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Texas’s Cities: One Big, Dysfunctional Family

Chronicling the rivalries of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin.

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Flickr Creative Commons/Andy

Although some like to claim overarching state pride trumps all smaller considerations, Texas towns have been claiming superiority over each other since the days of the Republic. Maybe it was that little business of Austin stealing the capital from Houston in 1839 that birthed this sibling rivalry. Or perhaps it was a half-century or so later, when Dallas cotton growers connived with Galveston cotton exporters to build a railroad bypassing their mutual enemy, Houston.

Small towns have their vicious football rivalries, but for sheer volume of insults and homerism, the five cities of the Texas Triangle offer the most fertile ground for discussion today. Here it is in a nutshell: Fort Worth hates Dallas. Houston hates Dallas and Austin. San Antonio hates Austin. Austin wishes all the rest of us would just go away, and Dallas pretends that none of the rest of us even exist.

Alright, “hate” is a strong word, but imagine these cities as five brothers in a dysfunctional (but yes, ultimately loving) family. We perused city-data.com, where residents defend their cities and bash others, to understand the source of all of this beef. Why can’t we just get along, y’all?

The Family

San Antonio is the oldest sibling. Actually, make that half-sibling, as he was conceived and later raised to young adulthood by Mother Texas’s first two husbands, Spain and Mexico. Today, he is the most traditional and quietly self-confident of the brothers—you never hear chest-beating out of San Antonio, only self-deprecating, quietly proud in-jokes like its 2000’s grassroots “Keep San Antonio Lame” campaign. It preserves its old architecture. It’s natural setting is almost as pleasant as that of Austin, its boastful, exhibitionist baby brother who lives just north on Interstate 35. San Antonio couldn’t believe it when Austin started daring to claim to make better breakfast tacos, and is puzzled and a little hurt that Austin never invites San Antonio to his parties.

Dallas and Houston are warring fraternal twins. Houston has always resented Dallas for being better at football, hates how global pop culture sees Dallas as the world’s oil capital when it is not, and thinks he is a little materialistic for Houston’s taste. (You know what really galls Houston about Dallas? Creator David Jacobs was inspired by Blood and Money, an epic true-crime tale that took place in Houston.)

With the exceptions of Austin, which Dallas loves to try to impress with a new-found impetus toward coolness, and scrappy little sidekick Fort Worth, the city gaslights every other Texas locale. But especially Houston. “Rivalry?” Dallas asks. “What rivalry? We don’t have a rivalry with Houston. Nobody up here ever even thinks of Houston.”

One of countless examples from Dallas enthusiasts on the ‘net:

Living in the Dallas area for 35 years, I never heard anyone say anything negative about Houston, nor did I ever hear anyone compare Dallas to Houston. Dallas views Houston as its untidy big-brother that it does not wish to emulate. Houston vs. Dallas exists as a rivalry only on sites like this one; in the real world, Dallas doesn’t see Houston as a rival, it sees Atlanta and Chicago as rivals. Houston may or may not feel the same.

That’s the kind of talk that makes Houston’s blood boil, in the same vein as when Longhorns tell Aggies that OU’s Sooners are their “real” rivals. When Houston insists that the rivalry does exist, and that Dallas’s constant denial of that existence is proof. And then Dallas sticks the dagger in: “Five Super Bowls, Houston. Five.” And then Dallas drops the mic and exits stage left.

But underneath all of its feigned obliviousness to other Texas cities, there does seem to lurk a current of self-loathing. As East Dallas resident Mamie Joseph puts it, “Dallas is too busy hating itself to notice anybody else.”

That observation was borne out four years back when I wrote a piece for the Houston Press and Dallas Observer about how those two cities were getting cooler while Austin was becoming more business-like and big city. The piece was met with near-universal praise in Houston, but about half of the feedback I got from Dallas was that I was a lunatic to think that way, and that only their jobs were keeping them from escaping to Austin ASAP. Meanwhile, Houstonians were printing up T-shirts with slogans like “I’m Not Moving to Austin” and “Keep Austin 170 Miles from Houston.”

Finally, Dallas loves to remind Houston that Houston drinks Dallas’s toilet water. Really. Not only has Houston had to put up with Dallas’ denying its existence, but he has, as one professor put, been “drinking Dallas’s crap for decades.” Dallas is an even worse version of the big brother that doesn’t lift the seat.

