3 Reasons Houston Might Be a Better City for Artists Than Austin
City rivalries can be a Texas pastime nearly as popular as professional football — people in Houston love to talk smack about how Dallas sucks, people in Dallas return fire, and everyone seems to agree that Austin is where weird Texans prefer to plant their weirdo roots. Besides being the state capital, Austin has long had the reputation of being an ideal place for creative people to live in the Lone Star State. Wave after wave of new residents flood the town each year; many of them drawn by its reputation as a place that's friendly toward artists, musicians, free-thinkers and other folks dancing to the beat of their own drummers.
But is that reputation deserved anymore? Sure, the town has the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign, but how "weird" is it really? Could it be that Houston is a more accommodating city for artists and other creative folks than Austin is these days? I believe that to be true, and here are the reasons why.
3. Houston Has a Lower Cost of Living.
When I first moved to Austin, it felt like the kind of place where it was still relatively easy to live a bohemian lifestyle and "get by." Sure, some longtime residents were already saying that the city had lost a lot of the things that had made Austin special in the '70s and '80s, but it was possible to rent a small house for $400 a month. I won't overplay the slacker stereotype that was popular to throw around at the time, but Austin was full of young people managing to make ends meet working at places like Thundercloud Subs or Ruby's BBQ. A lot of those folks had migrated to Austin lured by the idea of pursuing their artistic or musical dreams. Being able to live inexpensively was usually part of those plans, but it doesn't feel as if it's easy to do that in Austin anymore. Looking at various cost-of-living comparisons, residing in Houston appears to be about 8 percent cheaper than in Austin overall, with housing in Austin being 20 percent more expensive. Obviously, how those differences in cost of living affect different artistically inclined people will vary, but it seems like "starving artist" types might starve a little more living in Austin than in Houston. Being poor certainly isn't a prerequisite for being an artist or musician, but unless a person has a great day job or a trust fund, Austin isn't an easy place to get by cheaply while he develops his art.
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2. Houston Has More Museums, Galleries and Artist-Friendly Infrastructure.
Maybe it's because Houston has had so much oil money flow through it over the years, and wealthy people are often patrons of the arts, but we benefit from having great museums and an abundance of galleries and art organizations in the Bayou City. Without bashing the outstanding efforts of Art Alliance Austin, and other people and organizations active in promoting artistic endeavors in Austin, it's always felt like there's a lack of great infrastructure to serve the art community there. Researching online, it appears there are about 28 area museums and galleries in the Austin area, which sounds like a lot until you contrast it with Houston, which has at least 46 galleries and nine art museums. Sure, the cities differ in size, with the Houston area having a population of more than six million people, but Austin isn't tiny — it and the surrounding area have a population of more than two million, and it's currently the nation's 11th-largest city. There are artists of all types doing great things in both Houston and Austin, but it definitely seems like Houston has an edge over Texas's self-christened "weirdest" city in the number of places that will show a person's work, or host events for the local art community.
Technically, the "Keep Austin Weird" slogan is part of a local business campaign, but plenty of people have extended the phrase to the city itself.
1. Austin Has Recently Been Cracking Down on People in Traditionally Un-Austiny Ways, and It's Bad for Local Artists and Musicians.
Something's in the air in Austin lately, and it's not just cedar pollen or bats flying under the Congress Avenue Bridge. For a city that's been marketing itself as a great place for creative people to work and live, and where the local music scene has been pointed to for decades as a reason that Austin is special, it sure feels like a lot of stuff is happening that could hurt those things. The city chased out Uber, the popular ride share company, angering customers who'd become accustomed to the service and preferred it over traditional cab services. Earlier this year, Austin's City Council also passed a new ordinance affecting short-term rental properties — a type that has long been popular in the city. That ordinance specifies that no more than ten people can be inside a rental at the same time and that no more than six people can be out in the yard, and goes so far as to prohibit "activities other than sleep" after 10 p.m. Worse still, the ordinance allows compliance officers to show up unannounced expecting to search a place without a warrant. The draconian new rules are in place to cut down on what some city officials are calling "party houses," and many residents think that the ordinance might be unconstitutional. While they're not aimed specifically at artists, these aren't exactly the kind of changes that make a city feel like a haven for unconventional people, or anyone interested in personal freedom.
Still, more and more people continue to move to Austin, and much of the town feels different now — filled with more condos and less music...Not all that "weird" anymore. Being a popular place to move to isn't necessarily a bad thing, but efforts should be made to preserve the types of features that the city has long promoted as making it special.
Recently, an Austin artist named Beau Reichert ran afoul of the city's aggressive code compliance office after a couple of complaints were called in by new neighbors of his. Reichert owns two acres in a far East Austin neighborhood, and has spent considerable money and effort transforming them into an amazing space he calls "Sekrit Theater." His backyard includes a beautiful glass building, a covered pavilion and a large movie screen on which he shows films on weekends. Reichert doesn't charge admission, and considers the gatherings to be backyard parties for his friends and neighbors. Sekrit Theater is the kind of place that feels like a throwback to "old Austin," and the city's code enforcement efforts seem intent on doing everything they can to destroy it, with city officials going so far as to threaten Reichert with demolition.
Would the city have pursued a guy like Reichert so doggedly 25 or 30 years ago? There's no way to be certain, but many older residents seem to feel that things are very different in Austin now, and that the city's "weirdness" is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
The Dude abides at a recent evening at Sekrit Theater.
Photo by Chris Lane
Houston, on the other hand, feels more tolerant and inviting to artists and unconventional people these days, at least to me. It's subjective, to a degree, but there are signs that point to that. Houston is still big enough to provide ample, inexpensive housing, and there are plenty of places like Notsuoh and The Orange Show Center For Visionary Art to inspire artistic people and give them places to mingle with others like themselves.
Perhaps Austin is transitioning from being Texas's weirdest city into the type of hip place where young, mostly white people with good jobs move to, where a yoga studio is never far from a cool coffee shop, and where convenience stores sell local craft beers to bearded guys wearing skinny jeans. Houston, on the other hand, has never had a hip image, but the city has allowed plenty of artistically and musically creative people to develop their talents, and to do their thing without worrying too much about whether they'll be able to continue to afford living there.
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