4 "Weird" Things You Might Need to Know Before Moving to Austin
Sekrit Theater feels like a part of the "Old Austin" that is rapidly disappearing
Photo by Chris Lane
Austin has had a reputation for being Texas's strangest city since at least the early '70s, and has become a magnet drawing in a constant flood of visitors. Outside of the state, Austin is often regarded as the perfect destination for free-spirited young people, and as an environment completely different from the rest of Texas — more progressive, more eclectic and more creative; a shining oasis of "weird" surrounded by the vast sea of backwards conservatism that some people think defines everything else around it. I've lived in Austin off and on since the early '90s and love the city, but here are a few things that someone moving there might not expect.
4. Pollen Will Try to Kill You.
Austin has gotten famous for having some of the worst traffic in the country, and that is indeed true. It's definitely not part of the city's charm. But there's a far more nefarious hazard to enjoying your life in the city: the toxic mix of pollens that can make people question how anyone can live there. A recent study ranked Austin as the 26th-worst city in the United States for people with allergies. Ever have one of those months where you can't breathe, your throat feels like you tried to gargle hot broken glass, and you're so full of phlegm that you're drowning in it? How does having terrible headaches and itchy eyes sound? Well, if you're unfortunate enough to have certain allergies, Austin can make you suffer in ways other cities won't. You'll eventually hear about "Cedar Fever," a seasonal scourge of allergy suffering that stretches from November to March, and that should really be named "The Austin Plague." You can take solace in the fact that you now live in a city with a world-famous live music scene. Unfortunately, you might not be able to hear much of it because your head will be too full of snot.
3. Austin's Food Culture Doesn't Measure Up Against Those of Other Texas Cities.
Do you like black beans? A LOT? How about breakfast tacos? Does standing in line for hours to buy trendy barbecue sound like fun to you? If so, congrats, because you've found your culinary heaven in Austin. I spent a lot of very late nights in the '90s eating away a buzz at venerable Austin eateries like Kerbey Lane and Magnolia Grill, and you won't hear me slamming those places. l can knock back their home fries like a champ. Star Seeds Cafe still serves a great breakfast at midnight, and "Kerbey Queso" is a thing of beauty. There's good food at plenty of Austin restaurants, but if a person is coming from a great food town like Houston, it's a bit underwhelming. A lot of Austin's food seems to be of the "breakfast taco" variety (some there claim it's an Austin invention. It's not), and that can make Austin's food culture seem limited after awhile. Houston has a much deeper food culture, and plenty of other Texas cities (San Antonio, for example) embarrass most Austin attempts at "Mexican food." Some Austin eateries seem to require that their patrons wait in long lines, whether it's Franklin's BBQ's famous hourlong queue, or gimmicky burger places like Hopdaddys, which makes me question whether the food is that great, or if it's just a form of marketing. Either way, I'm not waiting in a line for an hour to get a barbecue plate.
2. Let's Talk About That "Weird" Thing.
There may have been a time when Austin was legitimately a "weird" place, at least compared to other Texas cities, but that era seems to have passed. Longtime residents will often talk about "Old Austin," and that can refer to several different periods of time — the "Old Austin" of the early '90s that I experienced was distinctly different from the "Old Austin" of the '70s or the mid-'80s that others will reference. But we all mostly agree that something was very different about all of those "Old Austins" compared to the current version. There's a sense of having lost something, and that feeling is not entirely rooted in nostalgia for a previous age — it's not as easy to get by comfortably while working a low-paying job as it used to be, and that disappearing "slacker" lifestyle was one of the things that created Austin's laid-back charm.
(Note: As evidenced in the above video, large gatherings of (mostly) white people smoking weed and jamming in drum circles while wearing silly costumes doesn't really equate to "weird," but that's the kind of thing modern Austin seems to have a lot of.)
The "Keep Austin Weird" slogan is a promotional tool adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote local small businesses, but it's been widely used to describe some mythical personality of the city. I'd maintain that for a lot of reasons, many other urban areas are far "weirder" than Austin is currently. Houston is a much stranger place, its gritty landscape teeming with strange features that Austin lacks. With the exception of its music scene ( and Houston isn't lacking in great local live music), there's not a heck of a lot about Austin that seems particularly "strange" or unique... Unless yoga studios and froyo shops are new measures of "weirdness." There's just not much to Austin that wouldn't be found in almost any other large liberal city. Instead of "weirdness," a new resident in Austin would more than likely notice a certain bland homogeneity. A person used to the diverse population of an international city like Houston might wonder why that seems so lacking in our capital city. Austin isn't "weird" so much as it's "hip," and its increasing popularity has raised the cost of living, eliminating some of the things that used to make the town a strange place to live.
1. Austin Is Gentrifying and It's Having a Chilling Affect on the City's Creative Culture.
Houston gets criticized for allowing a lot of ugly redevelopment and slimy developers to change the character of older neighborhoods. It's hard to argue that hasn't happened and isn't continuing to happen in many parts of the city, but it's also happening in Austin. However, Austin is smaller in size, and there aren't as many inexpensive areas for lower-income residents to flee to once their neighborhoods start to get gobbled up by developers. The cultural upheaval is significant, and especially evident in areas east of Interstate 35 — an area where Austin's minority communities were traditionally centered owing to systematic racist segregation. Now monied white people are flooding the East Side, and it's displacing longtime residents and changing the character of those neighborhoods.
That gentrification is also affecting Austin's creative community. To see an example of this, one can look to the battle being waged between the city and a local artist named Beau Reichert. We've written about Reichert in the recent past, since new residents in a tacky-looking luxury development recently built next to his property complained to the city, resulting in a particularly heavy-handed response from code enforcement officers. Reichert personifies the creative spirit of Austin's past, and his two-acre property is a wonderland of art installations, including a large outdoor theater. His property isn't run as a venue, nor does it pose a nuisance, in the opinion of many of Reichert's other neighbors, but after getting complaints from a vocal few, code enforcement officers threatened his home and property with demolition. It's an emotionally charged and messy situation, and also one that illustrates how Austin is becoming less friendly to its creative community. Houston, on the other hand, while imperfect, seemed much more tolerant of its art community's more eccentric activities. Houston enshrines the weird folk art and oddballs that make it an interesting place to live. Modern Austin seems intent on chasing them away so more yoga studios and froyo shops can be built.