The World's New Culture Meccas

Austin, USA: Southern Sound Factory

Hank Stringer has no doubt who butters his bread. Two years ago he moved his recruitment company, Hire.com, to the old Austin Opry House. He kept the stage intact and named all the conference rooms after the musicians who once played there. On Mondays at 3 p.m., executive staff meetings are held in "Stevie Ray Vaughn." Weekly sales updates take place in "Talking Heads." And the product-steering committee convenes every Wednesday in "Muddy Waters." "Back in the early '90s, it wasn't so easy to attract talent to Austin. But I found a common theme of interest in the candidates," Stringer explains. "They all wanted to hear about the live-music scene. So I made it part of my pitch to take them out to clubs and expose them to the great artists in town. People loved it. And they fell in love with Austin."

Austin, Texas, is not the first place you'd expect to find a flourishing creative enclave. It's surrounded by cities with gaudy high-rises, towns inhabited by Bible-banging revivalists and miles of scrub brush. Yet the town is home to some 1,500 musical acts--part of a music scene that supports 14,000 jobs, generates $616 million for the economy and produces $11 million in tax revenue. "I came here in 1989 and saw the blues scene, and I just flipped," recalls Toni Price, a singer from Nashville, Tennessee, who has developed a huge local following. "Three months later I packed my kid and my little cat in my car and I came here. And I'm still in love with it."

Music is not the only creative enterprise in town. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of creative entrepreneurs settled in Austin to take advantage of an atmosphere that nurtures experimentation. Dell Computers is headquartered there, as are scores of others, ranging from computer-chip manufacturers to Web designers. The wealth their businesses have generated has only increased demand for local music and visual arts.

Austin's creative boom has been building for decades. University of Texas students have long provided a ready audience for music acts. Then, in 1970, a man named Eddie Wilson purchased a huge National Guard Armory and converted it to a cavernous music hall capable of holding thousands. The Armadillo brought all of Austin's music fans together under one roof for the first time. "Redneck cowboys in from the ranch, starched-collared [University of Texas] law-school students, hippie dropouts, they all drank together in the same place," recalls Terry Lickona, producer of the TV show "Austin City Limits." Willie Nelson moved to Austin in 1972, and many more followed.

Things have only grown since. With the decline of Seattle and the popularity of Austin's annual South by Southwest music-industry conference and festival (started in 1988), the city came into its own in the 1990s. Now it's getting ready to take another step. This year it will host its first Austin City Limits Music Festival--a huge extravaganza, based on the popular television series. City leaders hope it will eventually compete with the New Orleans Jazz Festival. The biggest question now is whether the arrival of the entrepreneurs will drive prices so high, the starving artists will flee the scene. Many already complain that the new arrivals have forced them to move to the outskirts of town. Yet so far few musicians have left the area. "It's hot as hell and the rent is through the roof," Price says. "But as long as I have breath in me the music scene will continue." For now, there's no reason to believe it won't.

Adam Piore

Tijuana, Mexico: Hybrid Happening

It's well past midnight in a vacant lot outside Tijuana and Sal Ricalde, 27, is dancing behind the controls of his veejay station. On a nearby screen, he projects a swirling, psychedelic image of an altar to the infamous local narcotics trafficker Santa Malafama. "We collect imagery by roaming around the city," says Ricalde. "The main idea is to shoot what's around us." The party's music--to which a young crowd of factory workers, artists and ranchero cowboys is gyrating--comes from the hands of Ramon Bostich. In 1999 Bostich helped invent the "nortec" sound, a blend of traditional Mexican folk music and electronic rhythms. The genre won Tijuana a reputation for more than tequila and sleazy brothels. But it also had a deeper, more liberating effect upon the town's denizens. "Nortec gave people the freedom to explore," says Gerardo Yepiz, a graphic artist and former nortec collaborator. "Tijuana became the muse for a lot of artists."

Partly because of nortec, but for many other reasons as well, Tijuana is in the middle of an artistic flowering that has drawn attention from television executives and museum curators from New York to Tokyo. Artists of all stripes are re-examining the hybrid culture of Tijuana that exists between the glitz of San Diego and the factory life Diego Rivera could have painted. "Tijuana is a social laboratory," says Marcos Ramirez, a prominent Tijuana installation artist. "There's no other place in the world where two different systems collapse against each other as hard as they do here."

