Finding Austin

The neo city on the hills is a far cry from its cheap pot, cold beer and low-rent former ways.

The lake, a treacherous river in the old days, is more crowded than ever, but still an amazing downtown amenity, and Hippie Hollow has managed to hang on and is now officially Texas's only clothing-optional swimming hole. There's also Zilker Park and Barton Springs — in Wilson's vernacular, "our G-spot."

No, Austin is not a truly gorgeous geographical Shangri-La, like San Francisco, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Seattle or even Chattanooga, Tennessee, but it's pretty enough and easily the beauty queen of Texas. What's more, its violent-crime rate is a merciful fraction of those of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

While the music scene isn't quite what Austin's boosters would have you believe, it does have its moments, day in and day out, week after week. "I'll start on a Thursday at five o'clock at happy hour at Continental Club, and then go from there to the early show at the Saxon, and then maybe go over to the East Side to TC's, and then end up between midnight and two in the morning at Antone's, perhaps with Del Castillo," says Wilson. It's a concentration of reasonably compressed world-class talent Wilson can drive to in minutes. "My friend from L.A. tells me it would take him approximately 18 months to see that much world-class talent in L.A.," he says.

Fats, Jerry Lee and Van the Man were but three of the touring legends to have radiated the Armadillo piano's 88 keys; above, a portrait of the iconic Austin shrine as it appeared in its heyday.
Photos by John Anderson
Fats, Jerry Lee and Van the Man were but three of the touring legends to have radiated the Armadillo piano's 88 keys; above, a portrait of the iconic Austin shrine as it appeared in its heyday.
While Austin has recently developed a new tier of high-end restaurants, it's still a town where you can eat fast, cheap and tasty meals tailored for a student budget. Most recently, the city has seen an invasion of over 2,300 food trucks like this one from Franklin BBQ.
John Anderson
While Austin has recently developed a new tier of high-end restaurants, it's still a town where you can eat fast, cheap and tasty meals tailored for a student budget. Most recently, the city has seen an invasion of over 2,300 food trucks like this one from Franklin BBQ.

As an eating town, Austin was once home to little more than sausage wraps and brisket and breakfast tacos, nachos and guacamole — cheap fare to fill the bellies of UT students while leaving them a few extra bucks for partying. Today, that tradition of cheap eats lives on in the 2,300 hipster food trucks that patrol the city, and they offer much more diverse fare than what was available in the past. And while Austin has not yet caught up to Dallas or Houston in fine or ethnic dining, it has made strides, especially in high-end eats. UT grad and former Austin and Houston food critic Robb Walsh says that Austin has developed whole new foodie-tiers in recent years. "Recently, some really good and really expensive restaurants have opened and been able to survive," he says, citing examples such as Uchi and Vespaio. "It's very competitive on that level, but you can make it now."

However, in many, many other areas, Austin is mired in an intermediate stage between overgrown town and true metropolis. To Wilson, the Austin of today is "like a good-lookin' chick who got knocked up and can't get into her britches anymore." What's more, a great many of the citizens can't seem to see the way forward.

Austin is home to precious few top-rate museums and little in the way of high art or fashion. The only international flight out of its airport goes to Cancun. Austin is America's largest city with no pro sports teams (though some would debate the amateur status of the Texas Longhorns). While the real estate market is a bargain to Californians, by Texas standards it is both costly and cramped.

Above all that, there's traffic, the "sheer hell trying to get around that city," as Greg Ellis, a former Dallasite and Houstonian and now the manager of Sundance Records in San Marcos, puts it. Austinites have a curious attitude toward their clogged roads. In a recent poll, 70 percent of them said it was their city's top concern, and a 2010 study conducted by Texas A&M's nationally renowned Texas Transportation Institute, one that used the latest high-tech GPS devices and even iPhone data to measure travel times, concluded that in all of America, Austin trailed only Los Angeles and Washington D.C. in average travel times.

Yet when you read the Austin American-Statesman's article about the study, there's this weird parade of denial in the online comments. Yes, traffic is bad, dozens of the commenters say. They will all admit that I-35 is a nightmare from Williamson County to San Antonio, and that it does suck being America's largest city with only one interstate. They'll grant that Highways 183 and 290 are hell-paths, and that MoPac is an inadequate north-south conduit, and that major arterials such as Lamar, Airport, Burnet and Manor all have poorly synchronized traffic lights.

