Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Austin is just too big these days. It’s growing at rates that are unsustainable, the character and charm that made Austin such a welcoming place for previous generations is at risk of being lost forever, the development threatens all of the things that Austinites love best—from Barton Springs to the views of the Capitol—and even the outlying areas are being developed so quickly that those who want to slow (or at least manage) the growth in order to preserve Austin’s soul feel that the opportunity, if something isn’t done quickly, will be lost forever.
Okay, it’s a familiar story. But just how familiar was thrown into sharp relief when this New York Times story from 1983 (headline: “Booming Austin Fears It Will Lose Its Charms“) started making its way around Facebook thanks to Craig True and Adam Schragin, former editors of the Austin culture blog Austinist.
The concerns of the 1983 story capture many of the exact concerns of Austinites today. For example:
- [M]any here are asking whether the city will become ”another Houston.” That grim catchword symbolizes for Austinites the worst of Texas’s unbridled urban development: clogged freeways, sprawl, pollution and garish commercial strips.
- Whether Austin can rein in the powerful economic and social forces at work is problematical. For better or worse, there are already signs that it has outgrown its small-town charms. On the outskirts, commercial strips along Highway 183 and Ben White Boulevard are as garish and congested as anywhere.
- Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole longer than two football fields that many Austinites consider the town’s greatest natural treasure, is often closed because of bacterial pollution after heavy rains.
- “I don’t see any way of avoiding the fate that awaits us,” said Kenneth Manning, a 38-year-old lawyer and environmental leader who used to work for Mr. Bradley. He said the city was unable to take a strong hand in channeling development because “it is extremely difficult to get the City Council to tell a developer ‘no’ once in a while.”
All of these concerns are very familiar, of course, though the nature of them may have been updated a bit. (Fears of Austin becoming “another Houston” have been replaced by the “Don’t Dallas My Austin” slogan; it’s been a long time since anyone would have called 183 and Ben White Boulevard “outskirts”; concerns about ugly strip malls have been replaced by concerns about gleaming vertical mixed-use developments; etc.)
The Austin described in the 1983 story sounds like one worth protecting—but even as the city’s population has ballooned from 345,000 at the time the story was written to the present 842,000, much of the character it describes seem to remain intact. When the Times summarizes Austin’s charms, it says that:
Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes. Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.
Austin’s restaurant scene has experienced phenomenal growth; the theaters and performance venues have improved in terms of the resources available to them and their ability to attract national and international talent; and even in a post-Amazon world there are thriving local bookstores, not that that’s much a measure of a city’s livability these days. Central Austin still has a lot of parks, Austin still retains huge numbers of UT graduates, and the artists, writers, poets, and artisans—while they’re likely to complain about being priced out, as they presumably did in 1983 and earlier—can still be found in abundance. (Getting home from work in fifteen minutes? Maybe not so much.)
Certainly, old-timers from ’83 would be able to point to any number of things that they once loved about the city that are long gone. That’s the nature of time passing in any city. But the appeal described in 1983 is the appeal that people who move to Austin in 2014 describe when explaining why they picked Austin to call home. Very little of this is new.
That extends to the piece’s conclusion, of course, which touches on an issue that’s every bit as much a concern in 2014 as it was in 1983: the diversity of the city’s population:
The watchword is low density, but that means high cost. Austin’s population is about 20 percent Mexican- American and 10 percent black, and Councilman John Trevino, son of a Mexican laborer, has his doubts about managed growth.
”Low density development eliminates most minorities,” Mr. Trevino said. ”Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.”
Austin abandoned low-density development for high-density development in the last decade, when VMUs and other ways of packing a lot of people into the city’s urban core became a priority. Ultimately, that hasn’t made much difference to the population that Trevino is concerned about. Not only haven’t his “folks” been able to move in—they’ve been leaving, with that ten percent black population in 1983 shrinking to 5.4 percent in 2014. (The city’s Latino population has fared better, making up almost 34 percent of Travis County in 2010.)
All of which is to say that the current concerns about Austin’s growth are certainly legitimate, just as the concerns in 1983 were. In the areas where Austin has retained its charms, it’s probably due to people in the city holding, and acting on, their worries. In the areas where people like Trevino have proven themselves prescient, it’s a reminder that Austin’s always had some work to do to be a more equitable place.