Is Austin Weird? One Woman’s Opinion on Why it Doesn’t Really Matter

Busking in Austin Texas
Illustration Katheryn Lavin

If you read articles about Austin on travel sites or “Best place to live” lists, you’ll hear effusive praise. 

“It’s so weird!”
“Such good tacos!”
“So much live music!

The commentary from inside the city, however, paints a different picture.

“Everything used to be so much better.”
“Too many people are moving here.”
“Austin hasn’t been weird in a long time.”

In some ways, the naysayers have grounds for their gripes. When I first moved to the area in 1999, the combined population of Travis County (which contains Austin) and Williamson County (which contains the major suburbs to the north) was just over 1,000,000 people. 

Today, it’s over 1,800,000

With that kind of explosive increase in 20 short years, the growing pains are real. The cost of living is on the rise. Rush hour traffic has become a genuine nightmare. And popular events like the Austin City Limits Festival and South by Southwest have become so crowded that many locals don’t attend anymore.

Turns out, when your eclectic, fun city has warm weather, a booming economy, and tons to do, it won’t stay a secret forever.

Uprooted

Back in 1999, I was uprooted from my then-home in the midwest, and transplanted to Texas — a place that I had never, for one minute, wanted to go. 

I still remember crying with my younger brother at the dinner table when my dad made the announcement. He had been offered a great job in what was then a tiny suburb just north of Austin. We would be living in another, larger suburb to the west. 

Coming from the glittering metropolis of central Illinois, I was convinced that we were relocating to the backwoods, a bizarre country full of rednecks and bumpkins who would never understand me. 

Obviously, my 14-year-old wisdom was incorrect. I didn’t know then that Austin was, in fact, a tech hub experiencing massive growth. The next Silicon Valley, some said. My new schoolmates’ parents were more likely to work for Dell or Motorola than on cattle ranches. 

This industry was nothing new. The city’s first tech boom began back in the 60s and 70s — the golden era of Austin, to hear many old-timers tell it. Motorola, IBM, Texas Instruments, and defense contractor Tracor were all attracted by the affordable property and low cost of living in the area.

Dell arrived in the 1980s, followed by Intel and Computer Sciences Group. 1998 saw Austin named the best city for business in America by Fortune magazine. 

All that work and opportunity brought lots of people, a booming economy, and naturally, an end to the sleepy life Austin had grown accustomed to. More people means more of everything — more housing (and construction jobs), more restaurants (and service jobs), and more schools (and educator jobs). 

It was this last category that brought me and my family to the area. My father’s new company built school library furniture, and there were plenty of new schools to be outfitted, including my own.

Up in the 'Burbs

I found a crowd of lovable misfits up in Round Rock, our suburb. The area was more ethnically diverse than the one I had come from, which shouldn’t have been surprising. Our close proximity to Austin resulted in open-mindedness and acceptance that I had been unprepared for. No one called me homophobic slurs in Texas for having short hair, the way they did in Illinois. 

The music scene in Round Rock was alive and well, a spillover across the boundaries of Austin to the south. Three-piece rock bands were abundant. Soon, I was in my own band with my brother and a friend of his. I played bass, which I was never very good at, and all three of us shared in the singing.

We played at “park shows” on weekends with other teenagers. For some reason, the town allowed us all to play pop-punk music at ridiculous volumes on Saturday nights in public parks. And we played one real venue that I can recall — the Hole in the Wall, a legendary venue on UT’s downtown campus that’s been there since the mid-70s, and is still going strong. 

It couldn’t have been later than 7 pm when we played. The sun was still shining.

I sojourned to Austin with friends at every opportunity. We ate at the now-gone Katz’s Deli on West 6th Street. (Ironically, their slogan was “Katz’s never kloses”.)  We drank coffee at Spiderhouse Lounge on the UT campus, trying to blend in with the college students and failing miserably. 

I even got a job working in the city, answering phones in the afternoons for the Austin School of Music and rubbing elbows with music teachers who were younger than I am now. I was working at the reception desk when my mom called me one afternoon during my senior year of high school. I’d been accepted to music school in Boston. 

