Thursday, June 24, 2010

Austin Jumps The Shark

In 2003, I drove with two fellow graduate students from Boulder to New Orleans for the annual Association of American Geographers conference. We planned a stop in Austin to break up the trip. We stayed with a friend who showed us around town and we had a late lunch in a part of town that used to be known as the primary hangout of Slackers. According to the locals, that scene had long since moved on and Austin had changed quite a bit since the early 1990s. This post is about that transformation and how it helps us to understand talent migration.

Over the past week, I've noticed a lot of discussion about the large flows of people moving to Texas (summaries of the exchange found here and here). Matthew Yglesias mentions one part of the migration model that I think is germane to Austin's growth:

Last, as Brad DeLong observes part of the issue with certain coastal metropolises like San Francisco is the “no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” phenomenon. If you get really good at attracting human capital then it gets expensive for people to live there which makes growth into a self-limiting phenomenon.

The inexpensive cost of living is not the entire picture of a frontier community. The other pillar is anarchy. Acting as catalyst to a scene are the creative nomads looking for the next cultural buzz. Keep Austin weird. Keep an eye on what is happening in Buffalo.

The Slacker mentality lives on in Austin. But for how long? Why I think the city finally jumped the shark:

I experienced everything Joah mentions above while living in San Francisco. When my brother and I moved out to SF, I thought SF would be crazy creative with music and dancing. Instead, I got a rat race in which artists and musicians couldn’t live. In fact, most of the musicians and DJs that I knew from SF no longer lived OR PLAYED in the city.

San Francisco had gotten so completely unaffordable that artists had to move out or work ALL the time to be able to live in the city. And because the art scene has vanished, there isn’t any fun to be had. So why work all the time if you have nothing to show for your efforts? At least in NYC there is still a little bit of magic.

So I moved back to Austin. Here people can be artistic and still afford to live.

So far, so good. Austin still has what San Francisco has lost. But Joah is worried that Austin is on its way to being the next San Francisco:

The buy local movement is usually built to support retail businesses like the one I own, but I fully believe that the only thing that will really protect retail businesses in Austin in a sustainable way is a live music scene that keeps this city fun. If this city becomes less fun to live in – like what has happened to Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cincinnati over the years – people won’t care to spend money to look good or listen to new music because they’ll be too busy stressing about how boring their lives are. Once that happens, no number of tech jobs or UT degrees being handed out will keep people here…especially when real estate prices are climbing.

If you’re going to pay New York, Miami or Chicago rent, you might as well live in those cities if Austin is no longer as much or more fun in comparison, right? That’s why the next decade is so extremely important in Austin.

Austin is cheap real estate and fun. How do we quantify fun? We know what it isn't: Rust Belt cities. That's Joah's mistake. America's Urban Frontier has in spades what Austin is losing. The threat:

The city has been really working my nerves lately. Yes, the Cathedral of Junk got a stay of execution, but why attack the 20+ year old Austin institution? And why bust the renegade bridge parties? Didn’t the city get the memo: The crime rate is rising in Austin. Shouldn’t they focus their attention on that? Oh yeah, and what’s this about the city not wanting to hear any more input from the public on the Nueces Bike Way?

One person complained about the Cathedral of Junk. One person complaining almost had Shady Grove’s Thursday night concert series shut down. So maybe one person (me) complaining can slap some sense into some folks before more of the city we love vanishes.

"Renegade bridge parties" sounds like a night in Youngstown, Ohio. Austin is maturing into a region that attracts a wealthier, older and more mainstream demographic. It's becoming a lot like Boulder, Colorado. Don't get me wrong. There is still a lot to appreciate in Boulder. But the wild days are a thing of the past. No one I know can afford to live there. The downtown freak shows have been pushed out, squashed or watered down to make the pedestrian mall more family friendly. It's boring, domesticated. Life is elsewhere. Time to move to the Rust Belt.


rootvg said...

Judd Gregg said recently that, given our chosen fiscal and monetary policy, there are many places in the United States where most people will not be able to afford to live. I would put much of California on that list as well as Seattle, Portland, Chicago, the innermost northeast, the mid atlantic and the Florida coastal areas excepting the Panhandle.

