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The Curse of Austin
What we talk about when we talk about Austin
About a month ago I was back in Austin to eulogize a friend of mine, and as happens at such occasions I reconnected with friends I had not seen for decades. Deece, who now splits his time between his home in central Austin and a guest room in a tiny town in west Texas, was trying to explain to Marlene, who abandoned Austin for the Bay Area more than two decades ago, how the city had changed for the worse.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he said ruefully. “You can’t just hang out any more. Austin’s changed.”
“Really?” she asked, deadpan. “Austin has changed? Since the ‘90s?”
There are three lifecycles to living in Austin:
In the beginning, you arrive and bask in the sunshine of your good fortune. You literally drink the Kool-Aid, which in this case is Shiner Bock or a Mexican martini. You baptize yourself in the downtown pool called Barton Springs and are welcomed by the locals, who admit that things were better five years before you arrived.
After a few years or maybe a few decades, you begin to complain about traffic, about buildings of such great height standing where there once were parking lots, about the music venue that used to be in a more convenient location, about the Mexican restaurant that used to be where that hotel is now, or that knick-knack store where the boot store now sits, or the piñata shop where the cat-themed café briefly operated. It seems that all that has changed in Austin no longer affords you in your fifties and sixties the enjoyment you remember from your twenties and thirties. Austin’s changed.
And then, if you’re not carried out of Austin in an urn like my friend, you move, and your relocation is seen less as going to something as leaving Austin much in the same way that Ronald Reagan switched political parties in 1962: “I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” So when I sat down for pancakes with my friend Marvin at Lucky’s Cafe near my place in Dallas, he assumed that I had left Austin for the same reason political consultant Mark McKinnon did in 2013 (“It’s kind of jumping the shark and it was a good time to get out”) and musician Dale Watson did in 2018 (“The city has sold itself”).
“I get it,” said Marvin. “Everything’s too expensive, and Austin isn’t weird anymore,” a reference to “Keep Austin Weird,” which is commonly misunderstood to be the city’s unofficial motto but has, in fact, weirder origins. There was a time around the turn of the century when serious people were worried that big box superstores would put local retailers out of business. That was considered a threat to a cherished part of living in Austin. People took great pride in shopping for groceries at Whole Foods and seeing movies at the Alamo Drafthouse and not some boring national chain. And so in 2000, the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted “Keep Austin Weird” as its slogan, whereupon it was seamlessly internalized as how Austin judged whether it was still “Austin.”
In fact, that isn’t why I left Austin at all. The reason is unrelated to what we’re talking about today. I took a job in Dallas. I wasn’t leaving Austin so much as going to Dallas, and I never intended to write an exit essay. There’s a whole genre dedicated to explaining why you’re leaving Austin, in fact. You can read threads on Quora and Reddit. Politics gets blamed a lot lately. An essayist in Time blamed the Supreme Court. “Texas has invaded Austin,” went a headline in New York magazine. “The progressive paradise is over.”
The truth is that for all its frustrations, I still love Austin, and leaving it felt like getting divorced. Most of the people I love in the world still live there, and if you think this applies to you, it does. It is not as easy and comfortable a city as it was when I moved there when I was 23. Worse can be said about my own body now at 52, and it’s harder to forgive. Austin did not owe me an obligation never to change, and if I could not find something to enjoy in the endless stream of new in Austin, then the problem isn't that Austin changed. The problem would be in my unwillingness to adapt to a city that has over the course of its history doubled in population every 20-25 years.
Austin is not as easy and comfortable a city as it was when I moved there when I was 23. Worse can be said about my own body now at 52.
I nearly made a clean getaway, the writer’s equivalent of an Irish exit. I was even willing to overlook Texas Monthly’s hysterically overwrought Bum Steer of the Year award bestowed on Austin.
First, a disclaimer: I love Texas Monthly and have written for the magazine on-and-off for a decade. I got to compare Rick Perry to Moby Dick. They let me write about my wife’s candidacy to colonize Mars. Twice. My coauthors and I got the cover for an adapted excerpt from Forget the Alamo. And I will always be grateful that I got to profile that friend whom I recently eulogized. It’s a helluva magazine, and not just because of their occasional lapses of judgment in letting me write for them.
But the Bum Steer of the Year is an award they give to the worst thing in the state, which is something Texas has in abundance: an attorney general under FBI investigation and criminal indictment; a political posture toward personal rights plagiarized from Leviticus; Alex Jones, who got walloped by a $965-million verdict in a lawsuit by Sandy Hook families; the shocking-but-not number of Texans arrested for trying to violently overthrow the 2020 presidential election in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
No, the worst thing in Texas is that Austin’s not weird anymore.
