Thursday, February 11, 2010

an open letter

This letter was sent to the editor of the Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin.

To the Students of the University of Texas,

I need to apologize.

Apologize that my generation was unable to preserve for you what was a phenomenal community space for students. This apology comes as a warning as the people we fought who were changing our community space are still at it.

Some of the folks you have elected to office in student government have made a decision to do you and future generations of students an enormous disservice.

I know because I have seen what is happening right now happen before. I was a student at UT in the late 80s and early 90s. When I started at UT, the Texas Union was a vibrant part of the campus community. Many students who lived off campus were able to get meal plans to the Union. Meal plans to fresh, healthy (and granted some unhealthy) food, better than could be found in the dorms. I was one of those students. At the time, we were proud to say that we were one of two public universities in the states which had bars on campus.

Then Andy Smith was hired as director and made a push to close most of the functions that many students held dear, instead turning them over to franchises or "returning the spaces to the inventory for student use".

We did fight. Many students (myself included) showed up to public hearings in protest. We were told that these programs and amenities were losing money. The figures were a moving target. We requested the books be open for public scrutiny. They never were. There were two public "town hall" type meetings, and then... gone...

While many missed the unique nature of the building prior to all of the franchise food services went in, one of the most missed amenities by everyone, hands down, was the Texas Tavern. The Tavern was the main campus pub. At one point, it boasted the State's longest bar. Teachers and students could mingle there for happy hours and into the evening discussing, debating and extending the classroom. I remember often meeting students and visiting professors from majors other than my own. If the Tavern were only that, it would have been worth preserving. But the Tavern was much more. The Tavern also worked with various student groups to allow all manner of functions. Groups held parties there, DJ'd events, you get the picture. The space was large enough to hold them. There was Latino night and Soul night, both of which provided great social outlets for the diversity of students at UT. All with access to a bar, a stage and a sound system. It goes without saying that all Longhorn sporting events could be seen on TV at the Tavern, away games and home games for students who didn't have tickets. To top it off, in the same space, on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Tavern was an integral part of the Live Music Capital of the World. I could list the world class bands I saw there (Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ziggy Marley, Uncle Tupelo, Dinosaur Jr to name a few), but I could also list a host of bands comprised of students that maybe never made it past their Senior year. I saw several members of the band Spoon start at the Tavern. The Tavern hosted on weekends the loud, electrified music branching and bridging many genres...Alternative, Indie, Hip Hop, Funk, Zydeco, you name it.

So you know, the Tavern was in the space where Quizno's is, and the bands and parties happened in the showroom. The Tavern's music was not booked by students. Students usually brought their own DJs for parties, but the Tavern managed and set up the space for them so it was "plug and play" when they got there. Thursday through Saturday the Tavern was for the most part, filled with people and music.

So I ask you... does this sound like a place or amenity that you would want to see gone?

It is gone because Union Director Andy Smith convinced the student board members at the time that it would be good for students if it were gone. Similar to what's going on now, budget cuts were needed. The student board members were assured that doing so would help lower student fees, etc... All that happened was that amenities were lost and businesses moved in to fill the space. Businesses of which students have absolutely no say in what they do.

I bring this up because I believe they are trying to hoodwink you just as they did my generation. I spent this entire letter telling you of amenities you do not have, and not even focusing on what you are about to lose. I had lots of fun in the Tavern. At the Cactus, my horizons were expanded. It is not an easy feat to run a music venue. You have to stay on top of all the potential performers. How they are doing in other similar markets... to figure out if they will fill your space and for how much. If you want to know why there has been such an uproar over this decision to close the Cactus, it is because it is a rarity. We have a jewel here, and it is because of the stellar booking talents of Griff Luneburg and the staff who know how to interact with the community to create this jewel. The students have a phenomenal, world class, unique listening room (trust me, I have traveled the world over listening to live music), and the folks you have elected now want to repurpose it and let students program the space. This is an idea that sounds great as a sound bite, but think on it. If you ran a company and you had one small division that did their job so well that people the world over call them the best at what they do... would YOU want to "revamp and repurpose" that?

I tell you all of this because I believe this is not a decision that benefits students. I've seen it before. It benefits lazy management. To be clear, I mean the lazy management of the Union and not the management of the cafe. It is easier for them to make their salaries by only having to take in rent checks and renegotiate leases. Otherwise, they have to "oversee" and "manage" employees. All employees that are there to serve you. I will also say I believe it is also driven by an urge to get rid of public bars on campus. Check that. The LAST public bar on campus. How sad.

Let's think about this... Why would you pay dues for a building that rents the bulk of the space you use to businesses?

I actually can't help but wonder what an amazing facility the Union would be if the Union's Director had the vision to create something for the WHOLE BUILDING what the folks at the Cactus have done for such a small, small space. Not only would I advise you to stand up to save the Cactus Cafe and Informal Classes, but demand they give you the Tavern back. Demand the resignations of all management and directors who do not share your vision. Get rid of the fast food as well, and instead bring in local farmers and restaurateurs to serve you world class entertainment and food.

Because you didn't choose to go to a lazily managed generic school for landlords. You decided to attend a World Class University.

Hook em,
J. Hulett Jones, AIA, LEED (r) AP

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