Unknown said...

Hi Jim:

Thanks for linking back to our humble site.

Not really sure if I agree that Austin has lost its cool factor and has 'jumped the shark.'

Taken out of context, my post might lead you to believe that. But if you know a little history (and read the comments on the post and on our Facebook page), you might see otherwise.

First off, Austin is developing our Comprehensive Plan for the next 25 years. As part of the planning process, the city is seeking input from citizens on what we value so that they can use that as a guide for how the draft the plan. The post is an attempt to get our readers discussing what they feel are Austin's values and culture. It's meant to engage and stimulate conversation.

Second, Austin is always in constant discussion about what's changed and what hasn't. We have had a large influx of people over the last couple of years--but that's not new. We had a wave during the dotcom boom in the late 90's. In fact, our first big influx of people came in the 80's during the early days of tech. And while many high-dollar condos have recently been built, the price of rent hasn't really increased that much over the last 10 years. We can thank the dotcom burst and the current recession for that.

Funny you mention Slackers. I remember seeing that when it first came out 20 years ago and thinking "Austin is so rad." The other day,however, I tried watching it again and couldn't get through it. To some extent you're right: Austin has changed--but only the players and the plot. The overall sentiment of uniqueness and "being weird" has still prevailed.

Third: Renegade parties in Austin were huge in the late 90's and early 2000's. They've experienced a resurgence over the last year: renegade dance parties, film parties, dinners, fashion shows, etc. Doens't sound like it's dying to me. In fact, I think it's the opposite. And where the eff is Youngstown, Ohio?

Finally, you're supposition that Austin is attracting an older, wealthier crowd is a little off. Yes, there is an increase of people buying condos here, but with 51,000 students enrolled at UT coming in every year, it's gonna stay pretty fresh. That doesn't include the other colleges in the city. Second, there's a huge migration to Austin of folks from Williamsburg and Portland in their mid-20s and 30's.

Mainstream media doesn't cover the huge Austin underground. Our site is the largest for folks in their mid 20's-mid 40's, but there are 100s of online publications that cover the various scenes.

There's more craziness to do here than any other city I've lived in--with the exception of Berlin (but it's 10x the size of Paris). And a lot of it is free to a few dollars. Check out our Facebook Page and you'll see ;)

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for taking the time to offer up such a thoughtful retort to my post. I do understand that you were describing threats to Austin's essence, not a decline of the scene there. The latter is entirely my imposition.

My comments are more aimed at finding the next urban frontier boomtown than a remark on the hipster quotient in Austin. Certainly, Austin could be the next Austin. But I doubt it.

Unknown said...

Hey Jim:

A high hipster quotient is definitely NOT what I'm looking for. I can't speak for him, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't Joah's point in the post that I referenced in my post.

I think looking for the new frontier is great. It's why I moved to Berlin in the early 2000's. Before I chose to move back to Austin, I seriously considered a move to Detroit; the idea of being able to buy a block with my friends and then convert it into a self-sufficient neighborhood was very appealing. After living in San Francisco, however, I realized that running to the fringes instead of confronting the mainstream would only lead to more enclaves. It always used to piss me off to see people protesting in San Francisco instead of heading into the conservative parts of California. With that in mind, I moved back to Austin with the idea of discussing self-sufficiency within large cities. I also wanted to create an artistic community in Austin similar to what I'd experience in Berlin.

When I hear someone trying to find the "next urban frontier boomtown," I think of Hipsters trying to find the next unheard of band to coopt.
It's great to look for "the new frontier," but why can't you create the frontier where ever you are? That, to me, takes a true pioneer spirit. ;)

Jim Russell said...

The "next unheard of band" metaphor is a good one. I also take your point about co-opting or appropriating. When the scene becomes nationally recognized, it is usually over. That doesn't mean a different iteration can't get going there.

I'm looking at a life cycle of regions and the effects on talent migration. The frontier meme is about those first artists who colonize a neglected neighborhood because of the unique opportunities they can find there.

I think both you and Joah identify ways Austin is gentrifying. I gather you don't see it as a forgone conclusion. I do see it that way. In fact, your comments here make me more certain of my assessment.