Dateline Austin, Texas 1986. That’s when I officially moved to capital city of Texas. I was a newlywed working in the media and loving life. I also loved Austin. It was a medium-sized city with a small town, funky feel whose main attraction was (and still is) a colony of bats that fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk. I reveled in the fact that the “never overdressed in Dallas” mantra was instead “never underdressed in Austin.” My husband and I frequented the many live music venues, ate at all the “in” places, and lived in a desirable neighborhood. Life was good.
Fast forward 27 years and that desirable neighborhood, which at the time was considered “northwest Austin,” is now pretty much smack dab in the middle of town. Actually it’s now a city; a really big and crowded city. Our home was near a convenient north-west artery called “Mopac,” which is now sadly called “Slow-pac.” A very pretty (as freeways go) alternative to the parallel nightmare known as I-35, Mopac (or as newcomers call it, Loop 1), was designed by Lady Bird Johnson to be full of bluebonnets and free of billboards. Just next week major construction will commence on creating commuter lanes and sound barriers on Mopac. It’s just more proof that Austin being named the 11th biggest city in the country came as no surprise to its residents. It does come with some trepidation though.
Yes, today’s Austin enjoys a healthy job and real estate market, an enviable quality of life, and a young and educated population, but with the nearly 100 people who move here a day has come treacherous traffic, crowded restaurants, and a loss of what made Austin, well, Austin. Today, Austin is in many ways, just another big city, albeit with pretty landscaping and plenty of bike lanes.
I am not alone in this feeling. Blogger David Landsel at Airfarewatchdog.com, recently wrote about his “Ten Terribly Overrated Destinations.” Asking the question “have you ever traveled somewhere that everyone told you was the absolute best only to find yourself wondering, is that all there is” (I felt that about San Diego myself), Landsel says the cities that made his list trade on reputations they no longer deserve and have fallen victim to hype. Guess what city topped his list? Yep, Austin! Calling it a “legend in its own mind” and “one of those unfortunate places that seems really smashing on paper” but where “everyone walks around looking so stressed,” Landsel says Austin may be entertaining but is still a “city whose entire purpose for breathing is to not be like everything else around it.”
Don’t tell that to all the contractors building high-rise after high-rise of condos in downtown Austin and the owners of the multiple hot and trendy restaurants. Downtown Austin is now similar to any big city downtown. Simple and family-friendly Aquafest has morphed into the world-famous and ginormous South by Southwest and Austin City Limits is not just a classic TV show in a small UT studio, but a fortnight of concerts and a TV show in a beautiful theatre adjacent to the ultra-trendy W hotel. Money talks, and in Austin, it’s screaming! Job hunters and economic gurus love it and see Austin as example “A” of how to successfully emerge from a recession stronger and bigger. The whole region surrounding it boasts the same.
In fact, the 70-mile stretch between Austin and San Antonio (the nation’s 7th largest city) is busting at the seams. San Marcos is right on Interstate 35, is home to Texas State University, is in the middle of the two metro areas, and had the highest growth rate among all U.S. cities with at least 50,000 residents. My own little Cedar Park was the 4th fastest growing “small” city, while eight of the 15 fastest growing “big” cities were in Texas, with five making the top 10: Houston at #2, San Antonio at #4, Austin at #5, Dallas at #7, and Fort Worth at #10. These are the fastest growing cities, in terms of most populous, Texas boasts 3 of the top 10 and 4 of the top 15. Say what you will national media and pundits, but we must be doing something right in the Lone Star State!
How though, can a city as unique as Austin hold onto some of that uniqueness and quality of life while branding itself as the place in which to live and work? Maybe we can just shut the gates. Not likely. Maybe improvements could be made in traffic. Another list Austin found itself on recently is that of having the 4th worst traffic in the nation, ahead of infamous driving nightmares like New York City, D.C., and even Boston. As it stands, Austin (the 11th biggest city in the country, remember?!) has no east-west thoroughfare and thanks to our very “creative” and alternative hours type workforce, Austin traffic is not just during normal rush hours, but 24-7.
Despite all of this and despite being a Sooner, I do feel fortunate to live in Austin. I rarely go downtown though because it’s so crowded and “Aspenized” but every now and then I enjoy doing so. Most days I prefer to stay up in Cedar Park and in the northwest corridor of town. Oh no, but wait, that’s all growing too. Maybe it is time to shut those gates after all.