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Austin: Attractions

I have two pieces of advice for visitors to Austin. First, don't hesitate to ask locals for directions or advice. Austinites are friendly and approachable. The locals have a relaxed attitude toward life, and it's common practice here for complete strangers to engage in conversation. Indeed, one of the great things about Austin is how welcoming the city is. And second, take full advantage of the city's Visitor Information Center at 209 E. Sixth Street. It offers free walking tours, has pamphlets for self-guided tours, and is the point of departure for the motorized city tours. The office will know if one of the daily tours is cancelled for whatever reason. Also, you can pick up plenty of maps and brochures, including a map of the 'Dillo routes -- free buses that circulate around downtown and the capitol area for free.

What sets Austin apart from most cities, and what puts it on all the "most livable" lists is, in addition to many historic attractions and museums, the amount of green space and outdoor activities available linked with an attitude among locals bordering on nature worship. From bats and birds to Barton Springs, from the Highland Lakes to the hike-and-bike trails, Austin lays out the green carpet for its visitors. You'd be hard-pressed to find a city that has more to offer fresh-air enthusiasts.

African-American Heritage

The many contributions of Austin's African-American community are highlighted at George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina St. (tel. 512/472-4809; www.ci.austin.tx.us/carver), the first in Texas devoted to black history. Rotating exhibits of contemporary artwork share the space with photographs, videos, oral histories, and other artifacts from the community's past. A number of other sites on the East Side are worth visiting, too. Less than 2 blocks from the Carver, on the corner of Hackberry and San Bernard streets, stands the Wesley United Methodist Church. Established at the end of the Civil War, it was one of the leading black churches in Texas. Diagonally across the street, the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Austin's first black Greek letter house, occupies the Thompson House, built in 1877, which is also the archival center for the Texas chapter of the sorority. Nearby, at the State Cemetery, you can visit the gravesite of congresswoman and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, the first African American to be buried here.

In 1863, during the time of the Civil War, a black freeman, of which there were few in Texas, settled down on the east side of Austin and built a small cabin for himself and his family. He built it near the present-day intersection of I-35 and East 11th Street. His name was Henry Green Madison, and during Reconstruction, he became Austin's first African-American city councilmember. The cabin he built was preserved more by accident than by design and, in 1973, was donated to the city, which moved it to its present site in nearby Rosewood Park at 2300 Rosewood Ave. (tel. 512/472-6838; http://explore.tpwd.state.tx.us/hill/ala/cabin.htm). There you can see the Henry G. Madison cabin and how simple and small it must have been for his family of eight. A contemporary of Madison was Charles Clark, a slave who was emancipated after the Civil War and in 1871 founded a small utopian community of freed blacks just to the west of Austin around what is now West 10th Street. It was called Clarksville and is now a mostly white neighborhood still known by that name.

For a more up-to-date look at the Austin scene, visit Mitchie's Fine Art & Gift Gallery, 6406 I-35 (Lincoln Village Shopping Center), Suite 2800 (tel. 512/323-6901; www.mitchie.com), and Bydee Arts & Gifts, 412 E. Sixth St. (tel. 512/474-4343; www.bydee.com), both offering a good selection of African-American painting and sculpture.

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