Despite being born and raised in Houston, I’ve always had a long-distance relationship with the city of Austin. As a kid, I semi-regularly visited Austin and the surrounding region to see family. I vividly recall walking through downtown with my parents in the early 2000s, when there wasn’t much to see aside from the Capital, the bats underneath the South Congress Avenue bridge and a few touristy restaurants.
I moved to Boston in 2011 for college, and in the summer of 2013, I moved back to Houston for an internship. My best friend from high school, who attended NYU, was also home that summer, and we went to Austin nearly every weekend to party with some of our old friends from high school. They lived in a house on Red River, near the U.T. campus, and Austin was booming. We ate our way through the city’s hip food trucks and drank what seemed like every craft beer that was produced in the city limits. Austin still, at that time, felt very Austin to me. It was bigger, but it was still all about the outdoors, live music and tattoos.
In 2015, I moved back to Houston and returned to Austin for the first time in years for SXSW in 2016. Not that it matters, but FYI: I was not actually attending SXSW, but party crashing. My mind was completely blown at how quickly the city had changed since my last visit three years’ prior: Austin had become a version of New York, with its creative class, upscale boutiques, trendy restaurants and craft cocktail bars.
And then, all my friends from college, many of whom live in New York, started calling me and saying: “Hey, how do you like being back in Texas? I want to come visit you. Is Austin close to Houston? I’m dying to go there.”
So, then I started visiting Austin with my New Yorker friends. They felt like it was the coolest place they had ever seen: a non-stop but exceptionally laid-back party with unlimited day-drinking, live music, vintage cowboy boots and breakfast tacos.
A 2016 Texas Monthly article described Austin as “the city of the eternal boom.” And booms aren’t bad: according to a report by CBRE, the number of high-tech jobs in the area grew 33 percent from 2013 to 2015. “Tech companies are also huge drivers of innovation, economic progress, jobs, and the much-needed tax revenues that cities can use to address and mitigate the problems that come with them,” Richard Florida writes in The New Urban Crisis.
I started this project with little more than a problem statement: “Austin is growing too fast, and is losing its identity.”
Right before our first class, I happened to catch up with an old friend while I was in Dallas. Her name is Lauren, and she now lives in Fort Worth with her husband and daughter. She lived in Austin for a number of years, owning a cool clothing boutique. Her husband (then-boyfriend) played in a successful indie-rock band.
She joked about her first store on the East Side, where she eventually had to keep the door locked because homeless people kept just wandering in and wouldn’t leave.
“I don’t go back much, but when I do, I hate it [Austin]. It’s become the Las Vegas version of itself. The last time I was there, I saw this new chain hotel downtown. They have fake grass on the exterior wall, and signs advertising live music in the lobby. It was a Westin, I think. It’s so weird to me.”
Based on this conversation and some other cursory research, I came into class with a specific list of points I plannned to address in this topic:
This was quickly shut down, as I was already jumping to conclusions. So, I left the class, and started to talk to people I know who currently live or have lived in Austin. The question content varied slighly at times, but this is the general questionaire I used to guide interviews via phone, e-mail and in person:
How old are you?
Where are you from originally?
Why did you move to Austin?
What do you do for work?
What part of Austin do you currently live in, where have you lived in the past? Where do you spend most of your time?
How have you seen Austin change in the year and a half you have lived there? (For better and/or worse)
From your perception, is Austin diverse? (Diversity in terms of race, class, politics, perspectives, industries — anything you would like to share)
Is Austin affordable to you? Is increasing cost of living a concern?
Do you utilize the city’s public spaces (parks, etc.)? Do you feel there could be more of these?
Do you think current development in Austin is meeting the needs of residents like you? Or catering more towards tourists, wealthier residents, etc.?
How would you describe Austin’s identity?
In your mind, how does Austin compare to other places you have lived?
Do you plan to be in Austin long term — would you consider raising a family there? (If you don’t think about this type of thing, no worries). If so, why or why not?
What is the biggest “problem” you deal with in the city day in and day out? Could be: traffic. grocery store isn’t close to your house, finding a place to walk the dog, lack of things to do, finding parking — sky is the limit!
The responses I received to these questions varied…a few highlights:
Meanwhile, I also challenged myself to learn more about urbanism. Richard Florida’s work was particularly impactful to me in this project.
This research on urbanism lead me to realize that Austin’s problem is not unique, and is extremely complex. Depending on who you speak with, a myriad of different people and factors can be blamed for the rapid change taking place in Austin (and in other tech hubs and superstar cities around the world):
As you can see, many of the things on this list are not necessaribly bad. But I realized, in researching this problem, that policy decisions made at the municipal level impact our (as people who live in cities) everyday lives significantly. However, I across the U.S., participation in city level politics is rather low.
After UBER and Lyft spent $10.3 million in fighting Proposition 1 in 2016–7x more than has ever been spent in any other city of Austin election — only 17% of eligible voters turned visited the polls. Compare this with ~55% turnout in the 2016 Presidential election, wherein popular vote is actually less impactful due to the Electoral College.
This lead me to follow up with the people I spoke with and ask two follow up questions:
- Have you ever attended an Austin government meeting of some sort? I.e. council meeting, hearing, etc.
- Would you like to know more about property development and local government spending?
Here are the results:
This lead me to new a question: how can we create an experience that allows people to understand and participate in local government more effectively?