I guess city rivalries are a standard thing in almost every state of the U.S. I grew up in the Houston area, lived in Austin through most of the 1990′s, moved back to H-Town, and then recently back to Austin after living in Houston for many years. I like both cities a lot, for different reasons.
But there's a lot of weird hard feelings and mean-spirited criticism of both cities by people that live in the other, and it seems dumb to me. Especially considering that there are a lot of ignorant fools from outside of Texas that think the whole state is populated with subhuman stereotypes, or that the whole area in unfit for human habitation. They think Texas sucks and that we're unsophisticated and stupid. Those are the morons we should save our disdain for, not people living a little less than 200 miles apart.
Rather than determine that one city is "better" than the other, it would be far more accurate to just say that they're very different in many key ways, and the things that make one place paradise for a person, might make it a hell for a different individual.
There is a really, really tired slogan for Austin - "Keep Austin Weird." Oddly enough, I generally see that bumper sticker or t-shirt being used by the most average-looking people you can imagine. Middle-aged dudes in khaki shorts and topsiders that look like they probably are executives at a bank somewhere, or their completely mainstream (but slightly different) equivalent.
When you're really weird, you don't generally need to advertise that. You just are.
That annoyance aside, Austin quit being un-self consciously weird years ago, perhaps decades ago. For good or bad, it went from being a magnet for oddballs from all over Texas and beyond to becoming a hip place to live. It went from being weird to being cool. And cool is only cool if you like it that way.
Yes, Austin is still a college town, and it still has a very lively local music scene. But its population has also boomed, with people from all over the world moving here in droves. That's fine, but it's killing a lot of the quirky, small town feel that Austin had been known for. Throw in gigantic music festivals like SXSW that seem to draw a mostly out-of-town audience while the locals avoid it, and this does not seem like the odd little college town with a great local music scene that it once was.
Yes, many of the local places and pastimes that seemed to mark Austin as a unique city are still around. You can still go cool down at Barton Springs, or see the bats on Congress, and there is live music happening all over town, but it seems more like a Disney World replication of the Austin of years ago. Seeing families with children all over town makes it seem like you're in some sort of approximation of what a "cool college town" would be if it were sanitized for suburban consumption. It's hard to put my finger on it, but the spirit of this town has changed a lot, and I suspect that it will continue to.
Houston, on the other hand was never burdened by an image as a hip weird place where "anything goes!" It always seemed to be considered a good place to raise a family and make a living by Texans, but hip it was not.
Austin is the sort of place where everyone you meet is an "artist" of some sort, and everyone is self consciously trying to broadcast how weird and edgy they are... While producing very little.
Houston wears its weird more secretly. It remains hidden, not self promoted as much, and then one day you realize that the quiet normal looking guy you work with has created art or music that's really cool and strange without most people even knowing it.
I've known quite a few idiots that can't conceive of living anywhere except for a small handful of cities. Places like San Francisco, Portland, New York City, Seattle, and unfortunately Austin also seem to be on that list.
Anyway, while Austin has long attracted a certain dubious fame as a hip city, Houston never has. But let's look a little closer at the things Houston has to offer a person.
5. Houston has Great museums and a good art scene.
Let's just get that one out of the way first. Houston has many exceptional museums. I've been going to the Natural Science a museum and the Museum of Fine Arts since I was a kid. I took summer art classes at the Glassell School of Art, and have hung out at the Menil Collection museum since I was young. There's a Printing Museum, the Children's Museum, and countless galleries throughout the area. Then you have the Commerce Street Art Warehouse, and the Orange Show, two longtime havens for local artists of all types. Houstonians have the opportunity to see work by contemporary artists, or head to see work by artists like Andy Warhol and Van Gogh. The city has an enormous art presence. It's also known as a hotbed of folk art, as places like The Orange Show, Beer Can House, and Art Car Museum demonstrates. Houston also has a vibrant street art scene, and if we're talking about music, the often dissed city has had a huge impact on popular music, particularly the hip hop world.
