One Saturday night three years or so ago, I celebrated the impending nuptials of two friends at a dinner party in East Austin. Much wine was drunk, and, I’m relatively certain, at least one joint was passed in the backyard. Not bad, I thought, for a bunch of thirty- and forty-somethings. After dessert, the more resilient of us opted to take the party public. We grabbed beers for the four-block walk to a string of refashioned dive bars that had recently opened on East Sixth Street, an area we knew, not without affection, as Little Williamsburg.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the Liberty, which was the watering hole du jour for bewhiskered hipsters. Our bottles empty, we were looking for a trash can when suddenly a great, woolly bear of a doorman stepped from the shadows, snatched them from our hands, and gruffly informed us we were not coming in. That was fine. Street drinking is illegal in parts of Central Austin, particularly in front of bars. We acknowledged our transgression and readied to move on. But then a furious kid in a hoodie popped up and informed us we’d committed a far greater crime. “Hey, yuppies, why don’t you get in your BMW and drive back to Pflugerville!”
“Excuse me?” I said. (Full disclosure: I may have been wearing a blazer.)
“We rode our bikes here!” he spat. “We’re from the neighborhood.”
“From the neighborhood?” I asked. “As in, you came up on the hard streets of East Austin? You used to hang here when this was a string of Tejano bars? Because I don’t remember seeing you twenty years ago when I used to come hear conjunto bands at La India Bonita.” Actually I didn’t say any of that. I was too busy keeping a buddy from dropping the kid in a dumpster.
Once order was restored, we repaired to the Brixton, another new place with a friendlier beard-to-blazer ratio, meaning it was a quarter the size of the Liberty and I knew a bartender. Nursing a Lone Star, I wondered if this was my Lost Austin Moment, the instant I’d realize the city I knew and loved was no more. But it occurred to me that my hood-rat adversary might be mulling the same question over a Brooklyn Lager at the Liberty. We couldn’t both be right. But what if both of us were wrong?
Everybody’s got a gripe with Austin, and it typically revolves around growth. Traffic’s a nightmare. The cost of living is too high, driven up by newcomers who don’t share our values. Annual events like ACL Fest, Formula 1, and the ever-expanding South by Southwest have turned us into a high-rolling tourist town with an unseemly yen for celebrity culture. The sea changes to downtown portended by plans for a new multibillion-dollar medical school and a multimillion-dollar reimagining of the pathway and parks along Waller Creek don’t make sense in the small town that Austin once was and should rightly still be. The list goes on but always winds up in the same place: Austin quit being Austin when some favorite haunt of the complainant either (a) closed down, (b) moved to cleaner, roomier confines, or (c) was overrun by people the complainant didn’t know.
All you ever learn from such criticisms is the general time frame in which the critics came of age. If they miss the punk-rock stages at Emo’s, they’re from the nineties; if it’s Liberty Lunch’s open-air, college-rock eclecticism, they’re from the eighties; and if it’s the Armadillo’s cosmic cowboy mélange, they’re from the seventies. They’re like people who only listen to the music they loved in college. Their deeper beef is with their own fading relevance, their loosening grip on the handle of cool. And if you are one of them, if you sincerely believe that Austin was better when the only place to get a steak was the Hoffbrau—which, by the way, is still serving—then there’s a ribeye at Lamberts you should try.
The Armadillo didn’t create Austin any more than Emo’s did. It was, in fact, the other way around, and the forces at work are considerably older than the fashion statement made by wearing cowboy boots with cutoffs. There was the natural beauty that prompted Mirabeau B. Lamar to put the capital here when Texas was still a republic, in 1839. The landscape lent itself to retail and white-collar commerce rather than large-scale farming, attracting a free-thinking citizenry that would make Austin one of the state’s few areas of opposition to secession in 1861. The University of Texas, established in 1883, created a constant flow of youth, and the combination of the school’s faculty and staff with thousands of state employees at the nearby Capitol complex ensured a steady supply of jobs and a reliable economy. Those three widely cited factors—scenery, students, and state jobs—bred a fourth constant that nobody ever bothers to remember: growth. Austin’s population has grown at virtually the same rate for seventeen straight decades. And at any given moment in history, somebody was bellyaching about how much better Austin was before all these damn people got here. The Austin that people fret over now is of a fairly recent vintage, created by three key twentieth-century imports: dams, guitars, and microchips. The perception of Austin as an outdoor-rec mecca was encouraged by the chamber of commerce in the fifties and sixties after the construction of seven dams on the Colorado River created the Highland Lakes. Back then the emphasis was on motorboats and water skis, and our nickname was the Funtier Capital of Texas. The city’s jogging and bicycling cultures grew from that push, and now Austin brags of being regularly listed among the nation’s fittest cities. Austin first gained acclaim as a music town after Willie Nelson moved here in 1972, and it went on to produce rock stars as varied as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Spoon. And we started moving toward technopolis status when the computer R&D consortium MCC