And yet still, even given all that, they will insist that traffic in Austin is "not as bad as it is in Dallas and Houston." (Others, like Wilson, just shrug it off and say things like "That's why you are supposed to smoke a joint in your car.")

That denial is typical, according to Julia Youssefnia, a 28-year-old accountant who graduated from UT and has since lived in both Houston and Dallas, and it's not limited to traffic. "Austin is a city with tons of problems — segregation, gentrification, problems with affordable housing — but most people there tend to ignore them," she says.

Indeed, some in the city seem to celebrate their woes. That's what makes Austin weird, they claim.

But Houston blogger Lou Minatti points out that so much of what Austin touts as being weird is actually ordinary. Bats under bridges? Houston has those. A large population of panhandlers, or "dragworms," as they are called in Austin? Both Houston and Dallas have them.

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398 comments
Gaspar_Ramsey
Gaspar_Ramsey

I left Austin in 1965, having lived there for nearly two years. It was hip, and people had just started leaving for other places, but even then it was losing the small town feel that it always passed off as charm. It seemed to me then that whatever "hipness" the town had was shot dead a few years later by one Charles Whitman, but I came back from time to time to go back to places like the Checkered Flag. But the 'Trose, where I spent the next 10 years, was so much rich and rewarding in experience that I never really looked back. Now I think it's just a warren for OUPRN's--that's Old Urban Professionals, Retired Now.

runswithbeer
runswithbeer

You folks that talk about how "with it" Houston and Dallas are are kidding yourselves. Austin isn't with anything. We're just weird....

Geoff Kimbro
Geoff Kimbro

I honestly think these people who have such a problem with Austin are the same polo wearing, khaki short sporting, chain restaurant loving, money centric mouth-breathers that reveled in making fun of the weird kids in high shcool. We get it, you don't like people who are different but keep in mind us weirdos are just as afraid of you as you are of us. That's why we moved to austin, to get away from you. I lived in houston most of my life so I have a lot of friends here and when I moved back they were all in disbelief. They couldn't fathom why I would move from the beautiful hills of texas to the misqiuto infested swamp. I think that's pretty telling when most people I know here hate it and the people it inhabits. I will say houston isn't as bad as most in austin and he rest of the country (houston has taken some shots from more than a few comics and commentators) make it out o be. I actually love parts of houston and it definitely caters to the austin leaning crowd in some ways but the fact remains that it has a stilfed art and music scene and that turns some people off. That stuff seems more appreciated and encouraged in austin. Houstons more about making money than anything and it shows in the behaviors and interests of its citizens. Now feel free to make back handed comments but remember I'm better and more interesting than you.

Jessica Ellison
Jessica Ellison

Here's my favorite Austin joke:

How many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb? Only 1, but 25 to talk about how great the old light bulb was.

Debbie Russell
Debbie Russell

Case in point: since you wrote this, TC's has closed as has The Parlour on North Loop :-( (former Houstonian-come-Austinite).

FrankG
FrankG

Keep this in mind. A huge, huge, huge number of people who live in Austin moved there from Houston, Dallas, and just about everywhere else. They brought their attitudes, driving habits and "cultures" with them. When people criticize various aspects of the city, for example "Austin has the craziest drivers", I tell them that most of the drivers moved there from somewhere else. That ends the conversation.

Creg
Creg

While on vacation my wife I were at a restaurant called Plaza Corniche when the owner brought a couple to our table and said they were also from Texas ... we should meet ...

We introduced ourselves and said we were from Houston.

Their reply was "Oh. We're from Austin, so..."And they walked away in disgust.

That's a true story, and it happened in Tunisia. I'm not lying.

Supak Ryan
Supak Ryan

I moved to Austin in February 2007, and I planned to start my business there. I moved to a little house on 34th and Duval just north of campus.

I quickly realized the place wasn't what I expected. Mostly they're related to things that the article mentions: I was surrounded by lots of affluent white people who are quick to tell you how much they hate racism (read: how much they hate people from suburbs, working-class white people, and other groups that are not Weird), yet they themselves live in one of the most segregated cities in the South.