Tijuana has beckoned to people from all over Mexico and Latin America for years. First came the fortune seekers eager to cross into the States. Those who didn't make it set up in sprawling shantytowns on the outskirts of town. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 brought another flood of migrant workers. This eclectic and ambitious mix of ideas, cultures and tastes helped spawn a thriving frontier atmosphere. Unlike their predecessors, who often rejected their roots in Tijuana because of the town's seedy reputation, this generation takes pride in its heritage. "No one is going to shut me up here," says 25-year-old Daniel Ruanova, an abstract painter who has American citizenship but prefers to spend his time in the "Wild West" of his hometown.

Like Ruanova's paintings, which draw on videogame imagery, much of Tijuana's art is inspired by technology. The city has attracted several cyberfestivals in the last few years featuring guerrilla art, virtual sit-ins and activist speakers.

Artists and producers abroad are taking a growing interest in Tijuana. The film troupe Bulbo, which makes short documentaries on Mexican social issues, is on the verge of signing a broadcast deal with Univision, the largest Spanish-language network in the United States. Others are stepping in to help ensure that the current trend continues. Luis Ituarto, a cultural promoter in Los Angeles, is organizing an exchange program with art centers in New York, Mexico City and Tijuana. So far, he's gotten funding from the Rockefeller Center and the Mexican Banco de Comercio. "People don't want this place to become a cultural void," he says. Judging from the way things are going, that won't happen any time soon.

Scott Johnson

Cape Town, South Africa: Open for Business

Cape Town has long called out to visitors with its cultural diversity, great weather and sheer physical beauty. But until the fall of apartheid in 1994, few actually ventured to South Africa's biggest metropolis. Today, the city is in the midst of a creative boom that is luring filmmakers, advertising talent and fashion models from across the globe. Students from universities and several technical colleges throng the cafes and Internet bars and add to the city's intellectual capital. "There's a great art scene: painting, sculpture, music, film, radio, you name it," says Nodi Murphy, a film director. The country's best hip-hop and graffiti artists are here.

One of Cape Town's fastest-growing industries is film. Its rise began in 1996 and 1997, once the end of the country's pariah status made it possible for foreign film companies to take advantage of the low costs, high skill level and wide variety of locations available in the country. Today, the Cape generates a quarter of the country's film and television revenue, and the film business has grown 20 percent a year for the last five years; most production companies are booked through 2003. "We've seen an explosion of work," says Izidore Codron, chairman of the South African Film Finance Corporation. That's partly because the Cape landscape is so varied--"you can make it look like anywhere," he says. A Cape Town production company filmed much of last year's "Ali"; the same firm last week wrapped filming of a fourth "Home Alone" in Cape Town. Of course, the film and fashion industries require hairdressers, makeup artists, photographers, lighting technicians, crew, caterers, production assistants--in other words, more trendy people.

Another particularly innovative industry has been advertising. Cape Town ad agencies leverage the low rand by offering top local talent to international clients. The clients get camera-ready copy at a fraction of what it would cost at home. One London entrepreneur has launched an entire publishing venture virtually solo--the writers, editors and makeup people all share a small office in Cape Town, just a couple of clicks away. "Of course, he can never tell when we're taking a break," says one of the goateed staffers. The page designer was eating a bag of chips outside a downtown cafe, as the afternoon sun turned Table Mountain golden. For the boss, that's a small price to pay.

Tom Masland, with Esther Pan

Zhongguancun China: A High-Tech Incubator

There's something about Zhongguancun that makes it feel hotter--literally--than the rest of Beijing. Perhaps it's the way sunlight reflects off the new high-rises buzzing with tech start-ups and Internet cafes, or the crowds of scruffy students and salesmen shoving past lines of touts hawking pirated software, fake diplomas and pornographic DVDs. Or it could just be the clouds of dust emanating from the countless work sites where China's new capitalists envision shopping malls and software parks. This is a place that makes you sweat. It's also the most frenetic neighborhood in Beijing, perhaps in all of China, and one that the ruling Communist Party has pronounced will lead the world's most populous nation into the Information Age and beyond.

Nestled among the country's most prestigious universities in northwest Beijing, Zhongguancun is home to China's largest concentration of students--and millionaires. Drawn by the pool of cheap, educated labor, more than 4,000 companies have already set up shop here; they include global giants IBM, Nokia and Motorola and Chinese success stories such as Legend and Founder. Last year, according to government statistics, foreign firms moved in at a rate of one per day, investing a total of $600 million. Creative clusters abound in Beijing and all around China, from rock-and-rollers in Tree Village, a shantytown enclave in the capital, to artists in Shanghai. But here in Zhongguancun, the focus is on creating future Bill Gateses.

