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.
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.