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Austin: First Chance at a Second Impression

Austin: First Chance at a Second Impression

At last count there were 19 different state license plates on cars in our parking garage. Welcome to the Boomtown.

We’re returning to Texas after 17 years in the Chicago area. Once our eyes adjusted to the sunlight, it’s remarkable how little things have changed. A few second impressions stand out.

I-35 remains under construction, seemingly in the same spots. Just as it was in my childhood, all the talk in Austin is about newcomers changing its character. Development that was once “destroying” the Bouldin and Zilker neighborhoods is now threatening Holly and Govalle. 

Austin isn’t new to us. I went to school up the road in Georgetown before it was a suburb and worked in the city for years. I’ve been visiting family here since the early 80’s. I remember when Barton Springs Pool was a quiet retreat, Lady Bird Lake was Town Lake, and the fish in it were too toxic to eat. I remember when Zilker Park was a patch of sun-scorched grass that hosted Willy Nelson’s annual 4th of July Picnic. I’ve flown out of Mueller Airport. For all the construction, growth and talk of change, the place is remarkably the same. Austin has been a boomtown since the 50’s. Austin abides.

Two and a half miles from the Capitol, this is Austin.

We live in a brand new building carved from a disused old Federal hatchery next to Lady Bird Lake, just east of Downtown. Across the street is the park that extends for miles on either side of this manmade playground, created by damming the Colorado. In the heart of the city, and just a fifteen minute ride to the airport, we can walk out of our building to go fishing or kayaking. A lakeshore that was a seedy, garbage-strewn no-man’s land is now an attraction. Hike and bike trails run through the park lined with carefully cultivated meadows of Texas wildflowers. Every evening walk is a postcard, as long as the shot is carefully cropped.

One notable change stands out from this round of Austin’s growth. Our park is a shanty town. Like just about every open space here, it is in the early stages of developing into the colonias or favelas of Third World cities. Folks down there are not “homeless” in the old fashioned, skid-row sense. It’s a village down there, with its own economy, social structures, leaders, followers and misfits, resembling the unplanned and unserviced slums ringing fancy neighborhoods in Mumbai or Lagos. These are scattered collections of bums, but a style of nascent neighborhood development common in the developing world and relatively new here.

Several of the healthier, more industrious residents of our park have banded together, circling their tents under an attractive grove of trees like settlers on the plains. A kind of council has developed nearby, presided over by a wise elder who sleeps in an aging minivan near the bike rental racks. Chairs are gathered across the sidewalk from his home on wheels. It’s a fine place to meet the neighbors, learn the news or weigh in on matters of neighborhood concern.

A large percentage of the park’s residents, perhaps most (quantities are elusive in this ad hoc realm), are working. Some are contractors or construction workers. Many labor on the margins of the booming tech industry. At night you can watch “juicers” who live in the park gathering up electric scooters owned by Lime or Uber for recharging. It’s a surprisingly lucrative side-gig, yet still not enough to pay an Austin rent. Park residents are the best source of advice on using these potentially lethal commuter toys, as they get remarkable access to them.

Austin’s City Council in 2019 removed an ordinance which had banned camping on public land. It was a recognition that homelessness in the city had grown and transformed beyond being a law enforcement issue. What ensued was probably inevitable anyway, as camps which had been transient and mobile took on the character of settlements, alarming many voters. A referendum this year reinstated the ban, but it hardly matters. Making it illegal to camp is like making it illegal to breathe, or be thirsty. You can’t change the dynamics of a social problem by harassing people with few choices.

That Third World feeling isn’t just about the favela in the park. Our “luxury” apartment building sits here unfinished, already shrugging into tropical malaise. There’s a feel here reminiscent of the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, where the sheen of an attractive new building can cover slapdash construction and relentless weather-driven decay, fostering a sense that all we see will soon be enveloped again by nature. 

A charming, brand new pool in our building is down for repairs as often as it’s available, attributed to non-specific “plumbing issues.” Baseboards are stripped from the first floor hallways, with holes driven into the sheetrock, apparently by hammers. Having been raised on the Gulf Coast, this situation suggests not merely water damage, but an expectation of water damage. Austin is a pretty, charming place where the availability of anything mechanical and the quality of anything manmade is always a crap-shoot.

