How I fell back in love with my hometown…or why should Austin Millennials have all the fun?
I moved to Austin 26 years ago, expecting it to be home base for decades to come. It was still a relatively sleepy college “town” of under a half million (I grew up in NYC!). You would regularly bump into people you knew wherever you went. The “Slacker” vibe was still very much the essence of Austin. Sure, downtown was mostly dilapidated and abandoned after the oil bust of the 1980s and out migration to the suburbs. A huge number of houses were abandoned after having been foreclosed upon during the Savings & Loan crisis. But arts and cultural offerings were strong. The employment base was diversifying. The natural beauty of the Hill Country beckoned and many of its jewels were being protected. Quality of life was high. It was an easy place to start and raise a family.
Fast forward: Those of us who have lived in Austin a long time like to bitch and moan about the changes. Traffic congestion tops the list. I don’t think rush-hour even existed in 1990. Now, you can’t drive local, cross-town streets in the middle of day without getting caught in a traffic snarl. When I need to traverse town during evening rush hour I joke that I “should have left yesterday.” The cost of living is proportionately higher. My mother likes to remind me of that when she visits and proclaims Austin restaurants have “New York prices.” I need the equivalent of a full-time, minimum wage job just to pay my property taxes. Public spaces are a lot more crowded. For decades, most residents seemed to be completely unaware that you could recreate on Lady Bird (formerly Town) Lake. Now, on weekends in the summer, that waterway has traffic congestion of its own. And climate change is making Austin unmistakably hotter. I know some people think it can never be hot enough, but I guess I still have too much New England blood in me to fully appreciate 100+ degree days. And don’t get me started on year-round allergens, which are enough to drive the sensitive indoors 24/7 — and even that is not sufficient refuge from the ravages of cedar pollen and mold.
I have spent the last several years wistfully contemplating seemingly more idyllic settings. The mountains of Colorado head my list of highly habitable alternatives to Austin. I get lost in the recreational possibilities, particularly skiing and hiking. And then there are the seasons — all four of them(!) complete with breathtaking fall color. But, apparently, a lot of other people have the same idea. Every second person I meet is on their way to Colorado. The Denver area is among the fastest growing metropolitan areas. Housing prices have been ballooning. The cost of living is even higher than Austin’s. Other drawbacks include their wicked summer grass (the other kind) pollen season. And did I mention the bone-dry air gives me headaches and nosebleeds?
The reality is I am stuck with Austin for at least two more years (the youngest of the family has to graduate high school). I happen to live on almost a half acre on top of an amazing ridge with stellar views and a great deal of privacy. My yard is home to deer, white-tailed rabbits, possums, foxes, two species of squirrel, raccoons, snakes, reptiles, wildflowers, shade trees, and lots of birds, including the occasional endangered songbird and the iconic roadrunner. I have come to the realization that locking myself in the air-conditioned house while everyone under the age of 40 is flocking to Austin to enjoy its outstanding quality of life is probably a foolhardy approach to the situation. Wallowing in smug self-pity — life was better when — is not the road to a fun-filled existence.
This summer I turned the page.
It probably helped that I made new friends who were embracing more of what Austin has to offer than I was. If they could handle traffic and attend live music events downtown on a weeknight, then I could too. If they could contend with crowds on Lady Bird Lake to paddleboard, then I could too. If they could sweat and brave the heat to try new beer pubs and gardens and attend outdoor concerts, then I could too. There is something to be said for loving the one you’re with.
I do have the luxury of being able to maneuver around some of the challenges by, say, kayaking mid-day during the week or visiting a popular spring-fed swimming hole on a Friday in September rather than a summer weekend, or hitting a brewpub past rush hour, which makes it easier to contend with the nightmarish traffic or avoid crowds. In the past month, I have kayaked and paddleboarded and played tennis and and biked and swam in springs and attended concerts and tried new restaurants and drank locally-brewed beer and taken a pottery class and...
I attended not one, but two different events featuring beer and opera (who knew?!). I saw Bob Schneider, Lyle Lovett and Clint Black perform just weeks apart. I am voraciously buying up tickets to future concerts and other off-beat, live performances. On any given night there is a dizzying array of events going on all over town. New restaurants and bars open, literally, daily. I recently sampled Austin 6 out of 7 days.
I still run into people I know all over town, which probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise after inhabiting this place for 26 years. My network has grown right along with the size of the city. I am also more vested than ever in Austin through participation in an array of high-quality volunteer activities.
Did I mention I am falling back in love with Austin?
With access to world class talent in the cultural and culinary arts, an airport that is connected to more cities globally than ever, abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, a vibrant creative culture, and, yes, a lot more people…
No, Austin isn’t what it was in 1990. It’s better. And it’s home.