6 min read

Walking in Austin with Catherine Woodiwiss

On East Austin, best places to eat and drink, serendipitous encounters on nature trails, re-enchanting Rainey Street, and Catherine's gut instinct about Istanbul.
Walking in Austin with Catherine Woodiwiss
Photo by Enrique Macias / Unsplash

I'm beyond excited to finally feature my friend Catherine's urban stories on The Flâneurs Project. I asked her a few questions related to her walking experience in Austin, the city in which she currently lives. Austin will most likely be my first US city to (ever) visit, sometime in October this year, so I already know that I will fall in love with it.

Hi, Catherine! Thank you for taking some time to answer (in writing) these questions for The Flâneurs Project! 

Please tell us a bit about yourself, where do you live now, where have you lived before, and about any creative projects that you are passionate about.

Hello! I love this project — I’m excited to contribute to it. I call Austin, TX home … I was born in North Carolina, raised in Illinois, went to undergrad in Maine, and spent a decade in DC, with shorter stints in Romania, Ireland, Oregon, South Carolina, and the Czech Republic along the way. 

I’m building the Social Healing Project, a project for people healing from major loss. We can’t heal from major upheavals alone, and yet our systems and social norms are set up as if this is the case. Our “so obvious, it’s invisible” thesis is that healing is relational. We gather scientists, artists, and designers to help develop healing resources, then invite in and iterate on those resources with a broader public of participants. 

I’m also helping to build Liminal Learning, a program and methodology for young people aimed at helping them explore and develop lives of meaning and purpose. I host recurring gatherings for creative folks in Austin; I act and sing and play fiddle; and I write whenever I can

What is your favorite street / area in Austin and why?

I live in East Austin, my favorite part of town — there’s such a vibrant sense of things happening here, and you can really see multiple generations of Austin in the architecture. There’s a long history of blues and jazz in this part of town, and while it’s gone through many cycles of gentrification, there are still some beautiful historic sites, beloved hole-in-the-wall music venues, walking trails, and lots of neighborhood art pop-ups and festivals. 

My favorite street is probably a little stretch of 12th, from Hillside Farmacy past Nickel City and Try Hard along to Vintage Wine & Books. But it’s hard to really pick a favorite because there are so many micro-streets like this scattered throughout the city, which is otherwise residential and kind of sleepy.

A friend recently compared Austin to a farm-to-table restaurant where all the best ingredients are scattered across a huge field and you have to slowly collect them yourself. Everything is here to make for an amazing neighborhood experience … it’s just that none of the really great stuff is together in the same place! 

What cafés and restaurants have you visited the most often in Austin?

I’m in a season where I have a lot of autonomy over my time and where I do my work, so I love finding spots to suit particular creative and deepwork moods.

For sketching, journaling, and dreaming, I go to Swedish Hill (temporarily closed — bad news for my dreams). For reading, Vintage or First Light. For writing, Palomino. For day-job work, Try Hard, Civil Goat, or Hanks. For switching into deepwork on my purpose projects, a booth at Love Supreme (taking over from my previous go-to, Salty Sow). For a cocktail with friends, Ah Sing Den or Honeymoon. For co-working/conversational brunch with collaborators on the weekends, Bouldin Creek Cafe, Aba, or Casa de Luz.

First place I take every visitor to town: Patrizi’s. Second place I take every visitor: Este, Loro, Birdie’s, or Licha’s. 
people sitting on chair under white canopy tent during daytime
Photo by Michael Discenza / Unsplash

Please share a serendipitous moment from a walk in Austin or any other US city. 

I used to live in Washington DC, which is scattered with roundabouts — traffic circles randomly dropped onto the rigid city grid, that suddenly slingshot you around to a new street or neighborhood on a different angle. They’re obnoxious to navigate, but their symbolism is pretty lovely … a friend & I started an experience design company years ago on this metaphor! So, I’m big on serendipity, and new connections born of inconvenient interruption. 

Unfortunately…that doesn’t happen super often in most US cities, Austin among them. We are built for cars, which means serendipitous-encounter-by-walking just doesn’t happen that often. I’m a big fan of looking for it wherever I can, in more walking-friendly cities like New York and New Orleans. 

That said, I walk the nature trail by my house every morning, and I’ve started walking it in the evenings, too. I love how every detail of the gardens and trees, bugs and wild animals, wind and light changes depending on season and time of day.

I walked on this trail alllll the time during 2020, and once I came across a very cute man walking barefoot, with his dog, and a manuscript sticking out of his back pocket. Obviously I made up an excuse to say hi and we ended up walking the trail together a few more times after that. He’s now lost to the mists of that time … I wonder if I’ll ever encounter him again.

What is your personal definition of the flâneur / flâneuse?

To me, the flâneuse is the perpetually-curious, the lovingly-observant … wandering through collections of human life and out into the wider world, whether digital or physical — open and responsive to life but emboldened with courage and sense of self.

An observer, a collector, a student, a curator, a messenger, a teller-of-tales!   
a bbq sign on top of a building with smoke coming out of it
Photo by Gabriel Tovar / Unsplash

In what city in the US did you not feel safe?

I’ve mostly felt safe in every city. In one house in DC, we’d sometimes hear gunshots in our back alley; someone was stabbed to death down the street the night we moved in. That was a little unsettling. Still, the neighborhood was friendly and as long as we didn’t walk alone after nightfall, it felt safe most of the time. And I loved the other places I lived in while there!

What part of Austin would you like to re-enchant and why?

Rainey Street. It’s long been a party street but (if I remember this right? It’s been a while) it used to be lined with beautiful old houses converted into bars, many of which have now been revamped into the “samey” Austin aesthetic — picnic tables, astroturf, generically trendy hotel lobby, generically themed party bar. We can’t bring the historic architecture back but we could re-enchant it into something much more beautiful, grounded, unique, contextual, walkable, and neighbors-friendly!

people riding paddle boards on the lake
Photo by Tomek Baginski / Unsplash

If you could name a street, what name would you choose?

There are some good efforts to rename Austin streets that were named for Confederate generals and pro-slavery politicians. I’d love to name a street after Molly Ivins, famed no-holds-barred (and wickedly funny) Austin journalist. 

If you could move to another city tomorrow (and have every expense covered, job security, a new home) what city would you choose, if you had to go with your first gut instinct?

Two first gut instincts! I love Istanbul. My best serendipitous encounters have happened there, and I’ve always wanted to spend more time exploring it. Istanbul in some ways is the total opposite to Austin — to me, Austin has safety and free mobility and big spacious skies and beautiful weather, but very little walkability and few places to wander and be enchanted; Istanbul is the MOST beautifully enchanted labyrinthine city to wander through but as a woman it feels much less safe and freely mobile, especially on my own. Still, it’d be amazing to do it for a while.

aerial view of buildings and flying birds
Photo by Anna Berdnik / Unsplash

Other gut instinct? London. I know, people are strongly divided on this city — but every time I’ve visited, I’ve found new places to love about it, and if all my expenses (!!) are paid for? That’s the spot. I could spent a few years getting lost in it, easy.  

Thank you, Catherine! If you want me to share a social media page or a website, please share your links below:

@chwoodiwiss (Twitter & Insta)| catherinehwoodiwiss.com