So I was off. I spent 7 decent, but not happy, years in Boston. When I was ready for a change, there was only one place that sounded appealing. I left Austin when I was 18, and I hadn’t been back. Now that I was something approximating an adult at 25, I wanted to experience the city again.

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Big Changes

So in 2010, I hired some movers and headed back for the suffocatingly hot embrace of Austin, eager for my next chapter. 

I found a one-bedroom apartment for $650 per month — unthinkably cheap compared to what I was used to in Boston. And it had a pool! It was on Capital of Texas Highway, a road with more trees on it than I’d seen in years. I remember driving there for the first time and thinking, “Wow. I can’t believe I get to live here!”


Capital of Texas Highway, photo by Mike Westgate from Pixabay

But yes, it was a different city than the one that I had left.

The skyline had changed dramatically. I found high-rise buildings that weren’t even a glint in their developers’ eyes when I had left 7 years before. 

I found huge shopping complexes and condo buildings where there used to be empty fields. 

I found a lot more people and a lot more traffic. 

And I found this dissatisfaction that I hadn’t encountered before. Unfortunately, it seems that some Austinites have become afflicted with a terrible case of “how-things-used-to-be-itis” that they can’t seem to shake. They are pining away for the Austin of the 70s, 80s, or 90s, unable to see all the good right in front of their faces. 

No Longer Weird?

Austin’s small business slogan since 2000 has been “Keep Austin Weird”. But bemoaning the loss of its weirdness is a refrain that you hear a lot when you live in this city. The irony is that it doesn’t matter if you moved here 50 years ago or 5 years ago. Whenever you got here, the city was apparently “weirder” then than it is now. 

What exactly makes a place “weird”? I’ve never really been able to answer this in a way that I find satisfying. 

Is it the places? 

A lot of the old haunts have closed, it’s true. And it’s often blamed on development, whether that blame is justified or not. 

The loss of the Armadillo World Headquarters, a legendary music venue, is often cited as a sign of the end-times. It brought in acts like Willie Nelson, The Ramones, Elvis Costello, and Emmylou Harris. But it was short-lived, only hosting shows from 1970 to 1980.

Another popular venue, Liberty Lunch, was forced off its city-owned land in 1999 to make way for the Computer Sciences Group’s new campus. The venue had hosted performances by greats like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and too many more to count. Some say that Austin died when they closed Liberty Lunch. (I disagree.)

With Austin’s love of live music, its venues are venerated like cathedrals, and the outcry is loud when, inevitably, they sometimes shut down. Still, to me a building is only as interesting as what is going on inside. 

I don’t go to a show to “experience the venue”. I go to experience the band. Are the bathrooms clean-ish? Is the sound quality good? Are there decent lines of sight? Well then I don’t care much beyond that.

I attended shows at the old Emo’s and La Zona Rosa music venues downtown, but when they closed I didn’t feel a terrible loss. I don’t even remember much detail about those venues. 

But you better believe I remember what song my favorite band was playing at Emo’s when I was 15, and my friend’s mom came to pick us up. I had to leave before the song ended and I was so annoyed. (I’m sorry Janice. You were a doll for picking us up downtown at midnight.)

If I’d seen Joan Jett at Liberty Lunch, would I remember the Liberty? Or would I remember the band? I think I know the answer.

So is it the people that make a place weird?

The unofficial mascot of Austin used to be Leslie Cochran, a cross-dressing homeless man who regularly wandered about town in a thong — when he wore underwear at all. After he passed away, there was this prevailing idea around Austin that no one stepped up to fill his size-15 high heels. 

But I’d argue that maybe we’ve just grown more accustomed to the uniqueness of the people around us. 

The other night, my husband and I went to a local comedy show. The show featured, among others: 

  • A man having an existential crisis on stage while trying to tell a story about an ex-boyfriend;
  • A transgender woman who shared intimate details about the size of her doctor-made vagina;
  • And a gay woman who had serious questions about knee-pit hair

And while their stories were all very funny, I don’t think anyone in the crowd considered any of those people to be “weird”. I would argue that as society has become more accepting and people are more comfortable being who they are, fewer people are considered weird at all. They’re just people, being themselves. And isn’t that better? 

Am I really supposed to believe that there are fewer characters in a metropolitan area of 2 million than there were when it was less than 1 million? I do not.

So what is it? 