Austin is full of artists of various types, and it would never seek to insult the creative people in this city, but its museum presence is negligible compared with Houston's, which is world class. Musically, its got a lot going for it, but a Austin can't touch Houston in regards to museums or other artistic venues.
4. Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in America.
Yes, even more so than New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. This is probably shocking news to some people outside of Texas, but would not surprise most Houstonians who've bothered to look around town in the last couple of decades. Houston is full of people from all over the world, and is truly an international city now. There are many areas of town that offer cultural experiences brought from places like Russia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, and the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most notable effect this has had on the average Houstonian is the emergence of one of the nation's best food scenes, but more on that later. It is common to hear people conversing in many different languages, and this melting pot of nationalities has infused Houston with a wealth of multicultural experiences to enjoy. The idea that Houston is some sort of cultural wasteland populated by lily white faces with red necks is utter bullshit.
Austin, on the other hand, still has a majority white homogeneous population. In a brilliant recent article in Texas Monthly, writer Cecilia Balli brought up the fact that it's one of, if not the top, most segregated major cities in Texas. Minorities still live behind certain invisible geographic lines in this city, and seeing anyone that's an immigrant from another country is rare unless they're in town visiting, or going to UT. It's just not a diverse mixing pot of people.
What you see a lot of here are a cross-section of white people. Austin's not even as influenced by Hispanic culture as many other Texas cities are. Austin seems to be full of youngish white folks, a lot of whom are pretty comfortable, having come from nice middle or upper middle class backgrounds. They tend to be more socially liberal than young people in some other Texas cities, and some may look "weirder" - getting a few tattoos, piercings and a weird haircut while they spend their parents' money pursuing an art degree or whatever. They'll hang out at Austin music clubs, and keep it all weird, until they hit their early thirties and clean up their acts to assume their entitled positions of privilege (that were waiting like the wings of an angel to catch them if they fell the whole time). Then they'll have kids with whimsical names, and will trade in their Fuck Emos shirts for khaki shorts and flip flops.
One will hear a lot of political and social outrage from these young Austinites, it's like a real life version of some pissy Facebook community. Of course, there are minorities and white working class people making this city roll along, but those Peter Pan type young Austinites sure are plentiful. A lot of time they're just waiting tables and biding their time before they can cash in their trust funds and move to some other urban paradise like Portland, which strikes me as an even more affected "weird" city. Grow thy beards and ride thy unicycles. Please just do it somewhere outside of Austin. We've got enough of that crap here already.
I guess my point is that Austin seems full of entitled white kids play-acting at struggle, while the people that really ARE struggling (minorities and working poor whites) either can't afford to live here anymore, or are too busy trying to survive to go check out some fucking music festival. Houston offers a lot more things for people of all types, and socio-economic groups to enjoy.
Which brings us to...
3. Houston is cheaper to live in.
Surprisingly, that's NOT true over all. Houston is actually a little more expensive than Austin in most ways that people measure their cost of living, and that includes rent, utilities, and groceries. But the average income is also marginally higher in Houston, and where the disparity comes into play is in scale. Houston is a big freaking city, and when we're talking about things like rent that's important. Yeah, it's expensive as fuck to rent a decent place in the previously quirky and affordable Montrose neighborhood, but a broke ass Houstonian can find reasonably priced places to live in many other not so in-demand neighborhoods. Austin is not as small as rumored - it's currently the 11th largest city in America, and grows with a steady influx of new residents with every passing day. But there are fewer and fewer cheap places to live here. Unlike the mighty sprawl that is Houston, pretty much every neighborhood here is getting pricey, so those rent averages are less "average." If every place available is $1200 a month, does that make it better when Houston's average rent is say $1300, but that takes into account rents in the $1500 range AND places that cost much less? You just don't have a wide range to choose from if you're on a limited income. In Houston, you're more likely to find something livable for less.