It was enough to put a new idea in my head: maybe the "Hipster City" thing that's been happening for the last 10 years or so is just the new version of White Flight. Of course the people involved with that would deny it to their graves, since they love Gangsta Rap and Obama, and they have pics of themselves with Extremely Authentic Black Musicians at shows, but I think the truth lies in the way people's lives are actually lived from day to day.

I could have forgiven this atmosphere of self-congratulation if the fabled "small town" feel of Old Austin was something I could find anywhere. I went to the same handful of places everyday. This is what I always do when I come to a new town, and in every other place I've lived, I've become "part of the gang" and made friends that I've kept until this day. But in Austin I felt like I was surrounded by people who were just "trying to make it big" or who were "just on the way through". I felt that everyone was too self-absorbed to have a true community. Maybe this "small-town" aspect of Austin still exists in pockets, but my normal radar for finding it failed me during my stay.

In July of 2007, four months after I moved to Austin, I moved to Houston. It was an impulsive move that was triggered by an especially-intense Indian Food craving. Within a week I had found a nice, (actually) diverse group of people to spend time with, and I'm still here now. I feel like Austin may be "Weird" in a certain extremely socially-acceptable way, but in my book there are much, much, weirder things and people in Houston.

rs

Jeremy Sweredoski
Jeremy Sweredoski

This article is stupid, as someone who was born and raised in Austin and has lived here all my life I am very excited to see what Austin is becoming. Austin now is so much better than when I was a kid. There is so much more to do, much more excitement. Im sorry mr. John Nova Lomax but you are too negative about this great city which continues to rank at the top of the best cities in the nation. If you don't like the Austin of today Move away, and if you have then you don't need to visit again.

Guest
Guest

While we're at it, let's compare Albany to NYC or Sacramento to Los Angeles.

In most ways, Austin just doesn't compare to Houston. However, it's starting to get many of the big-city negatives: horrendous traffic, crime (property crime rate is already higher than Houston's), sprawl and strip malls. Yet it still lacks the big-city amenities: a real arts district (theatre and museums), great restaurant scene, and suitable roads/infrastructure. And it's just as hot or hotter than Houston in the summer, yet this is rarely mentioned.

I think the real problem is that Austin is starting to have an identity crisis. I think that's the heart of the matter, actually.

Guest
Guest

"The neo city on the hills is a far cry from its cheap pot, cold beer and low-rent former ways."

That's putting it kindly. Never mind the insular attitudes, status quo (bow down and worship the ground that is Austin or else), ignorance and bashing of the other Texas cities. Probably why articles like this come out.

Oh wait, the author is an Austin native! Touche!

Riely
Riely

Austin and Houston are BOTH better than Honolulu. Way better. Try life on a rock in the middle of the ocean, you'll see what I mean.

Guest
Guest

Having lived there, Austin is great for early 20's, but after that you realize all of the sports and culture revolve around the University, which gets tiresome. It's an extremely college-centric town. If you're in your late 20's to early 30's or more, Houston is much better; basically it has all of the big-city amenities of Dallas (yet more real and less contrived), combined with Austin's laid-back vibe and quirkiness. Throw in an awesome restaurant scene, international vibe, great job market from being an economic powerhouse and you've got Houston.

Guest
Guest

Like the author, I've lived in both cities as well and agree that Austin is completely overrated, while Houston is underrated. At least for people who are out of college or tired of the ex-frat boy scene.

And what's funny is that Austinites who don't like the article have to bring up the jealousy card (which is about as annoying as the race card) because they have nothing else to say. Just more of the same Austintude...

Guest
Guest

Um... the author is a native Austinite.

st4rk
st4rk

Isn't that what they're striving for?

musician
musician

I can't wait to be back in Austin. But then again, I'm a musician.