Bemoaning newcomers and change is something of a local cliché, of course. Veteran Austinites have been accusing the city of not being as hip/chill/smart/weird as it used to be since the city was called Waterloo, roughly 184 years ago. But fighting the urge to bemoan those newcomers and that change is also a bit clichéd, and we’ve performed our fair share of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that “it’s just different, and different isn’t necessarily bad.”
Austin’s sins: It’s expensive, NIMBYism, traffic, “Austin City Limits Festival and South by Southwest are no longer scrappy,” lame celebrities moved there, a Soho House opened on South Congress, and a surf park opened up in the suburbs. Sure, Austin’s not the easy, breezy cover girl it was when Willie moved here in the ‘70s, but this is somehow worse than politicians ordering school librarians to take books off shelves lest children learn about racism?
Still, quarreling with Texas Monthly over an attempt at humor didn’t seem worth the squeeze. I had boxes to pack, a U-Haul to drive, boxes to unpack, and a job to start. To a person, Dallas seemed happily surprised that we didn’t arrive with Austin-sized chips on our shoulders. It’s nice here, really. José Ralat took me to a lucha libre-themed taco joint. My old boss Billy Rogers took me to a Mavericks game. Jack Martin, a longtime mentor, took me to a restaurant where I ate antelope. I even got to have brunch with Murry from the Old ‘97s, which is like getting your Dallas passport stamped. Everyone welcomes me by asking what they can do and where I want to plug in, and not a single person has suggested that things might have been better here before I arrived.
Austin’s not the easy, breezy cover girl it was when Willie moved here in the ‘70s.
Then I read Lawrence Wright’s massive piece in The New Yorker, “The Astonishing Transformation of Austin.” It’s so long that the audio version of the article goes longer than an hour and half, but the sub-hed sums it up well:
My town, once celebrated for its laid-back weirdness, is now a turbocharged tech megalopolis being shaped by exiles from places like Silicon Valley.
OK, but first a disclaimer: Wright is one of the most important non-fiction writers alive today. I’ve met him twice, once over the phone when he needed a favor from the Mayor’s office and once because we both belong to an informal group of writers in Austin, and though I doubt with certainty that he could pick me out of a lineup I have no qualms in saying he has gotten more things astonishingly right than even slightly wrong. Going Clear and The Looming Tower would be wins enough to make any writer’s career; he followed that up by writing some of the best journalism about COVID.
And then he wrote the article on Austin that a friend of mine called “longform NIMBYism.” Many have quoted its best and worst sections, and I’ll leave you to them. The piece troubled me in a — pardon — weird way. I would walk wordlessly beside S, puzzling it over. Yes, much of it was a dumb litany that doesn’t bear repetition anymore than it did publication in the first place. But it bothered me in a way I couldn’t shake.
Here is as close as I can come to showing you why. First, after fondly recalling the anti-growth political dogma from the ‘70s and ‘80s, “If we don’t build it, they won’t come,” referring specifically to roads, public transit, and housing, Wright shares what he hoped Austin would become:
“I hoped that Austin, if it did grow, would initiate height restrictions that would keep the city humanely proportioned, like Washington or Paris. Who needed skyscrapers in Austin? Everywhere you looked, there was vacant or scarcely used land.
When I worked for Mayor Steve Adler, he once had a group of neighborhood activists over to his place for breakfast tacos. His hope was that he could find something in their efforts to preserve neighborhood character that would allow for housing to be built along transit corridors. People were moving to Austin, ready or not. Adler preferred the former. The head of the neighborhood activists still subscribed to the dictum that if we didn’t build housing or transit that people might not move here. In fact, she was for strict limits on building anything, like in Malibu. That was her vision of a perfect city.
Instead, developers took advantage of all that vacant and scarcely used land that Wright spied back in the ‘80s. The suburbs boomed without the benefit of better highways or public transit or any invasion of what Wright admiringly saw as “Austin’s unobstructed downtown core: parking lots and warehouses and a small commercial district.”
People were moving to Austin, ready or not. Adler preferred the former.
Thanks in large part to the current mayor, Kirk Watson, who was also the mayor in late ‘90s — Austin really likes recycling, y’all — giant office and residential towers now stand where parking lots and warehouses once did downtown. Austin’s skyline, Wright writes, “is now defined by the sail-shaped Google building,” but he doesn’t think much of it in total, calling it “vast and cold and depressingly homogenous in the silvered light.” For the life of me I don’t know why his vision stops at the surface and misses the reflection. He’s correct that Austin’s downtown is dominated by glass towers, but their mirrored surfaces absorb blue sky, creating a fascinating, luminous effect of both disappearing into and celebrating the sky at the same time. It’s thrillingly gorgeous.
