Sunday, February 06, 2005

Travel Notes: More on New York & New Orleans, plus Austin & Amarillo

Traveling for work has once again kept me from doing much blogging. January is particularly busy for me, I have been on the road at least a part of every week since the beginning of the year, and have a two or three more weeks of heavy traveling ahead of me. I’m not complaining, I enjoy the traveling, except it keeps me away from my wife, dog, and two cats.

In a comment to my last Travel Notes post my fellow ex-Missourian over at Iconic Midwest responded to my comments on New York and New Orleans being the quintessential American cities:

This is both right and wrong. New York & New Orleans reach unique heights that makes them truly great world cities. But that is also their problem as well. They offer an experience you could only get in America, but not a uniquely American experience. For any foreign visitor who really wants to know something about America they are much better off getting to know places like Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis, Austin, etc. It is in these places that you can see the diffusion of the great urban experiences of New York and New Orleans to urban America more generally speaking.

I would agree that a foreign traveller would get a more complete understanding of America by visiting cities like St. Louis, Ceveland or Memphis (I’ll come to Austin later.) But I think it is native-born Americans who can learn the most about America from New Orleans and New York. I don’t think it is an accident that such iconic American writers as Tennesse Williams, William Faulkner, or Walt Whitman all spent a portion of their formative years in New Orleans (and Whitman, of course, spent much time in New York), or that so many writers have spent time in NYC. This is not to say that these cities are better, and this has nothing to do with the overused red state/blue state dicotohmy. But it does mean that we can learn a lot about the US from these two cities. They represent some of the essences of America in their most concentrated form.

For me one of the main charateristics of America is its unique blend of cultures and religions. No other country has been influenced by and assimilated more cultures to create a unique cultural blend than America. Interestingly in today’s New York Times Book Review Noah Feldman comments in a review essay on recent books on Islam and Terrorism:

Our constitutional combination of freedom to practice one's religion, coupled with the strong separation of church and state, has worked far better in accommodating religious diversity than anything Europe has yet dreamed up.

This diversity of both religions and cultures is best displayed in New York. And this is as the Iconic Midwestern points out then diffused through out the rest of the country: St. Louis has its Italian neighborhood, the Hill; Houston, has Tex-Mex, a China Town that should really be a Little Hanoi, because of the large Vietnamese-American population, and the intersection of Harwin and Hillcroft, where a Columbian empanada place is neighbor to a Halal Chinese Restaurant, and a Pak-Indian grocery store. But in these cities and others it seems you have to try a little harder to uncover this uniqueness, in New York it is right there on almost every street, and in New Orleans you find highlighted the pre-Ellis Island, pre-20th century version of this in the French and African influences of that city. It is by visiting these cities that one can really experience this, especially if you, like me, grew up in a small, rural Midwestern town, which, by the way, only this year got a national fast-food chain, a Subway.

If foreign travelers wanted to experience the “American-ness,” for lack of a better term, of the US, they should visit Amarillo, TX. Anchoring the Texas panhandle and the High Plains that consist of North East New Mexico, the Okalahoma panhandle, South East Colorado, and much of Kansas, Amarillo is flat, cattle and farm country. Home of the National Quarter Horse Museum, the Big Texan Restaurant, one of those places that if you eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour you get it free, and not far from the beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park, this is real cowboy country. The Amarillo Airport has the only security check point I’ve been through that provides boot jacks for removing cowboy boots. Amarillo was also a stop on Route 66 and is home of that all-American art installation, Cadillac Ranch. Amarillo has the only cable I’ve seen (and mind you I haven’t seen them all) that has five Christian stations. I’ve even heard some of the alt-looking kids working at Starbucks talking about seeing a Christian rock group. Yes, I did say Starbucks. Amarillo has that, two in fact, plus many other chain restaurants and stores. With its mix of cowboys, Christianity, conservative politics, corporate retail outlets, car culture, and unique Texas independence (reflected in Cadillac Ranch and the fact that this area is home of the original Alt-Country group the Flatlanders, which launched the careers of Texas/Austin musicians Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock), Amarillo in many ways reflects what many foreigners might consider American.

Music is a nice segue to Austin, where I was last week, and which is a mix of Haight-Asbury hippiness, Nashville, Dallas and well, Amarillo. But it my opinion it is much better than all four—the best damn city in Texas. Home of the University of Texas and the Texas State capitol, it has had, for years, a vibrant music scene. Austin is the only city I know that has its won music video station, Austin Music Network, and its own national music show, Austin City Limits. It prides itself on maintaining unique and independent businesses and culture(s)—characterized by their Keep Austin Weird campaign and such great businesses as Book People, one of the premier independent booksellers in the US, and Waterloo Records, one of the premier independent music retailers. Austin is the home of its very own singular phenomenon, I’ll call it the red neck hippie—just think of Willie Nelson, but I think an even better example would be the men’s room in Austin’s Continental Club. The great honk-tonker Dale Watson, who turned down corporate Nashville to stick to his Hank Williams Sr./Merle Haggard roots, is on stage playing his boot-stompin’ trucker song, Truckstop in La Grange, when I notice scrawled in black above the urinal, “Who Would Jesus Torture.” The intrepid foreign traveler who plans on visiting Austin should pack their Doc Martins, Birkenstocks, and their cowboy boots.

This week I’m off to Blytheville, AR, Oxford, MS, and Jacksonville, MS. Three more towns that will probably prove, as do Austin, Amarillo, New Orleans, and New York, that despite justified fears of US homogenization, unique cultures still thrive and survive in the US of A.

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