I have a house in Houston and another in Austin, and spend time between the two cities. I've lived in both places at various times over the last 24 years or so, and the differences between the two have always been interesting to me. I find city rivalries to be pretty dumb for the most part, and like and dislike a few things about Houston and Austin.
However, there's this lingering perception by a lot of people that Austin is somehow "weird," and I have to disagree. It's funny too, because when I pass a car with a "Keep Austin Weird" sticker on it, more often than not, it's on a pretty normal looking vehicle with a really normal looking person driving it. The last time I saw a "Keep Austin Weird" shirt, it was on a guy who looked like he was probably the district manager of some bank, worn along with a pair of khaki shorts and designer shoes.
I would argue that, by my standards anyway, Austin is no longer "weird," but is actually just "cool," and there is a big difference between those two designations. There's nothing wrong with being a cool city, but that doesn't necessarily make a place weird. I personally feel like Houston, which is not usually considered as "hip" as Austin, is actually the weirder of the two cities. How is that possible? Let's take a look.
4. The Lack of Zoning
Let's face it, Houston's famous lack of zoning creates some interesting urban landscapes. It's the largest major city in the U.S. without zoning, and that has long created a crazy quilt of development throughout the area. Austin is a pretty city, with fairly standard zoning regulations, and it looks like it. You don't see icehouses in the middle of residential neighborhoods, or other types of oddly placed businesses right next to homes in older neighborhoods. Whatever one's opinion on Houston's lack of zoning, it's difficult to claim that it doesn't often allow for some pretty weird results, and that's just not something you see in Austin very much.
3. The Art Scene in Houston is Way Stronger Than in Austin. Driving around Houston, a person with an observant eye will often catch a glimpse of some street art or an oddly placed art installation of some sort, and that's not something you see much of in Austin. Yes, Austin has street artists, and artists in general, but Houston seems to inspire a much more active artist community in regards to public displays. For some reason, I've noticed, for a city famous for being so "weird," Austin tends to cover up street art a lot faster than Houston. Whether it's street art like the Coolidge stencils around town or Houston landmarks like the Beer Can House, H-Town just seems to have weirder manifestations of public art than Austin does.
2. Houston Has a Very Diverse Population, While Austin is One of Texas's Most Segregated Cities.
Yep, for all of the hype Austin gets for being the most progressive city in Texas, it is extremely segregated both economically and racially, whereas Houston has the nation's most diverse population and is home to people of a much broader range of income levels. In 1928, a city plan in Austin concentrated all services for black residents on the East side of town, as a form of "separate but equal" services that also effectively segregated the city. And it's weird how few minorities I encounter throughout the day. I didn't purposely choose to live in a majority-white area, but most of the city feels like that to me. It's strange, too, for a city that seems proud of its Mexican restaurants and taco culture, I rarely see any actual Hispanics at most places around Austin. These are my personal, subjective observations, but Houston is a very international city, and feels like it. Austin often seems like it's primarily made for, and occupied by, a very specific type of person -- someone fairly young, usually white and financially comfortable, with a somewhat progressive social/political outlook.
1. Austin Has Become More "Normal," and Houston Continues to Change.
That relative homogeneity among Austin's population affects its level of "weirdness" in certain ways. Generally, any city is only as weird as its residents, and when a population is fairly homogeneous, that doesn't really make a place that odd. Austin is unique in Texas culturally, and it is accurate to say it's a progressive town with a lot more politically left-leaning people than other cities in the state, but that doesn't mean it's particularly weird anymore. After you meet your 100th bearded vegan hipster guy who's interested in craft beer brewing, you start to realize that's not weird, just another demographic group who happens to live in Austin.
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What it seems like to me is that, in transitioning from a "weird" town into a "cool" town, a lot of the folks who might have once earned Austin its weird credentials have been displaced by years of newer residents who moved into town drawn by the things that have become solid foundations of the local culture. Austin feels very different from other Texas cities, but it doesn't feel especially weird anymore.
Over the decades, as Austin became more homogeneous and developed into a hip city, Houston became a much more diverse city, and the melting pot effect of that diversity manifests in some pretty strange ways.
Houston also seems to be one of the types of places where eccentric people live, mostly unnoticed, until one day someone realizes they've spent decades making a monument to their favorite fruit or have consumed enough beer to resurface the outside of their home. Austin is a great place and full of creative people, but nowadays you're much more likely to find them playing in a band that moved from another city, with an almost cynical business plan for their music, than you are to find some creative local oddball who is adding to the city's level of weirdness.
When it comes down to it, I think that Houston tends to have strange things happen within the city's culture in genuinely unexpected ways, whereas Austin is a fun city but one where there aren't a lot of surprises anymore. Houston, on the other hand, just gets weirder and weirder as time rolls on.