On the subject of craps, you can find a good sidewalk game every Sunday night across the street from our building. Local, or at least formerly local, car enthusiasts parade along the street next to the building on Sundays, as they have for decades. BBQ trucks set up to show off their impressive talents to revelers. And games sprout on the margins. Rules for the dice games appear to be…fluid. It seemed best to lose in good humor rather than litigate a loss. 

The Sunday car meet-up in the park next to our building.

Good humor goes a long way to preserving your sanity if you’re unlucky enough to need medical care in this place. High-end professional services like medicine are where the contrast with Chicago has been most stark. Seems like people just assume they’ll have to go to Houston to deal with anything beyond a broken bone.

Why are people coming here? Stories about this phenomenon seem to assume that there’s some special quality, a “Texas Miracle” that’s drawing this migration. Those stories tend to focus on the one Californian they interviewed for the piece, overlooking the 2 Southerners, Texans or Central American migrants for each of those West Coast or Northern transplants. Why, for that matter, are people moving to similar US places like Orlando or Las Vegas? Why are people flooding into Kabul, Kinshasa or Dhaka at rates much faster than migration to any US city? It’s certainly not for the good government or quality services. Contrary to the popular narrative, this place isn’t cheap (we could have found a better, cheaper place to live in Oakland). And no sane person would claim it’s well-run.

Ask any one person why Austin is booming and you might hear dozens of anecdotal explanations. At a macro level down through history, these mass migrations tend to happen for three reasons. The first two account for the vast majority of migrations – people are either drawn to the sudden availability of lots of low or middle-income jobs or they are fleeing something terrible. Often both at the same time. In a third, smaller catch-all category are migrations driven by the emergence of an attractive late-life, vacation or end of career attraction, or the smaller draw of a boom in elite jobs for high-wage professionals. Austin happens to be benefiting from all of these, at least for now.

In the current political climate, Austin bears a troubling resemblance to another former growth hotspot. In the 80’s, Sarajevo was a quirky, beautiful, global city surrounded by well-armed, hostile yokels, inside a country teetering on the edge of a civic meltdown. Check out this graph of Sarajevo’s growth trajectory.

Just a thought.

28 Comments

    1. Promising constituents monetary relief that had already been discussed previously is “buying votes”?

      Bart, you’re clearly a right-wing authoritarian. How many Capitol Police did you try to murder back in January? Looking forward to trying again?

      1. Right, Ashli Babbitt attempting to breach a barricade in the Capitol Building was “protest”…if you’re a treasonous right-wing authoritarian.

        We know what side you’re on, traitor.

      2. Every authoritarian government has endorsed the use of the label “traitors” for the police acting as judge, jury, and executioners of unarmed civilian protesters of it. Whatever happened to “Due Process”?

      3. Hey, right-wing authoritarian traitor.

        There’s a video of her trying to bust through a fucking window in the Capitol Building with POLICE telling her to stop.

        Go kill some Capitol Police for President Trump, traitor.

      4. Might want to get your story straight. First you incorrectly claim she was breaking down a barricade and then change it to her coming “through a broken window” while completely avoiding the execution of an unarmed civilian bt the unnamed and uncited officer who shot and killed her for it. Epithets like “traitor” is so Stalinesque.

      5. No, traitor, I didn’t change my story. There’s a video of it, traitor. Go watch it.

        Ashli Babbitt and her Trump Coup Crew were breaking down a barrier INSIDE the Capitol Building. Her stupid traitorous ass got shot as she was climbing through a broken window.

        Go kill some more Capitol Police for President Trump, traitor.

    2. “ And “Authoritarians” are those who agree with police killing unarmed female protesters with anonymity and immunity. I do not.”

      Did you even watch that video? I did, along with a number of other videos of recent high profile police shootings. Not because I’m some sicko into snuff films, but because I want an informed opinion on controversial issues. Anyone who watched that video would have seen just how much warning Babbit had. You see the gun drawn, and hear all the seditionists yelling “Gun! Gun! Gun!” for at least several seconds. It was damn obvious that these people were not welcome past those guarded doors, but the damn fool chose to go in through a broken window anyway, and (in a phrase that’s all the rage these days) she fucked around and found out. My first reaction on seeing that footage was that if Tamir Rice had been given that much warning by the cops, he’d probably still be alive. Zero sympathy for treacherous fools claiming their Darwin awards.

