The Smoke-free View from Austin

Our city has some unfinished business. Spartanburg City Council needs to pass a long overdue non-smoking ordinance for our bars and restaurants.

It’s not an economic issue. Other communities have banned smoking in bars and restaurants without gutting their downtown economies. Starting Jan. 2 the entire state of North Carolina, the former epicenter of cigarette manufacturing, will ban smoking in its bars and restaurants.

In South Carolina non-smoking ordinances have already been passed in Aiken, Beaufort, Camden, Charleston, Clemson, Columbia, Lexington, Greenville, Easley, Rock Hill, Sumter, Walterboro, Hilton Head, Mount Pleasant, Edisto, and the Isle of Palms. Heck, even that liberal bastion Pickens has banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

Two weekends ago I made a trip to Austin, Texas, a city I often idealize because it’s a place where progressive ideas somehow flourish against a backdrop of persistent conservative values.

Austin, located in a “red state,” is one of the capitals of the new Creative Class, and, yes, it’s smoke free.

I’ll admit my idealized “smokeless city on the hill” has a few factors that I have trouble coming to grips with. Population is the major one. Austin has now grown to 900,000 people, but, to balance that out, 40 percent of the people have at least a bachelor’s degree. (For comparison, Spartanburg has 18 percent, and Greenville has 26 percent.)

In Austin that 40 percent translates to 400,000 educated people surging daily through the city’s maxed-out infrastructure, utilizing smokeless bars and clubs, hippy pizza, vegan restaurants, and walking miles of trails along Town Lake and Barton Creek.

Austin’s a community that’s adopted “Keep Austin Weird” as it’s official motto.

So how weird is Austin? Not weird at all if you allow yourself to gaze on thousands of partying college students on 6th street after a Longhorns football game, or watch the black-suited power brokers entering and exiting the state capital.

But all along the city’s creative southern margin the productive creative weirdness has flourished since the 1960s when Austin’s south side drew Texas hippies from far and wide.

Back then it was the home to the Armadillo World Headquarters, the premier inland music venue. Today the music is scattered all over town. Every club has a guitar player who can pierce you with unexpected chords.

Five years ago when I was in Austin the first time there was still smoking in the bars. I remember going to a landmark spot called the Continental Club. I was unable to sit through a show because of the dense smoke. This time in smoke-free Austin I bought a beer and settled on a Continental Club stool to hear Redd Volkaert wailing on a stratocaster guitar.

For me it’s things like smokeless bars and restaurants that are the real “indicators” of a city scale of civilization.
Unfortunately the trip to Austin reminded me how reactionary Spartanburg’s been in its unwillingness to deal for years with smoke in its restaurants and bars.

Just last week a new bar opened downtown. They call themselves “smoker friendly.” They want my business but they also expect me to tolerate the smoke. You might say, if you don’t want to breathe smoke, just don’t go out to smoky bars and restaurants. Or sit outside on the patio.
But it isn’t just about my comfort. It’s also a moral issue. It’s not right to subject employee who need the work to the well-documented dangers of second-hand smoke.

Spartanburg might be the last nicotine dinosaur, the final Wild West main street on the tobacco trail.

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