Saturday, July 13, 2013

The New North Loop by Shannon Lemex

Collage: The Epoch Coffee House is a unique place in north campus, it attracts an eclectic group of people. The cafe features art pieces by local artists, they serve simple coffee, related drinks, and foodstuffs. The crowd encompasses everything from grungy, aging artists to yuppies and youthful, new-age hippies. In my collage I feature two things, the decor chosen by the operators of Epoch, and the hair styling chosen by the patrons of Epoch.

            There are two main groups of people to be found at Epoch, those who are there to work and those who are they to socialize or relax.  These two groups have one thing in common – a desire for caffeine. Everyone has some sort of caffeinated beverage in front of them.  The space has been designed to accommodate both types of patrons. Indoors, there are plenty of tables, some tucked away in corners and others in the middle of it all.  There are also comfy loveseats and armchairs for those who wish to recline in a less formal way.  One initially odd aspect of the space that struck me are the many extension cords running along the ceiling and dangling all over the café.  The owners of Epoch have learned to cater to their working crowd; they ensure that every industrious customer has access to an electrical outlet.  Outdoors is an assortment of tables and chairs, as well as stools standing at long counter-like tops.  The type and arrangement of seating outdoors caters to those who come in pairs or groups.  Aside from the basics of seating and arrangement, one can look at the décor and clearly see it was chosen to appeal to the demographic found in the North Loop neighborhood.  The walls are decorated with pieces by local artists, mostly paintings.  These painting features rock icons, bizarre portraits, and others are abstracts.  None of them are the sort of art you would expect to see in a high end restaurant or small museum, it’s ‘real people art’.  Aside from paintings are odd little knick-knacks, like a Starbuck’s logo that’s had some letters strategically blacked out to spell a vulgar way to tell someone to go away.  The people who frequent Epoch are younger, typically aren’t that well established, and seem to seek out a place that reflects what their chosen lifestyle.  They come for a place that’s unpretentious, that’s got a taste of something local, not a fancy modern café or a traditional European style bistro.  And, of course, they come to satiate their addiction to caffeine.
            Look around the place and you can tell the people in charge have made a distinct effort to present the space in such a way that it appeals to the locals and local culture.  The current local culture of the area is somewhat contrived; the area has recently become one more of many places in Austin to undergo gentrification, and it continues to do so.  It’s not as apparent in North Loop, but many homes and small apartment complexes are being renovated and refurbished to attract students, young professionals, and the dreaded hipster.  Vintage resale stores, wanna-be dive bars, and bike shops are unavoidable.  Rather than possessing an authentic culture that has developed over time and become ingrained in the place, North Loop has been given a carefully thought out faux-culture to attract a particular resident.  In a way, it’s a sort of performance put on with the cooperation of investors, developers, and local business operators, rather than being a performance driven by current residents.  People buy into it and pay to be a part of it because it’s desirable to be a part of the demographic represented, to be a part of the young, educated, cultured, and rising generation that may very well someday be part of the elite.
            Epoch itself is used by a relatively wide variety of people.  Many are students of some sort, reading books, typing away, or even spread out across a table drafting.  Others are people looking for a quiet, but somewhat lively, place to read.  Some are older, obviously retired, and enjoying a coffee and a pastry.  In a wider sense, North Loop is populated mostly by young, educated, possibly employed white kids that are currently renting from a lucky property owner.  In the neighborhood at large, there really is very little variety, as property and rent costs limit who can live there.  The thing I love about Epoch is that you can order a snack and a drink for under five dollars (try that at Starbucks or even Medici).  I think this is part of what attributes to their variety of patrons, you don’t need to spend ten bucks to have a drink and a snack.  Plus, coffee refills for fifty cents.  In the sense that Epoch is affordable and accessible, it is a democratic space.  It’s welcoming to all sorts of people and easily accessible by foot, bike, bus, or vehicle.  However, North Loop itself is not as democratic of a space.  It’s quite difficult to become a property owner in the area, and, to a certain extent, even to rent.
            One thing that makes the North Loop area and Epoch in particular a more democratic space is its accessibility.  The area is pedestrian friendly, cyclist friendly, and car friendly.  Bike lanes are abundant, sidewalks go nearly everywhere (though they may not be in great shape), and North Loop Boulevard itself is easy to find and easily navigable.  The boulevard extends between Airport and Lamar, two sizable thoroughfares, making it easy to get to from many surrounding areas.  Also, multiple bus routes run through or around the neighborhood.  The North Loop area is a smaller community, and maybe not a very well known one in the greater Austin area, but to those willing to look for it tend to find it a very desirable location.  Because of its desirability it isn’t the most inclusive place.  North Loop Boulevard will likely be the largest road through the area, keeping traffic to a certain lower level.  Also, the cost of living there ensures that only a particular demographic can inhabit the neighborhood.  North Loop seems to be more accessible than many parts of the city, but is still somewhat hidden away by living expense.
            North Loop wasn’t always so desirable.  In the past fourteen years the cost of housing and property taxes has sky rocketed since the closure of the Mueller airport in 1999.  Once, the neighborhood was avoided due to low flying planes preparing to land just to the east of North Loop at the municipal airport.  Now that Mueller airport has been closed and the area is being converted into a new urban development[i], North Loop has become the new ‘it’ spot.  Its central location and older suburban charm have drawn many from the city and other cities.  One populated by smaller homes and bungalows built for returning GIs[ii], North Loop is now being transformed into a neighborhood of larger, multifamily homes and apartment complexes.  Whether or not you see the development of North Loop as a form of progress or the loss of culture, history, and place depends on what you value.  Property taxes are rising and bringing more money into the city, population density is increasing and creating a demand for more services and infrastructure, and development is rejuvenating and changing an area that was long ignored by the city.  At the same time the small houses, families, and tight knit communities are disappearing as the neighborhood changes.  People are moving further into the suburbs so they can rent out their property and turn a profit.  Long established small businesses are being out competed or bought out by newer, cooler ones that appeal to the changing demographic.  The new culture and feel of North Loop has become a commodity, and a very profitable one.  As this new commodity is marketed and sold, what the neighborhood once was is very carefully being replaced and forgotten.  Progress comes at a price, and whether or not the cost is worth the loss is all reliant upon what you value in a place.

[i] Mueller Redevelopment. City of Austin. <>

[ii] Meyer, Stephanie (2012). North Loop is Latest Austin Neighborhood to Get a Face Lift. Austin Post Beta. <>