      1. As long as you are consistent that all future protesters in mobs (even if unarmed) who refuse to obey a police officer’s orders are executed by them with immunity and anonymity because they were, “traitors”,

      2. Enough with your stupid false equivalency. The people on this blog aren’t the rubes who take GQP propaganda as gospel truth. There is a major difference between a protest in the streets, even one that gets violent, and a mob invading the US Capital with the intent of overturning the result of a fair and free election, and likely murdering any elected officials they could lay their hands on. Your demands for some universal rigid standard are stupid and absolutely unworkable in the real world.

        Personally I think it’s remarkable that the DC cops only had to shoot one seditionist to keep the people they are supposed to protect safe.

  1. Chris, I don’t understand it. I get you have friends and family in/near Austin. But that reason over-rides all reasons NOT to move to Fascism HQ? How many millions of words have you written in the past years about the dangers the enemy presents, and you move into the heart of them?

    Are you planning on changing the system from within, or have you simply capitulated to the reality that fascism has already won in America, and the Biden admin represents democracy as a dead man walking?

    1. More non-Republican voters in Texas is a good thing.

      I live in Atlanta Georgia, I just consider myself a non-fascist behind enemy lines, although slowly but surely Georgia is moving from Red to Purple.

      If I move anywhere soon, it’ll probably be on the coast somewhere in Texas – again, a non-fascist behind enemy lines in my mind.

      I mean, if a few liberal billionaires wanted to pay to move excess liberals from Blue States to Red States, we could knock the Republican Party out of power in a enough states to un-fuck the country in a few election cycles. The last place I want to move while I’m still young would be a Blue State. The fight can still be won by voting instead of bullets.

      1. “The fight can still be won by voting instead of bullets.”…aww…that would be cute if it was not so naive. As Bill Paxton says in Aliens, “maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events”.

        Georgia is gone. Arizona will be gone, if it is not already, Wisconsin will be gone. Intent on voting has zero to do with who will be able to vote. Oh, and Texas…please.
        The House is going red in 17 months. The Senate is 51-49 now, regardless of what any delusional democrat says. The fascists have learned. I though they would have initiated a coup or used violence at the polling booths in 2020.

        Turns out they were too incompetent for that. They have learned. The coup has now occurred at the state level.

      2. Georgia isn’t gone. You just watched Georgia go BLUE and elect TWO DEMOCRATIC SENATORS. Stacey Abrams seems to be gearing up for another run at Governor, and this time I think she’s the favorite. Only if Abrams wins more votes and the Georgia Legislature gives the election to someone else will Georgia be “gone”, and you can bet that with Biden or Harris in the White House, we’ll have a pre-war footing at that point, and I’ll already be here, ready to do my part against fascists. Just like I said in my post where you labeled me naive.

        Naive. Laughable.

        I’ll continue going with my own gut. If you were here in 2015, I was one of the people who won Chris’ book because I nailed Trump’s campaign going until election day in the July of 2015 prediction thread.

        You’ve continuously doom-n-gloomed everything over the past couple of years, and yet here we are, Trump is NOT in office. The political assassinations and country-wide violent insurrection hasn’t happened.

        The fight is far from over, but no amount of posts saying we need a NATO Wetwork operation is going to be useful as posts telling people that they need to keep fucking fighting via ballots and financial pressure. If the only hope is for a NATO Wetwork operation, then it’s done, go move to a cabin off-grid and farm onion grass and beetles or whatever, because you’re just wasting money and time if it’s already over already.

    1. Tuesday night, the power in my Houston neighborhood was off for 4 hours.

      Centerpoint’s so-called outage tracker showed everyone in our zip code except one household had power. Sitting there in the dark, I thought that one person must be me. But when I stepped out front, the whole neighborhood was dark.

      Finally, the tracker just removed my zip code from their reporting structure. Perhaps someone complained…

      I’m guessing Ercot and Centerpoint used a brief rain shower and a slight lowering of the temperature as excuses to ease the load on the grid. The shits.

      I am embarrassed and angry. How do those Repugs keep getting re-elected?

    1. The one-off anecdotes.

      We wouldn’t be here but for the density of family and old friends, something we just can’t get anywhere else. Otherwise I’d be writing this from some charming rock overlooking San Francisco Bay. Or maybe Puget Sound.

  2. Welcome (back) to Austin, Chris. I’m looking forward to future posts on the situation in Texas, as you become immersed in it once again. It’s been a weird few years here in Austin, and this post really gives voice to this nagging sense of malaise that’s been bothering me about what’s been going on here.

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