographer friend Christina and I, deep in conversation with a man we had just met. She and I have taken to the streets of Austin several times recently, looking for good pictures and good stories. We’ve made ourselves students of the art of asking questions and listening well, inspired largely by Humans of New York. The trail of inspiration goes back further, however- all the way back to 468 BC and the birth of Socrates.
Philosophy. The love of wisdom. Socrates helped define it for Western civilization and he did it not by writing or ruling, but by walking the streets of Athens, making conversation. I recently finished reading Paul Johnson’s biography, titled simply, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. Johnson is a favourite historian of mine and I had a 50% off coupon at Half Price Books, so that’s the backstory. It’s a small book, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into Athenian culture and the life of one of history’s most revered philosophers. Johnson portrays Socrates as a man immanently alive. “There was about him,” he wrote, “a vigor or animation of mind, a power of cheerfulness, vivacity, and liveliness. Some vital power or energy seemed to flow into and out of him.” After centuries of philosophic thought, going back to Socrates and ancient Greece may seem dull. But to catch a glimpse of the person Socrates was– that jolts me awake.
Socrates was not an intellectual- at least, not as Johnson describes an intellectual: “someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” Plato was an intellectual when he took his master’s character and wrote him into dialogues that sometimes treat Socrates as a mere mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. But Socrates cared very little for proving statements or imparting knowledge to a rapt audience. He repeatedly said that true wisdom is found in the admission of ignorance, as I mentioned in a previous post. When the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens, Socrates, puzzled, concluded that it must be because his wisdom consisted in knowing his own limitations. We are wisest when we are pursuing wisdom, not when we think we have attained it. This truth was echoed later by another wise man in Greece, the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”
Instead of insisting on his own superior intellect, Socrates was concerned for people. He spent most of his time asking questions and became an expert interrogator- direct but not imposing. I aspire to this. I doubt he ever had to fill an awkward pause with, “…So, the weather, am I right?” When my conversations lag, I remember how Socrates could linger for hours with a person; going deep and forcing them through questioning to examine their most internally held beliefs. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he declared. As a philosopher, he worked not to bestow wisdom on people like Athens’ other philosophers, the Sophists, but to draw out any wisdom that already dwelt within. He never formed an academy or published a book, and yet he is one of the most famous and foundational philosophers in the Western tradition. It’s remarkable to me, because my mental picture of a philosopher is more like a bookish Professor Emeritus wearing a turtleneck rather than an extroverted, curious urbanite. But Socrates thought truest philosophy happened in conversation and he would laugh at those who relegate it to books. His philosophy was meant to be lived, not merely mulled over. Plutarch said Socrates was the first to apply philosophy to common life, and he did so in a winsome, engaging manner. He also managed to annoy people sometimes, as his nickname, “the Gadfly of Athens” suggests. Some of his tactics weren’t universally appreciated- for example; he was well versed in irony, which was sometimes misunderstood as mockery or false modesty. A friend of mine pointed out that Socrates was master of the ultimate ancient Greek mic-drop! In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says to his opponent, “You are laughing? Here we have yet another form of refutation – when a statement is made, to laugh it down, instead of disproving it!” But Socrates knew the rare art of slipping subtly between levity and gravitas– which Johnson calls “the essence of sophisticated communion.”
It was his genuine interest in people that drove Socrates and expanded his influence. Athens was his first love. Even near the end of his life, after the city was wracked by plague and war and the so-called democratic system of the time sentenced him to death for “corrupting the young men of Athens” with his questioning, he refused to seek shelter in exile. To him, leaving his city would be worse than death. There’s a quote I’ve seen floating around Pinterest: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Socrates did.
I don’t know whether Socrates knew the one true God. Either way, he’s not our ultimate role model. But I believe he set an admirable example of how to converse with and improve people. Saint Augustine, in his City of God, says there is no eternal earthly city, but that Christians are members of the eternal city of God and live out their devotion to him by being the best members of their cities here on earth. In the last chapter of Jonah, God soundly lectures the prophet on the proper way to care for the world. When Jonah, camped morosely outside Nineveh, wakes to find a plant that shaded him has died, he cries out angrily to God who replies, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow…. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” We live in a world of cities that can all relate on some level to Nineveh. Socrates made his home in a city like that, a great metropolitan center full of ignorance as well as promise, and he nurtured the minds of its people. In the 21st century, we need Socrates as much as ancient Athens needed him. We need curious philosophers and examiners and lovers of humanity to dig deep and challenge cultural assumptions and aid in the pursuit of Truth. And as Christians, we should be first to run at the task.
There are two kinds of philosophers: those who tell you WHAT to think and those who tell you HOW. Socrates was the second. “He was keenly anxious,” says Johnson, “to discover how people think and whether they can be encouraged to think more clearly and usefully.” He looked closely at people and asked questions to find what motivations stirred them, what emotions compelled them, and what ideas latched onto them. He was anxious to help each person think more clearly, efficiently, and ethically. Johnson continues, “For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around.” His love for people shaped the entirety of Western thought. It shapes me still: whether I’m casually talking with friends or walking the streets of Austin, looking for stories.