You’re walking down the street on New Year’s Day, conflicted and afraid.
On one hand, it’s like any other day; you’re feeling smug, for example, after sipping some coffee, reading the paper – the Statesman, of course – and catching a few typos on the front page. But it’s not a normal day at all, and you’re bothered by the frantic whispers you’ve been hearing from the neighbors all morning.
Out for your daily walkabout, you’re in a more pensive mood than usual, and every time you blink, in that split second when your eyelids come between you and the world outside, you can’t erase the grisly visions that flash before you.
Passing one mustachioed hipster after another on 5th Street, you give a nod to one in particular, sitting on his front porch. It looks like Will Porter, that prankster musician who’s always stealing people’s hats at parties. At least, you think it’s him for a fraction of a second. Your nostrils are filled with the scent of cloves, and your mind’s been playing tricks on you today.
A girl named Molly Smith was murdered last night. The details are unspeakable – hence the whispers. No one, it seems, can summon the courage to discuss it in full voice. You slice a quiet path toward Waller Creek to walk along the stones by the water. As you look to the left, a voice without a body speaks with confidence into your ear.
She wants to help you solve the crime.
“I know all the buildings,” she says. “I know this town like a dog knows its own behind.”
It’s 1885, and the town’s just had its first serial killing, but it doesn’t know it yet. It doesn’t even know what a serial killing is, much less how to solve one. To plumb the depths of what’s to come, you have to keep on walking.
Entitled “The Year That Broke Austin,” the one-hour, fifteen-minute experience leads users on a voice-guided pedestrian tour of two cities: the Austin of today and the Austin of well over a century ago
Launched at South by Southwest this year, the Austin version of an inventive San Francisco-based app called Detour is the brainchild of Andrew Mason, the founder and former CEO of Groupon. Entitled “The Year That Broke Austin,” the one-hour, fifteen-minute experience leads users on a voice-guided pedestrian tour of two cities: the Austin of today and the Austin of well over a century ago, anchored by a series of murders committed by a killer known only as the “servant girl annihilator.” Its clever details are what seal the deal for most people before they’ve even begun the tour, especially when they hear about the layered narrative produced by Radiolab, the popular podcast with which Mason partnered to help the story breathe. The collaborative approach worked, resulting in a thoughtful offering made of equal parts tireless research and good old-fashioned pluck.
A sure treat for Serial addicts looking for their next character-driven audio fix, the experience offers an interesting mix of technology with a strong urging to look up and around at the real world instead of burying oneself in a phone screen. In order for the app to work, users must follow the narrator’s instructions, and those instructions involve a hearty dose of exploration: about a mile and a half of walking, a mere wisp of an exchange for the 13-decade leap it provides.
As Wired writer Kyle Vanhemert, who reviewed Detour’s San Francisco offerings in February, explains, “The app relies on elaborate geofencing and clever on-the-fly audio mixing to guide you seamlessly from site to site, accommodating brisk walkers and dawdlers alike.” Indeed, the interface is impressive, with original music penned and, in some cases, performed by Alejandro Rose-Garcia – aka Shakey Graves – providing sonic ambience between spoken parts. Vanhemert refers to the concept as “aurally augmented reality.” Or, as Mason says, he’d like to “annotate the city with sound.”
In a time when there were no streetlights, a fancy hotel was a signal that Austin was about to become – at least, in its own eyes – a big-time, grown-up city.
Walking through the streets, buildings, waterways and alleys of downtown Austin, Detour users are guided by a character voiced by local actress Barbara Chisholm, who, as she explains with more than a hint of Dorothy Parker-inspired sass while introducing herself through the app, wrote recipes for the Statesman back in 1885, when eight murders occurred within the same year.
The story’s nuts and bolts are real, while the more fluid parts connecting the mystery’s dots rely on poetic license to move the tour along. Our narrator isn’t necessarily a ghost, she says. She doesn’t believe in ghosts. Maybe, she muses, she’s more of a smudge. “Smudges,” she says, “are everywhere if you look closely enough – smudges of the past, sticking to everything.”
Detour users strolling the streets and picturing what life might have been like for Austinites 130 years ago are given the option of syncing the experience with fellow wanderers. Those who’ve downloaded the app to their iOS devices can choose to experience Detour in tandem, with one user acting as the host and the others hearing the same audio in real time.
1885 broke us like you break a horse. That year was intense. It was brutal. It broke our wild spirit and, you might say, civilized this town.”
Free from any obligation to interact with one another or do anything, really, other than listen, follow walking directions and occasionally interact with a person or object along the way, those who take the walking tour – estimated in early May to be around 20 people on any given weekday – find themselves applying their own perspectives to the adventure, especially on the topics of race, gender, and socioeconomic class. All three play a central role in the story, which gives our narrator a hearty opportunity to breathe life into some uncomfortable comparisons between 2015, 1885 and even a 20th century midpoint when the city’s handling of its racial divide was both literal and barbaric.
“Back in 1885, the town wasn’t segregated yet,” she explains. “That happened later. Almost 50 years later, the city tried to move all the black people east, over past where that highway is now. Places where black folks were living before, well, the town just decided not to put roads there. Or sewer lines.”
She pauses before rendering her verdict on the power players of the day.
Some app users might find themselves jarred by portions of the walk as it brings them face-to-face with denizens of ARCH, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. To the Detour crew’s credit, those moments are handled with heart, and just as the narrator says to quell nervous listeners’ worries about the people they might encounter, “They’ve got their own stories to worry about.”
One less poignant, but no less important, element that rings true in both renderings of Austin is that of the city’s growth. In 1885, The Driskill Hotel was under construction, as was the Capitol Building we know today, the predecessor of which had been destroyed in an 1881 fire. The Driskill in particular was a beacon of sorts, giving locals something new to distract them from the garish crimes that marred the year. In a time when there were no streetlights, a fancy hotel was a signal that Austin was about to become – at least, in its own eyes – a big-time, grown-up city.
“The Driskill was to be the grandest hotel west of the Mississippi,” explains Texas Monthly executive editor Skip Hollandsworth in a moment of guest narration. The distraction of watching the hotel go up was a welcome one, signaling the dawn of a new day – of a bright, metropolitan future – a clean swipe of genteel civility after so much horror, or maybe just the sort of big city perks that come with big city problems.
It’s an interesting note compared to 2015, a year in which the new JW Marriott changed the flow of people, if not the overall DNA, of South by Southwest to some degree, and plans were recently announced to begin construction on The Independent, which, upon completion, will be the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi.
Today, of course, Austin’s streets are a far cry today from the dark, murderous landscape of yesteryear. But, then again… those darn smudges.
“Back in 1885, Austin’s spirit was wild, untamed,” our narrator reminds us. “1885 broke us like you break a horse. That year was intense. It was brutal. It broke our wild spirit and, you might say, civilized this town.”
Tall, bright moontowers were installed shortly after the murders stopped – a much-needed addition to a city that had begun living in terror, under curfews, and only venturing out by light of day. Before they and landmarks like The Driskill were erected, “All we had was moonlight, firelight, gaslight,” she says. “That kind of light doesn’t travel much. No cars flashin’ their headlights, no big hotels lit up like Christmas.”
After the towers went up, though, smudges of the past still remained.
“Those bright lights made shadows,” she says. “And darkness is sticky. It hides where you can’t find it.”
And as for today, well… our spectral friend thinks it depends on how you look at it.
“A lot of the wilderness around here might be gone,” she reckons, “but the wildness of people – that never seems to go.”
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