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Formula One far away from the track

A downtown primed by SXSW and other festivals awaits visitors and locals alike

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Nobody knows what will happen downtown this weekend.

Nobody. And if anyone tells you they can predict the impact of the United States Grand Prix on Austin’s premier entertainment district, they are lying. Even warnings of apocalyptic congestion are not entirely reliable.

In just the past few weeks, the street festival component has shrunk to an area around the Warehouse and Second Street districts. Big concerts are planned for the Erwin Center, Austin Convention Center and ACL Live. Smaller, more exclusive parties should pop up at the W Austin, Four Seasons Hotel, Parkside and Ballet Austin studios, among other locales.

Yet just how will Formula One and its global audience blend with Austin’s unique mix of nightlife, music, food, film, arts and other points of social and cultural contact for the fun, fit, smart, kind and open folks who live here year round?

Again, nobody knows. Not one soul, for instance, could have guessed the way that South by Southwest helped transform a half-abandoned downtown — as well as social spokes to the south and east — during the 1980s and ’90s.

In 1987, SXSW’s footprint was small, confined mostly to a few clubs near East Sixth Street. Yet its impact was felt around the city. Luxury hotels and restaurants filled with industry types on expense accounts. Couches and sleeping porches in old Austin neighborhoods sufficed for many of the hand-to-mouth musicians.

Downtown really woke up, if only for a weekend.

Before SXSW, few regular events filled downtown for any length of time: Rodeo Austin before it moved to the Travis County Expo Center, Aqua Fest before it sank to the bottom of Lady Bird Lake. Sixth Street, at least, lit up for Longhorn home football games, state high school tournaments and rambunctious holidays.

Then SXSW redefined downtown. As film, interactive and other themes were added during the next decades, hotels and eateries sprang up, retail returned and those visitors taking a break from the festival wandered down South Congress Avenue, helping to spawn an indisputable Austin tourist attraction.

Thus, downtown and surrounding zones were primed for the later Austin City Limits Music Festival, Republic of Texas Biker Rally and countless smaller centralized festivals, some of them, like the rally, shared with other nearby locations.

Nowadays, downtown can be subdivided into at least six walkable entertainment areas: East Sixth, West Sixth, Warehouse/Second, Rainey/Convention Center, Far East Sixth and SoCo/South First.

Like locals, visitors should explore them all. Let’s hope they get into the flow with that famous Austin no-attitude vibe. Then they would be welcome for as many years as they care to return.

The sign of the cross

Dear visitors: To explore the core of Austin culture, divide the downtown map into a Cross of Lorraine. That’s the two-barred French cross that consists of a vertical line crossed by two smaller horizontal bars.

Congress Avenue, north and south of the river, is the vertical line. At the top rises the State Capitol, a great place to start any Austin adventure. Behind it lies a small museum district, the University of Texas campus and the student zone known as the Drag.

Further down the vertical line, however, one enters Austin’s prime business district. Shop here for supplies at Royal Blue Grocery; check out the F1 documentary at the Paramount Theatre (Thursday night) and duck into the contempo Jones Center, downtown home of AMOA/Arthouse.

While temptations wink from the left and right, your first horizontal crossbar is Sixth Street, stretching more than a mile to the east and west. East Sixth starts with a dense, Bourbon-Street-like party zone and fades into a thriving hipster hangout that shares space with Latino allurements.

West Sixth leads you to the slightly dressier Warehouse and Second Street areas as well as a distinct zone mantled around the Whole Foods Market mothership.

The second horizontal bar, not far to the south, is the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. This 10-mile track is Austin’s town square. Everybody meets there. Go west along the south side of the lake for now, until a boardwalk establishes a better link to the East Austin trail.

After that, just keep working down South Congress Avenue to no further than Live Oak Street. Here you will find endless samples of singular Austin culture, especially if you linger at any of the food trailer courts here and along nearby South First Street.

If you get in a car or take a bus, you can hit other Austin highlights: Barton Springs, Mount Bonnell, Lake Travis and other shopping and entertainment areas. But on your first Formula One weekend, swear by the Cross of Lorraine.