Want to know why Houston and San Antonio are starting to hate Austin almost as much as Dallas? Piffle like this:

Austin is the city in Texas that most appeals to coastal opinion makers. Dallas is a corporate bore. Houston is a monumental mess. San Antonio is too Mexican. In Texas no-one one thinks about El Paso or Fort Worth. In SxSW, Austin throws the best party in the state. Austin has much better scenery, a much better downtown, and a much longer and more established tradition of liberalism than any other Texas city. While I think that Houston is the most interesting city in Texas, it is too sprawling and ugly to compete with Austin. Boosters of other Texas cities hate Austin because it has a deservedly better national reputation. I live in downtown Austin. I travel for work all over the state. Downtown Austin is the only live work play neighborhood in the state. Dallas and Houston have MANY more amenities but you have to drive, and drive FAR. Texans hate Austin because it is smarter, prettier, better educated and way cooler than where they live. YMMV.

The perpetually attention-seeking baby of the brothers (yes, it’s a year or so older than Dallas, but its late bloom into a major city makes it seem like the youngest by far) was once the state’s Adonis, justifiably vain thanks to its violet-crowned sunsets in the hills, its life-giving cool springs, its moon towers and its lakes and waterfalls. Not so much any more. Now it’s reminding me of Jim Morrison in his terminal Paris phase: bloated beyond sustainability and drinking too much (water in Austin’s case, not absinthe or whatever put Jim in that early grave).

Austin is most shrill in its put-downs of its older and uglier fraternal twins, precisely because it knows that it is coming to resemble them more and more with each wave of newcomers. I know tech is sexy as far as corporate America goes, but wacky as the culture can be at some firms, many are just as boring and soul-crushing as a Dallas bank or insurance company.

Austin calling Houston a “monumental mess” is rich when its highway system is stretched to the breaking point already, its sprawl reaches halfway to Waco and almost all the way down to San Antonio, and there is no real plan to fix any of that on the horizon.

Hence all the futile outcry lamenting the Dallasizing and Houstonization of Austin and, of course, the Keep Austin Weird campaign. According to Woodlands journalist Albert Nurick, that kayak slipped its moorings on Lady Bird Lake long ago: Austin tore down Austin and replaced it with We’re-Weird-Seriously-We-Are-Land™. Unlike the ancient Houston vs. Dallas rivalry, this Austin vs. the rest of Texas deal is a new phenomenon, dating back about 20 years or so, around the time Slacker led Austin to deem itself the cool kid.

Austin’s most vociferous Dallas and Houston-bashers are most often refugees from the ‘burbs of those very cities. Nobody can dish out venom on Dallas or Houston than a twenty-something Austin newcomer who grew up in Plano or Katy. As Houston’s poet laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda puts it: “When I was in Austin in the ’90s, what made it intolerable was people from Houston and Dallas suburbs who’d gone to UT and then decided to stay. They were always saying, ‘Austin is so much better than Houston, where I grew up.’ And I’d be like, ‘You mean Clear Lake. You told me you grew up in Clear Lake, Amber.'”

Or as we found it on one of the many city rivalry Internet battles on city-data.com

In reality, Austin is no more “weird” or liberal than inner-loop Houston is. In fact, when I was growing up in Houston during the 70’s and early 80’s, Austin’s brand of “weird”, or bohemian culture as it were… seemed pretty tame compared to the Montrose area of inner-loop Houston. Montrose has since been heavily gentrified, but I’d say it’s still on par with Austin’s most liberal/Bohemian areas, which are hardly a majority of Austin as a whole. Houston just doesn’t toot it’s horn constantly about these things, the way Austin does.

You have to understand, a good chunk of Austin’s population is made up of people who moved there from the mostly white suburban areas of Houston and DFW, mostly through attending UT and then staying on as full-time Austinites. Many of these people lived very sheltered lives as kids, and never really took the time to explore what their core cities had to offer. They just stayed safely within their suburban bubbles until it was time for college. They got to Austin and discovered all these new (to them) things, decided these things MUST only exist in Austin (within the state of Texas, that is), and stayed there.

And once ensconced, the newly minted Austinites started yelling at the rest of us not to move there—just like a little brother.

(image via Flickr Creative Commons/atmtx)

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  • arsetechnica

    I was hoping for a serious bit on urban Texas here, or at least a thread. kinda weak. not very accurate. The prime difference, now & historically, between Texas cities has been class. Then wealth, race, culture. It sure ain’t about who makes the best friggin taco.