When it comes to home prices, that also seems to be the case. I live in a modest 1300 square foot home with a train track behind it. It's nice, but far from palatial. For the same money in Houston, I'd have my pick of much bigger places in some nice neighborhoods. Your home buying money just goes a lot further in H-Town. It's been weird seeing formerly affordable neighborhoods mutate into hip hotspots over the last twenty years. The run down homes that I once rented in a South Austin would cost close to half a million dollars to buy now. That's no joke. Some of those places were selling for $80,000 back in the 1990′s.
But this one is somewhat of a draw when either city is compared to other places nationally. Texas cities are just far more affordable for the average person than many other cities across the USA. Neither Austin or Houston bury the other on value.
2. Food. Houston is one of the nation's best food cities.
It just is. I think it's pretty obvious to any Houstonian who eats out a lot that the city is pretty special in that regard. It's part of that international and ethnically diverse trend that's been happening in the Houston area for decades. You can easily find many different options when it comes to eating in Houston. Vietnamese Pho is everywhere, along with a Indian food, Tex Mex, Cajun, and everything else under the sun. There are thousands of restaurants ranging from four star affairs down to food trucks dotting the culinary landscape of Houston.
Austin, on the other hand, offers much less variety.
Sometimes it feels like Austin has three types of basic cuisines - (mostly watered down) Tex Mex, BBQ, and "Breakfast."
Be prepared to have black beans and home fries with every fucking meal when you eat out. Also be prepared to encounter vegan and vegetarian options everywhere, including the BBQ joints. I'm not saying that's a "bad" thing, just that eating out here is pretty homogenized and boring after maybe a year. Houston in comparison is a dining adventure that seems like it could take a lifetime to explore.
But hey! You want some black bean goo on that burger! Fuck it, we HAVE that here!
1. For all of the negative stereotyping, Houston is a tolerant town in general.
Maybe it's all of that ethnic diversity, or the huge gay population, but Houston is a pretty tolerant place to live. There's an openly gay Mayor, making it the city with the highest elected homosexual person in the nation. Houston has the Pride Parade, and just feels like there's a "live and let live" attitude there. Not every place in the country can boast that. I work with two lesbians who came from New York, and both have told me that they encountered a lot less discrimination when living in Houston than either New York or Austin. Granted, that's anecdotal, but I see no reason to doubt their experiences.
Austin is pretty friendly to gays too, but they don't have the developed community or leadership here that Houston provides.
When it comes down to it, Houston and Austin are both great cities in their own way, and we should collectively hone our hatred for the miserable shit hole that is Dallas, home of thieves and villainous scum.
OK, maybe Dallas is alright. I've never spent a lot of time there.
Let's get a couple f other things out of the way. Houston by and large is not a "beautiful city", although it has a sort of spiraling urban charm that some people come to love. I certainly do. Austin is in a very pretty part of Texas, and you're never more than a few minutes away from some pretty bit of nature.
Both cities have traffic issues if that's really important. I routinely drive during rush hour across town in both Austin and Houston, and I don't get what the ruckus is. If you live in a big fucking city, traffic is part of the price you pay. I somehow have learned to avoid the traffic hotspots, other people should learn that survival skill too before bitching about "bad traffic".
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When it comes down to it, neither Austin or Houston really "win" over the other. Both are cool places to make a home, depending on what is most important to a person. If growing a stupid looking beard and mustache, and scooting down the road on a unicycle playing your ukulele sounds like paradise to you, you might be happier in Austin. But please do us all a favor and just head straight to Portland with that shit.
Seriously. We're sick of that crap around here.
OK, more seriously. A young liberal person that wants to be surrounded by people much like themselves, and who really likes things like frisbee golf and seeing bands every night might enjoy Austin more than Houston. Someone that likes living in a huge city, with the cultural activities that offers, while enjoying a diversity of people and neighborhoods would probably enjoy Houston more.
The coolest thing is that you can like both. These are two Texas cities, not warring city states. I love both for very different reasons.