On a Thursday in late October, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District declared that the underground reservoir had reached “critical drought” and required that water taken from wells be for indoor use only. The month prior, Lake Travis, a source of drinking water for Austin, dipped below 50 percent capacity for the first time since 2015.
It gets worse.
The same week those well restrictions were imposed, an Australian company called Surf Lakes Holdings announced that it had secured the land and water easements necessary to build a twelve-acre “surf lake” at a mixed-use development southeast of town. The wave pool would have boardwalks and a sandy beach and would appeal to the “influx of new residents from coastal cities.” The press release struck a confident tone: “The action sports facility is sure to be a welcome addition to Austin’s landscape.”
“What freshwater hell is this?!” we asked ourselves upon seeing the news. As longtime locals (Texas Monthly has been headquartered in Austin for almost fifty years) and as Texans, we were indignant. Whether the Aussies planned to find their water in the ground or the sky, this seemed a silly use for it. Water already covers 71 percent of the planet, and with sea levels rising, did we really need to be making a brand-new beach, about two hundred miles from the nearest real one? And in Austin, Texas, of all places?
The more than 260,000 new residents who have moved to the area since 2018 might not understand that they’ll be frolicking in a symbol of Austin’s transition from livable city to tech-bro theme park. Nor would the hundreds of thousands expected to join them in the coming ten years, filling jobs at Tesla, Oracle, and countless other companies lured here by generous tax incentives. There was nothing we could do. Austin was now a surf-park town.
Bemoaning newcomers and change is something of a local cliché, of course. Veteran Austinites have been accusing the city of not being as hip/chill/smart/weird as it used to be since the city was called Waterloo, roughly 184 years ago. But fighting the urge to bemoan those newcomers and that change is also a bit clichéd, and we’ve performed our fair share of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that “it’s just different, and different isn’t necessarily bad.” In 2016 we published a cover story about the “new” Austin, optimistically crowning it the City of the Eternal Boom. Bless our hearts, we had no idea how much worse it was going to get.
The Austin of 2022 isn’t just different, it’s unrecognizable. Not only is it a surf-park town, it’s a prohibitively expensive one, ranking among the priciest metropolitan areas in the nation. The bang you get for your buck is terrible traffic, doubled property taxes, annual rent hikes, chain restaurants from Denver and Portland, Oregon, sidewalks littered with electric scooters lying flat on their sides, and a “culture” owned primarily by Live Nation.
The city has witnessed a seismic shift not only in its skyline and its population but in its spirit. Austin was never as laid-back or “weird” as it claimed it be, but it was appropriately grungy, and relaxing, and you could flourish here even if you didn’t have a ton of money. Not anymore. The cost of living in and around Austin shot up by 17.8 percent between 2010 and 2020, and home prices have almost doubled. Average rents are now higher than in Paris and Naples (and, yes, we mean the ones in France and Italy). Homelessness and traffic congestion have increased along with prices, and Austin’s attempts to address those problems have been dogged by infighting and obscene cost overruns. Project Connect, the city’s comprehensive public transportation plan, has seen its estimated price tag increase by 40 percent, to more than $10 billion, in just two years. The Candlewood Suites hotel that the city purchased as a community for the unhoused was vandalized and robbed of all its copper wiring before renovations could even begin.
Though residents new and old agree that the city desperately needs more affordable housing, Austin’s restrictive land-use code and neighborhood NIMBYism have made it not only more expensive but even more segregated than it already was. (Between 2010 and 2020, the city’s African American population dipped from 8 percent of the total to 7 percent.) Aggressive courting of the tech sector, whose employees are disproportionately white, turned what was once a comfortable home for a diverse mix of students and state government employees into a playground for rich out-of-towners.
Austin probably stopped being a sleepy college town sometime in the early aughts, but what is it now? For starters, it’s Georgetown, Cedar Park, and Buda, since the sprawl of new development has made the area’s once distinctly small-town exurbs into one big cultural monolith. And thank goodness that monolith has a healthy job market, because you’ll need a second gig to pay for the privilege of living here. Austin City Limits Festival and South by Southwest are no longer scrappy, hyperlocal upstarts but global corporate juggernauts. South Congress Avenue has lost legendary shops Tesoros Trading Company and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds and gained an Hermès store and an outpost of Soho House (a members-only club so exclusive it was once the focus of an episode of Sex and the City).
Can Austin still call itself the Live Music Capital of the World if all the musicians had to move to Bastrop or Lockhart? As for the city’s famous green spaces: good luck finding a parking spot at Barton Springs Pool, if there’s even enough water left in the aquifer to fill it. And while it’s true that the culinary scene has become more diverse and interesting, if you can barely pay your rent, how can you splurge on a dinner at the fancy Italian place that now occupies the former home of the beloved Hut’s Hamburgers?
A growing number of longtime Austinites have had enough, abandoning what Yankees call “the good part of Texas” for a better quality of life in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Waco, and Corpus Christi. For many, the question isn’t so much whether you’ll leave but where you’ll go, and what will be the shiv in the ribs that finally forces you out. The city even lost Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch, who took back his promise of “Texas forever” because Austin was no longer the laid-back place he fell in love with. In his stead came Elon Musk, James Van Der Beek, Joe Rogan, and Entourage’s Adrian Grenier, which means Austin swapped out Tim Riggins in favor of Vinny Chase. And that, y’all, is how the city clinched our Bum Steer of the Year title.
New Austinites may bristle at the age-old lament that things were better before they got here. There are even some old-timers who like the way the city feels now: taller and wealthier, more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But there’s something broken in this place’s soul. Austin has always attracted people from outside the state, indoctrinating them as soon as possible, teaching them to love Frito pie and to make fun of the Aggies. It was a deeply flawed place—a liberal oasis that was also shamefully segregated—but it was still a defined place, an organic product of Central Texas, with limestone and granite architecture instead of the flimsy modernism that now defines the most newly developed neighborhoods.
We wish we could be as optimistic now as we were in 2016, but, frankly, we held on to that attitude for too long. Austin is too expensive to be as bland as it has become. The tide has turned. Head over to the surf park and see for yourself.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Keep Austin Steer’d!” Subscribe today.