Austin’s affordability at that time meant that our concentration of artists was high. You could work a part-time job to support yourself, and still dedicate hours each day to making music. I can certainly see the appeal. Hordes of young people drifting aimlessly, playing music and smoking pot. They all thought they were going to change the world — and some did. But wasn’t that what being an artist in the 70s was all about, regardless of the place?

It reminds me of this quote by Hesiod from almost 3,000 years ago: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words…” Every generation thinks theirs has all the answers, and the next is ruining everything. And yet the world continues to turn.

It’s true, Austin has lost its sleepy charm, and become a real city. It’s more expensive than it used to be, and it’s cleaner.  There is less local music, and more jobs. 

We also have an absolutely stunning new central library, to replace the pathetically small and outdated old one. It’s a bright, airy palace dedicated to education and knowledge.

We have walkable neighborhoods that we never used to have. Austin has always been a car-focused city, but our local planning and development departments have worked hard to encourage more foot traffic and less driving. There is a lot more work to be done here, but there are no easy fixes.

We have an absolutely booming restaurant scene, bringing delicious food and decent pay to huge swaths of people. 

And the cost of living is still significantly lower than many other cities. 

And yet, so many of the old treasures have endured. We still have lovely ephemera like the Cathedral of Junk — a monument to the beauty of cast-off, unwanted things. 

Cathedral of Junk, photo by Jennifer Morrow, Creative Commons license

I Luv Video is still around —  an actual, factual movie rental shop in North Austin. You can still rent Blu-Rays, DVDs, and yes, VHS tapes at this special place with the largest collection of rentable videos in the world. 

We have iconic restaurants like Cisco’s on the East Side and Matt’s El Rancho on South Congress, both going strong since the 1950s. The music is still playing at the Continental Club and the Elephant Room. The karaoke is still blaring at Ego’s, you can still two-step at the Broken Spoke, and Dirty Martin’s is still slingin’ burgers on campus where it’s been for almost 100 years.

And we still have that guy who rides a horse on the highway overpass on Riverside Drive at rush hour. Who is that guy??

Photo by Kate McDermott

Sometimes I think I just don’t understand because my nostalgia-meter is broken. After all, I was raised in the golden age of Disney, and yet I have no desire to see a single one of the live-action remakes. Clearly, there is something wrong with me.

The Challenges of Growth

There are real challenges facing this city. Our homeless population continues to rise, up to a current estimate of 2,225 individuals. Tent cities have sprung up under overpasses seemingly overnight, and panhandlers are on most street corners.

But big-hearted people are stepping up to help. Programs like Lifeworks Austin are building housing for homeless youth. And Community First! Village is working to create a safe place for the chronically homeless by providing tiny homes, health services, gardens, and more. It’s an amazing project. 

Gentrification is another real concern. As property values rise, tax increases have forced people in low-income communities out of their homes. It’s a problem that faces every city when its growth begins to absorb vulnerable areas. And in Austin, it is disproportionately affecting Hispanic neighborhoods on the east side of town. 

Then there’s transportation. We have no rail or train system to speak of, and the bus routes are only starting to get more useful. With the options of sitting in traffic in a car, or sitting in the same traffic on the bus, it’s no wonder most people just drive. And the traffic truly is abysmal.

And yet, I can still say that this is a good place to live. The people are kind. The weather is nice (with the exception of June through September). The night-life is varied, and the food is fantastic. 

You can still find live music 7 nights a week without looking very hard. We have festivals, craft fairs, and a restaurant week just for dogs. 

There are enough local artists for two annual studio tours. We have more breweries than we have any right to. And we have green space galore, between hiking trails, Zilker Park, the Botanical Gardens, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 

And of course it’s not the same as it used to be. It’s 2019. Can anyone name a city that hasn’t evolved over the past 40 or 50 years? 

So I guess the truth is this: I don’t care if Austin is “weird”. Hundreds of thousands of us still like it here just fine.

And personally, this Austinite is excited to see what will happen next.

This post is a part of our Lore series where we invite local writers to share their perspectives on the Capital in which they live. If you want to write about your State Capital please get in touch. We are especially interested in hearing from unique and underrepresented voices. I want to give a big thank you to Kate for sharing her story.

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