The energy and freewheeling spirit of Zhongguancun today are largely a reaction to the decades it spent tied down under the rule of Mao Zedong, when intellectuals and entrepreneurs were forced to suppress or renounce their "bourgeois" ambitions. After China embraced market reforms in the 1980s, residents began experimenting with capitalism. Students and, eventually, professors set up tiny companies, mostly in the technology field, based in cheap dorms and empty classrooms. Word spread quickly, and other entrepreneurs began moving in to sell everything from office supplies to computer components. "It all started on one street," recalls Xu Hong, a professor at Beijing University and lifetime resident. "The government had nothing to do with it. It was all grass roots."

Now the Chinese government is among its biggest boosters. It has classified the area as a special development zone, offering tax breaks, reduced rents and speedy operating permits to new businesses. The city has also widened the roads, built new highways and flattened entire neighborhoods to make way for sterile-looking high-rises.

Unfortunately, many local residents worry that the government may be ruining Zhongguancun's creative chaos and boosting property values to levels that price out struggling young talent. Says Xu, "The people coming here to plant the trees are fewer, but the people coming here to pick fruit are more and more." But the entrepreneurs have no plans to move elsewhere. Liu Zheng, the young owner of an Internet software company, says, "The creative people stay here because they all have hope"--hope that the planters will continue to outstrip the pickers.

Sarah Schafer

Antwerp, Belgium: Beyond Fashion

Haider Ackerman used to toil at one of those typical starving-artist jobs. He spent his weekends outside a nightclub restroom collecting 50 cents from each patron. Now the 31-year-old fashion designer is one of the hottest names in Antwerp. Last season his first collection was a hit in Paris. Now he's selling clothes at boutiques like Colette in Paris, Louis in Antwerp and Corso Como in Milan, and has been asked to head up design for the esteemed Italian leather label Ruffo Research.

Ackerman joins a growing roster of Antwerp-based designers--including Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons and Wim Neels--who are enjoying international success with their labels. It all started in the late 1980s when the so-called Antwerp Six, all graduates of the now famed Royal Academy of Fine Arts, stormed through London with their avant-garde "deconstructed" designs that featured frayed edges and exposed seams.

Since then, the city's fashion scene has only continued to blossom. What's new today is that the phenomenon is spreading to other industries. The cafes along the Scheldt River are abuzz with filmmakers, photographers and graphic designers, all talking about their latest projects. Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the Antwerp Six, has started a funky new fashion magazine, which is renamed each season after the next letter of the alphabet. Tom Barman, lead singer of Antwerp-based rock band Deus, is shooting a film here with each character dressed by a Belgian designer. A handful of trendy bars have sprung up in the once desolate docklands to the north, music promoters are taking over enormous warehouses for weekend gigs and the Royal Ballet of Flanders has moved into the neighborhood.

The influx of talent has fueled a fierce competition for real estate--along the river, property values have doubled in the last five years--and the city's government is actively regenerating run-down areas. In the south, a London architecture firm, the Richard Rogers Partnership, is designing a new courthouse that will be the first glimpse of Antwerp for travelers arriving by a new high-speed rail network. By the train station, a new design center opens next month to support start-ups--mostly by graduates of the city's industrial-design and graphic-design schools. Already, more than a quarter of the work-shops are rented, and the center hasn't even opened yet.

RAFA is also continuing to expand. Next month its fashion department will move into a stunning new building in central Antwerp called the ModeNatie (or "fashion warehouse"), which will also house a fashion museum and a classy brasserie. As if artists didn't have reason enough to move to Antwerp.

Michelle Chan

Newcastle Gateshead, United Kingdom: From Coal to Culture

It all started with the giant angel statue. In 1998 British artist Antony Gormley bestowed on Gates-head--twinned with Newcastle across the River Tyne in northern England--a 20-meter-tall sculpture with the wingspan of a Boeing 767. The largest statue in the country, the Angel of the North drew national attention to this faded coal-mining and shipbuilding capital. "The Angel was about making Gateshead a name," said architect and Gateshead director of property services John Devlin, who oversaw the [Pound sterling]800,000 initiative (three quarters of the money came from lottery funds), "and because we delivered, money was switched on for other projects."

Fantastical as it may sound, the Angel has kicked off a flurry of activity that locals hope will transform this impoverished region into a European arts center--and jump-start its economy. The Angel was followed by the sweeping Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the state-of-the-art BALTIC art gallery and the Sage Gateshead music center, slated to open next year.

Can creative town planning turn a city around? The projects are already helping attract private investment and creating jobs for local residents. A four-star Hilton is going up, and plans for a business park have tripled in size to accommodate demand from high-tech manufacturers. Architect Alan Smith, who is designing the hotel and business park, says, "None of our clients would have entertained the thought of building in Gateshead without BALTIC, the music center and the bridge."