I’d be willing to be sad for Wright’s inability to enjoy that if it weren’t for a bit about getting a free night at the W. Apparently he got to induct Joe Ely into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, which somehow is not counted as evidence that Austin’s weirdness has so mainstreamed as to become the city’s cultural infrastructure. It only serves as pretext for his hotel stay.
Roberta and I spent a night in the W hotel, adjacent to the Moody Theatre, where “Austin City Limits” is taped. When Roberta opened the blinds, we had a sensation known to every longtime resident: we had no idea where we were. It was difficult even to discern what direction we were facing, because skyscrapers blocked the horizon. Ten building cranes were visible from that one window.
I get it. Change is hard. And Wright, who now sees the world through the eyes of a man more than twice as old as when he moved here in the ‘80s, is certainly forgiven for being knocked a little sideways at seeing the physical manifestations of the passage of the four decades that have passed. But here we have an extraordinarily successful writer, staying in a nice hotel room because he gave an award to Joe Ely, bemoaning that buildings are now in the way, standing where parking lots once were. There might even have been a parking lot where the W is, now.
It’s hard to sit in traffic and not realize that you are traffic, too.
The article, as long as it is, winds over itself a few times. It made me question whether he was intentionally subverting his thesis or simply taking advantage of an unlimited word count. There’s a nice bit where Michael Dell gives him the business about change. “I tend to be more of a pro-change guy,” Dell told Wright. “It’s what we do in the tech world. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re gonna have a really hard time.”
“I tend to be more of a pro-change guy. It’s what we do in the tech world. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re gonna have a really hard time.”
But it’s when Wright talks about time’s ability to inhibit your vision that he brushes up against a truth he dances with but doesn’t take home.
If you live long enough in a place, it becomes haunted by ghosts: memories of events and friends long gone still inhabit spaces that have been leveled and covered over by the unstoppable newness. It’s a form of double vision: you see things that are no longer there.
And in that double vision, you also can’t see that you’re in the tower that’s blocking someone else’s view, and both of you are standing in towers in the sky where there once were parking lots. You can’t see the glory of a skyline that absorbs the blue sky. You can only see in the present the dissonance with the moment when you showed up, and you wail like the sailors being dragged away from the Lotus-eaters.
This is the curse of living in Austin for any length of time: You’re condemned to see time only in its passage but not in the present. The curse blinds you to all that is genuinely freaky, odd, and yes, weird about Austin. For example, the conscience of the city is a Twitter account for a roadway along the Missouri-Pacific Railroad known as MoPac. It’s called Evil MoPac, and since neither Texas Monthly’s takedown nor Wright’s New Yorker article mentioned it, I asked Evil MoPac (“Evil” to its friends) what it thought about its omission.
The curse of living in Austin:
You’re condemned to see time only in its passage but not in the present.
“It's disappointing to be forgotten by Texas Monthly in such an important piece that literally dozens of Texans will be reading,” said Evil MoPac. “As for Larry Wright, I need to Google him because I have no fucking idea who he is. A dick from New York, presumably?”
I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. I’m sure Texas Monthly has an extraordinary abundance of readers, and Wright is, according his friends, a nice guy. He’s actually from Dallas. (And he wasn’t born in New York. Worse, it was Oklahoma.) But Evil is a roadway given to traffic jams and outbursts of road rage. You’re gonna have to make some allowances if you are asking a road for its opinions. Still, it’s kinda funny that Austin’s most important pundit is a road with a Twitter account.
The weirdest things about Austin are what Austin fails to see about itself.
You might even call it weird. Austin is still weird, but the weirdest things about Austin are what Austin fails to see about itself. The city had two crises involving peacocks one year, and no one thought it was weird. Once, to block the redevelopment of an office park with many stately oaks, neighborhood activists named each of the trees after country music singers, thinking no one would ever dare to cut down Patsy Cline to build housing. No one thinks it’s weird that an actor is the city’s hype man and helped design the local college basketball arena, and people are blasé about the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from under the downtown bridge. The sundown launch of the bat colony only draws tourists. The locals are immune to that weirdness.
In fact, no one thinks it’s weird that the way the city checks in on itself isn’t to ask whether crime is low or jobs are plentiful but whether it’s still weird. We’re talking about a city where everyone has unironic and steadfast opinions on whether the city continues to be weird.
I mean, I can’t be the only one who see this. That’s really weird, right?
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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