Then Don't Live Here/There
Then Don't Live Here/There

This uber long string is disintegrating into useless prattle comparing the virtues of Austin and Houston/Dallas. No matter what you think, they're incomparable. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The great thing about Texas' major cities is that they each have their own flavor. Austin used to be thought of as a university town, then it became a big town, now it's a city – replete with problems beset by that kind of growth. Some commenters are having a hard time with people commenting, or being quoted, about the problems or perceived problems. And some of those commenting about the problems, including the article’s author, put a city comparison into the mix – which makes those from the commented-upon city feel defensive and, in turn, attack the weaknesses of the other city . And on and on it goes…

tedpowers
tedpowers

if you want to get a good representation of how austin is right now, why would you only quote old guys that either dont live here or live in the suburbs? i respect these guys for what they have done, but why not interview some young folks that really enjoy the uniqueness of the town and are making it what it is today. austin above all is a FUN town...i dont see any reason to spend this much time and energy dissing it.

Zx136
Zx136

Wow.. Can we say Houston sure is jealous.

East St. Louis rules!
East St. Louis rules!

You don't see Austin journalists writing hit pieces on Houston, but then Austinites aren't nearly as insecure and defensive as Houstonians are. Seriously, if your city is so great, why do you feel the need to bash another?

Susan
Susan

Yes. Austin sucks. It's much, much better to stay in Houston, everyone. Much better.

Ghest
Ghest

"I honestly think these people who have such a problem with Austin are the same polo wearing, khaki short sporting, chain restaurant loving, money centric mouth-breathers that reveled in making fun of the weird kids in high school."

in my case, exactly wrong.

"We get it, you don't like people who are different but keep in mind us weirdos are just as afraid of you as you are of us."

wrong again.

it may just be that this idealized way you see yourself and your community doesn't exist… which was the point of the article.

this whole "weird" thing is tiring. nothing makes a person less "weird" (whatever that's even supposed to mean) than boasting about how weird and different they are. at that point it's just a bad marketing scam.

Jus' Sayin'
Jus' Sayin'

They probably moved to Austin from California and have never even been to Houston. If that's the case, let's hope it stays that way!

Guest
Guest

I wonder if people from Albany or Syracuse are like that to people from NYC, or if people from Sacramento or Berkley are like that to people from L.A.

Probably not. Another example of Austinites and the insular holier-than-thou attitude too many of them have (notice I said too many of them - not all) called Austintude.

Ghest
Ghest

very good response.

Guest
Guest

Sorta like many Austinites are negative about anywhere that's not Austin?It's refreshing to see a different point of view for once.

Guest
Guest

No theater, true (thank god). Museums, sadly no. Music, better than dallas and h-town combined.

As far as restaurants, if you haven't been here in the past few years, you need to check back in. Great, unique, national-level restaurants are springing up all over the place. Great restaurants are a part of the new Austin identity. There is no crisis.

And as a side note, no, we don't get the mosquito-loving humidity present in houston.

Guest
Guest

You're right. Sounds great for a vaca, but wouldn't want to live there full time.

Guest
Guest

While we're at it, let's compare Albany to NYC or Sacramento to Los Angeles.

In most ways, Austin just doesn't compare to Houston. However, it's starting to get many of the big-city negatives: horrendous traffic, crime (property crime rate is already higher than Houston's), sprawl and strip malls. Yet it still lacks the big-city amenities: a real arts district (theatre and museums), great restaurant scene, and suitable roads/infrastructure. And it's just as hot or hotter than Houston in the summer, yet this is rarely mentioned.

I think the real problem is that Austin is starting to have an identity crisis. I think that's the heart of the matter, actually.

Guest
Guest

Better off in Nashville. Seriously.

st4rk
st4rk

A very specific type of musician, too. Sunburn easily?

Guest
Guest

Um... the author is a native Austinite.

Guest
Guest

The journalists don't need to.... the Austin residents do it enough themselves. Only difference is they usually have no idea what they're talking about. Unlike the author of this article, who is a native Austinite and speaks much truth.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Because outside of telling people not to move here, smugly asserting that Houston and Dallas suck is a favorite trope of Austin conversation and attitude.

st4rk
st4rk

That's somewhat of a limited mindset -- as if those were ever the only two options...

Most creative people are nowadays encouraged to leave the state. Austin has lately seemed like a place full of people you would want to avoid if you are an independent minded person.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

At one point it might have been clever, but by God the "Austin sucks, don't move here" chorus is tired. It was tired back in 1989 too. And in 1979, '71 and '65.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Houston was #1 in that same Kiplinger's poll in 2008, and you say over and over again that the city sucked ass at that time. So either this poll has no authority or Houston did not, in fact, suck ass in 2008.

