Downtown blues: Boozers, losers and cellphone users

Austin American-Statesman, December 30, 2014

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Radical changes have occurred over the course of the decade [since we moved downtown].

This year marks the tenth anniversary since my husband Ian and I had three garage sales, sold his truck and downsized into a 1,500 square-foot space downtown. (My son Burton was prompted to write that we were in the prime of peri-geriatric, empty-nest decadence. But enough about Burton.)

It seems like everyone has asked us this year if we still like living downtown. The answer is yes, but the shine is off the diamond.

In 2004, we moved into a nice, sleepy neighborhood near Whole Foods (not the current one). There were only two other multi-unit residences: Plaza Lofts and The Nokonah. Loud/live music was limited to indoor venues: Antone’s, La Zona Rosa and Austin Music Hall. There were only two nearby bars — Opal Divine’s and Mother Egan’s Irish Pub. Both played soft music and had the feel of the idyllic British or Irish pub where neighbors gather for a beer, camaraderie, a few laughs, maybe a game of darts or live team trivia. Neither bar is still here.

Radical changes have occurred over the course of the decade:

•          Sloshed city — Bars have sprung up like poisonous mushrooms all over our “Market District,” where folks come to get throw-down drunk in a deafening atmosphere. We now live on the western edge of the drunkest zip code in Texas in one of the drunkest cities in the United States, at times outranking even New Orleans and Las Vegas. Therefore, every Friday and Saturday night around 2:30 a.m., we’re awakened by sloshed little darlings spilling out of the bars, preparing to drive their cars home because our so-called “progressive” city consistently votes no to rail.

Now West Sixth Street resembles so-called “Dirty Sixth” (East Sixth Street). Several bars in our neighborhood have alcohol sales exceeding $500,000 per month. Austin has ordinances on the books about 10:30 p.m. to midnight closing times, maximum decibel limits and the requirement for permits to play amplified outdoor music, but those laws are rarely enforced. Maybe the new City Council will demand enforcement.

•          Construction — Like Germany after World War II, downtown Austin is being almost totally rebuilt. From our balcony overlooking the Seaholm project, we can see 13 construction cranes. That’s not all bad news. A block away we’re getting a Trader Joe’s and a killer public library. Most of the new buildings are extremely handsome and make a beautiful skyline.

•          Cellphones and driving — In 2004, using your cellphone while driving wasn’t mandatory. Now, apparently it is. When I’m stopped at a light, I have one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the horn to notify the driver in front of me whose head is down when it’s time to go. Uber drivers blatantly hold their phones up at eye level to read instructions while they’re moving.

It’s super scary crossing the street on foot. As often as I’ve been clipped by ticked-off drivers who see pedestrians in crosswalks as annoyances, I’ve been almost hit by oblivious drivers on their cellphones. Austin has one of the highest pedestrian fatality death rates in the country.

Thank you, City Council, for passing the ordinance curtailing hand-held devices while driving after Jan. 1! Now how about some enforcement?

•          Motorcycle noise — Another phenomenon not present in 2004 is the overabundance of deafening motorcycles. “I know,” says the man with the IQ of a grackle, “I’ll replace my motorcycle muffler with straight pipes, parade up and down West Fifth and Sixth streets at all hours of the day and night, and women won’t be able to resist me!” A lot of men in this town are thus deluded.

•          Gun nuts — And then of course, last month there was Larry Steven McQuilliams, who shot up the BB&T Bank, one block east of us, before moving on to bigger and better things: the federal courthouse and police headquarters.

But despite the year-round drunks, car alarms, lack of decent public transportation, sirens, nightly loud amplified music played without permits and way beyond the legal decibel limits and cut-off times, distracted and aggressive drivers, deafening motorcycles, traffic congestion, construction noise/dust and the occasional machine-gun fire, we do still like living downtown.

To find out why, read my next column.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.