New housing developments are popping up as well. Last month, 74 percent of a new batch of "luxury" flats along the quay were snapped up their first day on the market. Art it seems, has become the region's most promising engine of growth.

Liat Radcliffe

Kabul, Afghanistan: A Post-Taliban Paris

Recently, dozens of AK-47-toting soldiers gathered in a semicircle at Kabul's football stadium. One year ago this might have signaled a much more sinister event. The Taliban frequently gathered crowds here to watch prisoners have their hands and feet amputated--a punishment they justified under Sharia (Islamic law). But this night's entertainment was different. A rectangular stage, swathed in red carpet, had been set up in front of the stands, and a seven-piece Afghan band soon broke into song led by the infectious beat of tabla drums. On the football pitch, groups of soldiers spun around each other like giddy schoolchildren and kicked up clouds of dust. "People in Afghanistan need music as much as they need water to drink," says Mohammed Rafiq Khoshnood, 41, head of the music department at the Ministry of Culture and one of the organizers of last week's Independence Day festivities.

Kabul is coming back to life. Since March nearly 1.5 million members of the Afghan diaspora, many of whom kept their artistic traditions alive while living outside the country, have returned, bringing the cultural influences of their places of refuge--Pakistan, Iran, Europe and the United States.

The massive influx has sparked a dynamic exchange of ideas--don't laugh--not unlike that seen in the Paris of the 1920s. Every day film directors, painters and novelists meet at the Artists Association of Afghanistan to drink tea and debate with their colleagues, some of whom haven't seen each other in years. Association president Timor Shah Hakimyar says his membership is at 3,000 and growing rapidly.

Film companies, theater troupes and art galleries are springing up across the capital. "When one artist has an exhibition, 10 others are encouraged to do the same," says Mohammad Asefi, a landscape painter whose work was recently on display at the upscale Inter-Continental hotel. When David Mason, a Danish-Iranian dancer recently held auditions for his new theater group, Takamol, nearly 200 people showed up.

As for film, directors are struggling to find their own voice amid the influences of Hollywood and Bollywood. More than a half-dozen private studios have sprung up in the past nine months. Recent offerings tackle social issues such as drug abuse and the difficulties of returning refugees. Other new films are pure distraction. "Dain," a martial-arts comedy about the misadventures of an artifact smuggler, will soon hit the big screen in Kabul.

One of the most successful artistic ventures since the fall of the Taliban is Zanbel-e-Gham, a humor magazine. Started as a photocopied zine in 1997, it was banned and its creators forced into hiding, when Taliban intelligence got hold of a copy two years ago.

With help from a foreign nongovernmental organization, the magazine has started printing again and now distributes 2,000 copies. "In the past, laughter was controlled by the government," says Osman Akram Sargardan, editor of the publication. "If we make fun of a powerful person now they may get upset, but we don't have to be afraid. We're free again." No one can appreciate that more than the artists of Kabul.

Babak Dehghanpisheh

Marseilles France: Rap to the Rescue

Tucked into the Mediterranean coast among dramatic rocky inlets, Marseilles is an ancient, once thriving port city with a modern reputation for racial turmoil, unemployment and organized crime. By the 1990s, Marseilles realized it desperately needed to stem the flood of denizens choosing to leave (some 10,000 a year) and slash its 20 percent unemployment rate. It has found an unlikely solution from within the immigrant communities that some had blamed for its blights. Marseilles now finds strength in its diversity; more specifically, in its music.

The city proved fertile ground for the introduction of hip-hop by the U.S. Marines and sailors who visited port in the 1980s. "They'd bring mix tapes and teach us about American rap," recalls K-Rhyme Le Roi, one of Marseilles's top rappers. "They were from Harlem and all over. We'd talk with them until 2 a.m., until there was no one in the streets."

Fifteen years later, Marseilles produces some of France's elite hip-hop stars who have helped revitalize the city's image along with other artists, like director Luc Besson, who recently produced a series of fun, action-packed comedies featuring a North African protagonist.

Investors are starting to take note of the creative ferment. A massive federal rehabilitation program, known as Euromediteranee, is transforming the city center into an economic and cultural mecca by opening grand museums and rejuvenating the docklands. And since Marseilles was connected to Paris via the TGV bullet train last year, millions of visitors can access the city's attractions much more easily. "Marseilles is a la mode, now. It's trendy," says Marc Pietri, owner of a property-development firm who left in the 1980s and has since returned. "They're not making fun of me anymore; now they ask me how they can buy a home here."

Tracy McNicoll