secret_history (2006-09)

Keep (Your City Here) Weird

The motive behind a national movement

by Jack Neely

During a daytrip to Asheville last summer, I noticed a bumper sticker that said “Keep Asheville Weird.” It seemed kind of redundant and unnecessary in Asheville, which has long been a joyfully weird place; deliberate exhortations for it to remain weird seem misplaced, un-Ashevillian, and maybe the first sign that its weirdness is in decline.

But it got me thinking about the larger phenomenon of what would motivate someone to make up a bumper sticker like that. There’s a certain demographic in every city, Knoxville certainly included, that considers weirdness a blessing. These people—they tend to be more open-minded sorts, often young, artistic, liberal-arts types—would much prefer to live in a place that was plausibly weird. They like to think of their home as weird, and are happy to offer plentiful evidence of that condition.

In Knoxville, people of the pro-weirdness camp like to boast about the things that are here and nowhere else in the world: King Tut’s, the Rachmaninoff statue, the WDVX Blue Plate Special, the Pizza Palace, the Body Farm, Mary’s Tamales, the Time Warp Tea Room, Lakeshore Park, the Corner Lounge, the music of Todd Steed, the Sunsphere.

Of course, there are also some folks who are almost defiant in their insistence that their city is perfectly normal. They’re happy to live near an Applebee’s and an Olive Garden. Starbuck’s may seem a little edgy, but they’re glad to have that, too. When they hear someone sneer, “Knoxville’s just like every other city in America,” they swell with pride.

I haven’t seen a Keep Knoxville Weird bumper sticker yet. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Noticing that bumper sticker in Asheville, though, there’s something about the marketable deliberateness of proclaiming a city’s plausible weirdness that seems damningly unweird, and maybe even a little trite. If a place calls itself weird on a bumper sticker, isn’t it evidence that the said city has already lost that status?

And though we think of Asheville as a pretty weird, and original, sort of city, that particular phrase isn’t. I was pretty sure I’d heard it before, after all, applied to some other place.

So naturally I Googled it. I learned there’s also a Keep Louisville Weird campaign, promoted with billboards. There’s a Keep Boulder Weird thing, a Keep Portland Weird, Keep Santa Cruz Weird. You can get Keep Erie Weird T-shirts.

The granddaddy of it all seems to have been Austin, Texas, several years ago, the home of that other UT. There are Keep Austin Weird T-shirts, koozies, bumper stickers and radio shows. The local track club even hosts a Keep Austin Weird 5K.

There are groups that want to keep Indianapolis and Arlington, Va., weird. By the time I found a hat company that advertises “Keep (Your City Here) Weird” hats, it was starting to seem pretty corny.

It made me doubt the whole principle. If every place is potentially weird, and proud of being weird, maybe it follows that no single place is weird at all. It made me think of a joke that’s been going around too long.

I looked into the motivations for it, though, and it began to seem like a good municipal idea. Rather than a copycat boast, the Keep (Your City Here) Weird initiative seems, in some cases, including Austin, to be an earnest effort to induce local citizens to patronize local stores.

The Keep Louisville Weird Website opens with a manifesto: “We’re concerned that the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants in Louisville is not only driving the independent business owner out of business, but is also robbing the city of much of its unique charm.”

It goes on to explain that supporting locally owned businesses is better for the local economy. It includes a link to a 2002 Austin study of bookstores that seemed to indicate that the consumer dollar was likely to have three times greater impact on the community if it were spent in a locally owned business.

Of course, Austin being Austin, there’s a conservative counterthrust there: Some wear T-shirts demanding, “Make Austin Normal.”

The weirdness motive is even catching on in England, as an attempt to resist the “Starbucksification” of retail commerce and the development of what they call “clone towns.” Having followed one American trend too religiously, they’re looking to America for the way out.

A similar initiative with a more original name has caught on in Raleigh, NC. To their credit, they came up with a different slogan. It’s called Raleigh Unchained.

I wonder how it would go over here. I was on a conservative talk show just before Christmas chatting about retail’s tentative resurgence downtown. It seemed an uncontroversial point to make, I thought, that there were more shops, and more retail activity, downtown than there’s been in at least 20 years. Most downtown retail is locally owned.

Somebody called in and insisted it couldn’t be “real” retail until it had a Wal-Mart or a Target. Of course, I think he meant “normal” retail. But it reminded me of a catch phrase that came up during the 2004 election—the “Wal-Mart Republican.” I can’t quite get it out of my head.

Wal-Mart is heavily indebted to the People’s Republic of China, whose exports are mostly what they sell at Wal-Mart, which is in turn helping China vault past the United States in the world economy. Wal-Mart’s use of cheap Chinese industry has been blamed for the decline of some American manufacturers. The fact that many conservative Republicans could show such loyalty to Wal-Mart—even to the point of insisting that American retail doesn’t exist unless it includes the People’s Republic of Wal-Mart—well, to say the least, it’s ideologically fascinating.

I digress, but only a little. I don’t know whether Knoxvillians are more enamored of chain stores than Americans as a whole. But if the idea of supporting the local economy is behind the Keep (Your City Here) Weird movement, it seems as if it should be a bandwagon that both conservatives and liberals could jump upon. Patronizing local businesses may cost a little extra now and then, but think of the margin as an investment in the community. It’ll come back to us all in the long run.

I’m all for keeping Knoxville weird, too. But maybe we can find some other way to say it.