Riely
Riely

Coming back to Texas after 20+ years, I realize how much the cities here depend on one another. Austin would not be the vibrant place it is without the Great Gotham-Golem of Houston close by, to set itself against, rail at, and secretly, admire. The important thing to understand about a city like Houston is that it does not have to be "pretty" to be beautiful. Like Detroit, Cleveland or, indeed, Chicago, Its hard beauty is a poetic product of industry, made manifest in steel and concrete. The breathtaking Houston skyline stands as a kind of talisman of 20th Century ingenuity and opportunity. It is the most quixotic, and perhaps the most beautiful, sight in Texas. Interestingly overlooked in this whole discussion is San Antonio-- now the 2nd largest city in TX, surpassing Dallas. I think it just might be the best kept urban secret in the state. Vast swaths of SA are still as laid back and unpretentious as Austin used to be. It's enticingly cheap, too. And no Texas city can match the history and scenic beauty of SA's downtown.

East St. Louis rules!
East St. Louis rules!

I hear this argument all the time, but I don't agree. I've lived in Austin for more than 20 years, and I can probably count all the times I've heard someone denigrate Houston on one hand. And yet, the bashing of Austin by Houstonians never ceases. That's what makes the whole premise of your article so ironic to me.

Susan
Susan

You are trying to get a little much out of my comment, st4rk. That unclever, tired comment is in response to an unclever, tired, curmudgeonly article. There's admittedly not a lot of content available to analyze when one follows a cliche with a cliche.

However, I'll take the bait. I would imagine that an expansive, independent mind could do very well wherever he or she is located.

And I'll take the bait again. If I left Texas again (lived elsewhere, schooled elsewhere, came back to where I was born and raised), it would be because of political differences or a better job opportunity, not because the people in Austin or Texas in general somehow have an impact on my mind's capability.

Once again, the cliche rings true: if Austin and the people in Austin are so horrible, just stay out of the dang city!

Guest
Guest

You are right in that there is a big status quo in Austin.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Just sincerely curious -- where would one go if one were truly independent minded?

Andy Boggs
Andy Boggs

Very true. The golden years of Austin citizen's cleverness was really back in 1922. Also in '33 and '34. Since then, folk just haven't been very clever. '47 was a rough year as well.

Susan
Susan

Yes. It's tired. Almost as tired as people complaining about the Armadillo World Headquarters/Liberty Lunch/Studio 6a closing and how Austin has lost its magic. I've read and heard all of these arguments before; no native Austinite is going to say this article is 100% wrong.

I'll still stand by my tired old statement, as most of the problems we've had have stemmed from growing pains associated with people from wherever else moving in.

Guest
Guest

DK the troll is back...

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

That's because you aren't from Houston. Like I've said repeatedly, it's happened on multiple occasions to me personally: I will tell an Austinite I am from Houston, and they will look at me as if I've just told them I was diagnosed with cancer and say "Oh, I'm so sorry."

Creg
Creg

That is freaking funny

Mbcarli
Mbcarli

I was very excited to move to Austin from Houston ten years ago, in my late twenties. My mother had told me stories about how laid back and liberal the town was. I knew Austin had a live music scene and areas to swim, hike, and bike. I enjoy all of these things. Unfortunately, I have never lived in, or visited, a place where I felt more unwelcomed. I also never felt more naive. I clearly wasn't wearing the right clothes, hip enough to the more obscure music, ect... Everytime I made the mistake of revealing the fact that I was from Houston, I was rediculed and my hometown verbally torn to shreds. I learned to keep that to myself. Overall, I ended up having some wonderful times in Austin. I made at least one long term friend. However, I never felt welcomed and maybe I wasn't. That is why I find your comment poignant.

"I'll still stand by my tired old statement, as most of the problems we've had have stemmed from growing pains associated with people from wherever else moving in."

I know that there are kind, open-minded people from Austin. I just didn't meet a whole lot of them. Maybe I was in the wrong places with the wrong people.

 
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