Don’t let the cupcake stands fool you. For years, locals pressed the need to Keep Austin Weird. Besides spawning lazy clichés (Keep Austin Wired, Keep Austin Moving, Keep Austin on Every List of Best Places to Live), the Keep Austin Weird movement overlooks the obvious: the city’s not that weird.
Weird for Texas? Sure. Austin is like a rebellious preacher’s kid. It’s cool, popular, breaks all the rules, and doesn’t go to church very much. Family members from elsewhere visit from time to time, but everyone wonders if they’re all part of the same family.
It’s been this way forever. When most of the state decided to join the Confederacy, Austin declined. When most of the state decided to join the Republican Party, Austin declined.
The capital is more counter-Texas than counter-culture. Austin boasts unique attractions, festivals, and music venues. It’s livable, a hard term to quantify until Austinites visit other cities and return recounting their flaws. Austin also has an infectious, welcoming spirit. You can strike up random conversations with random people at the grocery check-out. Still, it’s not as strange as advertised. Let’s dispel the most common myths:
MYTH #1: It’s San Francisco. It’s not. The City by the Bay is smaller, denser, and more ethnically diverse. Both cities have roughly equal populations, but Austin packs them into approximately 300 sq. miles; Austin is six and half times larger than San Francisco. Neither city has a white majority, but nearly one in two Austinites is white, compared to just four in ten San Franciscans. So Austin’s full of Stuff White People Like: trailer food, snow cone stands, vintage clothiers, writer’s groups, Paleolithic restaurants, coffee shops, and yoga studios. It’s not the gayest city in Texas, either. Dallas narrowly edges out Austin, according to analysis by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
MYTH #2: It’s a small town. As the 14th largest American city, Austin has big city problems.
Traffic tops the list. Forget rush hour. It’s not unusual to find your car parked on I-35, the city’s clogged artery, on a Sunday afternoon. The ill-equipped interstate reflects city planners’ inverse Field of Dreams strategy: if you don’t build it, they won’t come. Back when Austin really was a small town, some thought expanding I-35 would encourage newcomers. They came anyway.
A growing metropolis suffers growing pains, and Austin hasn’t outgrown racial or economic segregation. Housing costs, among the state’s highest, contribute to geographic divisions. The city’s affluent congregate in the west side, while middle-earners who want homes settle near, or in, once-empty Williamson and Hays counties. Austin’s east-siders are mostly low-income minorities, but as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates observes, gentrification is changing this.
In search of cheap in-town property, a mix of white urban professionals and bohemians started sprucing up homes just east of I-35 over a decade ago. High-end lofts now co-exist, a bit awkwardly, next to mercados. The east side has become less a barrio, with new stores, houses, and other developments dotting neighborhoods. Still, it’s no yuppie playground.
MYTH #3: It’s Babylon. Fear not, God-fearing Americans! Austinites aren’t as eccentric or wayward as you may have heard. For years, natives have touted wandering gender-bender Leslie Cochran as their mascot. To locals, Leslie embodies Austin’s free-spirit; to outsiders he’s evidence Austin is Gomorrah near the Guadalupe. Leslie nearly died in 2009, however, and Jennifer Gale, a homeless transgendered activist, died in the cold in 2008. Austin still has its fair share of eccentrics—the unicycle, mind you, is a perfectly acceptable mode of urban transport—but you won’t find fire-eaters on every corner.
This city of alleged non-conformists dresses the same (and never up). Shorts and flip-flops, the uniform of least resistance, will get you in nearly any club or restaurant. The University of Texas, state government, and tech companies compose Austin’s economy. Professors, bureaucrats, and software engineers—let the Bacchanal begin! During South by Southwest, locals can easily pinpoint the Bay Area-Portland-Williamsburg interlopers. As they party, promote, and pose, the skinny jean set manically turns their attention from iPhones to panel discussions to guest-list gatherings. Austinites run at a more relaxed pace. Unlike these coastal scenesters, they would rather chill out than stand out.
MYTH #4: It’s not like other cities. In many ways, Austin is exceptional. The urban core features gems like Zilker Park, a marvelous pink granite Capitol, and home-grown eateries. Leave the central core, however, and you quickly encounter big-box sameness.
As you head south of Ben White Boulevard or north of the University of Texas, national retailers, food chains, and strip malls appear. Once a destination concert venue, Southpark Meadows is now a destination for south Austin Target shoppers. Up north, The Domain, an upscale shopping village, gives off a gentle North Dallas pretention, which is the opposite of Austin weird.
Even Whole Foods, the Temple of Austin, causes headaches. The retailer is Disneyland for foodies, if you can get there or find parking. Sky-rise condos flank the flagship store, and getting past nearby intersections and into a parking space can feel like a bumper car ride. This congested urban development angers locals who fear their homeland now caters to well-off creative professionals instead of cash-strapped musicians and artists.
No wonder some residents feel compelled to remind everyone to Keep Austin Weird. Put it on a tee-shirt. Put it on a bumper sticker. Shout it from your co-op’s rooftop: I have seen the Promised Land, and it is (or was) weird.
How odd that a progressive city would revert to this reactionary battle cry. Those who love the phrase look back and see an odder, better place or ahead and see disturbing signs of normalcy. Both sales pitch and civic anthem, the Keep Austin Weird campaign aspires to change development through mantra. Like a New Age chant, it hopes to alter consciousness. If you say it enough, maybe it will come true.
Does Austin have to be weird to be special? It has plenty of attractive, well-educated citizens, natural beauty, and warm weather (record-setting levels this year, in fact). It’s still far cheaper than most coastal meccas. When magazines rank it as a great place to move or start a business, weirdness isn’t their criterion. Despite the big city headaches, the quality of life is still pretty sweet. Can’t we just follow The Beatles’ advice, and let Austin be?
Writer Jason Thurlkill grew up near Dallas. He reported for “The Hotline” and a “New York Observer” publication. Previously, he worked for a Washington D.C. political consulting firm. He studied government at the University of Texas and earned his Master of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.