Brianna Caleri experiences authentic Austin through her curiosity.
By Brianna Caleri, Photo courtesy of Brianna Caleri
I have a confession to make, reader. Although my whole job as associate editor at CultureMap Austin is to love this city and know what’s going on within it, I’m not from here. I’m a transplant from that rare and wonderful East Coast state no one ever complains about around here, New York. (Another confession to make: I’m about to name drop a lot.)
As a newish Austinite, not to mention a young woman who is perhaps pleasantly weird, but not really breaking barriers, I feel self-conscious about taking up space in a city increasingly lacking it. I honestly don’t think much about being a woman, except to feel really grateful for all the women around me who mirror, amplify and even contrast my own experience. But I do think about what I can contribute, at only 27, with only five years of experience living here.
Fortunately, what I’ve been allowed to contribute is listening. When I sign into work every day, I’m both learning about the city and directing any attention I get, any time a reader will give me, to the parts of the community I’ve wiggled into that really feel important and unique.
Although I’m not actually from Austin, in many ways I’m from Austin Woman magazine. When Chantal Rice was the managing editor, I was an intern, and I would have followed her to the ends of the Earth. Or at least to the end of Menchaca Road. I had no official journalism experience, and I only had six months of Austin living under my belt, four years prior. And she had expectations of me.
From my Austin Woman assignments, I got something hardly anyone gets when arriving in a new community: a key to the city through its influential people. The first gatekeeper was Nagavalli Medicharla, a powerhouse “Eastern Soul” singer who combines Indian classical singing with Texas-inspired songwriting, and who, in 2023, is Chair of the Austin Music Commission and Mayor Watson’s appointee on the Arts Commission. I’d given interviews before, but never for a real, non-student magazine, and Valli gave me thoughtful answers and kept in touch.
My first gatekeepers in food were Austin Men (back when that blog used to exist), Chefs Daniel Brooks and Ryan Samson, who had just bought Vespaio and Enoteca on South Congress Avenue. They put a far-too-generous amount of food in front of me and left me to scribble notes, feeling like I was somehow pretending to be a restaurant reviewer, while actually doing it. In 2022, Enoteca closed and I may have shed a tear before I wrote the announcement that the same pair had opened Chapulín Cantina.
Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen were my gatekeepers in radio and being on the other side of the interview table, in a roundabout way. I first spoke to them as part of an Austin Woman story about their new podcast at KUT and KUTX, Pause/Play, and the next year, they had me on the show in my first-ever interview about my experience at South by Southwest. I wasn’t sure if I could be entertaining or if I had the authority to be informative, but Miles was doubled over in laughter for half of it, so I went with the former.
Unrelated to any publications but still someone who invited me in, Diane Lee ushered me into the world of aerial performers. My instructor at Inner Diva Studios, she chatted with me every day after class while sweeping up, becoming one of my first good friends in Austin. When she opened Revolt, her own aerial studio on Burnet Road, she asked me to teach, and my past year there has blown open the boundaries on how much I realized a hobby could bring people together.
I sort of wondered why these important people kept taking me so seriously as a young woman with no experience. It’s not that they shouldn’t—I’d just internalized that it was likely that nobody would. But that’s what Austinites do, for better or worse: We take people seriously.
Chantal took me so seriously, she brought me to CultureMap almost the moment she started. After a year or so of freelancing, it became my full-time job to keep looking for keyholes, so to speak, those places where Austin’s cultural gatekeepers would unlock the city to me and, in turn, to readers or even just headline skimmers who don’t have time to do all this digging. As someone who assigns stories now, I have become a gatekeeper as well.
I do it because, paired with my allegiance to the weirdest, most hyperlocal stories I can find, it makes me feel like a good transplant. Because if anyone calls me a Young Woman to Watch, I want them to watch how authentically Austin a life can become through some earnest curiosity.
I don’t believe a perfect new Austinite exists. We all eat at chains sometimes. We all wear boring, non-weird outfits to H-E-B sometimes. We all take up space at Zilker. At some point, we surely all will attend a pre-nuptial celebration that annoys another local at a bar.
From an inhabitant of a few large cities to another (that’s you, Austinite), we can’t expect everyone who shows up to be engaged in the exact same things we are, that make us love this city. But we can curate lives full of the most important things we see around us, and keep inviting people in. Ladies first, of course.