    • BirdsnestTX

      Yes… it’s who makes the best friggin FUSION taco

  • David Beebe

    El Paso- like San Antonio but more Mexican; the outcast, unwanted child of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. And an absolutely fabulous ugly ducking city. Lovelove

    • Well-said. And the climate of EP blows away the rest of TX, except the Marfa plateau region…

  • enp1955

    I’ve lived in Houston, lived outside of El Paso, the kids lived in San Antonio, almost lived in Austin, and spend a lot of time in Dallas doing business. But what I like best is living out here in Hill Country where the scenery is beautiful and the motorcycle and I can be out where there are no stoplights in just a couple of minutes.

    I’ve talked to a lot of people that say they’ve lived in Houston and “hated it”. But when pressed, they lived in Sugarland or Katy or some other ‘burb an hour out by traffic-choked freeway. We lived inside the loop on Buffalo Speedway and loved it. We walked (sacrilege, I know) to work and to the many restaurants in the neighborhood. Something I could imagine in certain neighborhoods in Austin, but not in Dallas.

    Admittedly, my work in Dallas is always in the north suburbs, but every time I’m in Dallas it seems that they are building more flyovers and adding more lanes to more toll roads. Someday, it will just be all concrete and office buildings.

    Just my take on it all…

    • Jed

      i agree. live near the center of houston and it’s actually alright. live near the center of dallas and you’re just surrounded by more dallas and people from dallas.

  • dfwfireman

    Denton.

    • space2k

      Shhhhh. Don’t tell.

  • space2k

    This comment from that city-data thread nails something I’ve noticed about Austin (yes, I’ve lived there). More than once I’ve heard young Austin imports trash Dallas with the authority that they lived there for years. I ask where they lived, and they mumble something about Collin county…

    “You have to understand, a good chunk of Austin’s population is made up of people who moved there from the mostly white suburban areas of Houston and DFW, mostly through attending UT and then staying on as full-time Austinites. Many of these people lived very sheltered lives as kids, and never really took the time to explore what their core cities had to offer. They just stayed safely within their suburban bubbles until it was time for college. They got to Austin and discovered all these new (to them) things, decided these things MUST only exist in Austin (within the state of Texas, that is), and stayed there.”

    • wsanders

      There’s Dallas, and then there’s Baja Oklahoma.

  • Michelle Mower

    Austin is better educated? Seriously? Houston is the home of NASA, most oil companies and the largest medical center in the world. You want to compare tech hipsters to rocket scientists, chemical engineers and world-class medical personnel? LOL! Oh, and our museums, art galleries and theatres are better, too.

    • jammerjim

      The Space Center may technically be in Houston, but it’s really in Webster and everyone knows it!

      • John

        Yeah, liked they said, “Webster, the Eagle has landed”.

      • Mcbap

        It is in Clear Lake….not even close to the Webster city limits. Actually…it is closer to Seabrook than Webster.

    • Just be glad HOU is more off the radar screen, as the hordes ruin Austin w/ the media helping. HOU is a must visit for me, even if my TX town is closer to San Diego than you.

  • Jameika

    “It’s natural setting is almost as pleasant as that of Austin…”

    Its. It’s=it is. And in the next clause, y’all get it right. Please fix the ugliness.

  • Jameika

    Hilarious and insightful piece. Thanks for the laughs.

  • Evan

    I want to buy into this narrative that somehow Dallas and Houston are becoming cooler and weirder and Austin has become corporatized, but then I travel to Dallas or Houston and see the throngs of bros wearing Sperrys and Polos like it’s 2003. Most of the people pedaling the Keep Austin Weird(TM) corporate bullcrap are either Chamber of Commerce tourism promoters or sorority girls from Plano. Sure, Austin has welcomed more “normal” residents in recent years, but it continues to attract interesting, creative people from all over as well. But Austin is far from perfect; the cost of living has become obscenely expensive in the last couple of years. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before our musicians and artists start fleeing for cheaper rent in San Antonio and Houston

    • RobertWBoyd

      Big cities contain multitudes. Houston and Dallas surely have many preppy “bros,” but they also have lots of bohemians and artistic people. Perhaps when you travel to Houston and Dallas, you should check out some different neighborhoods.

    • space2k

      Not sure where you’re hanging out, but Dallas and Houston proper are mostly black, brown, and poor. Also, the fashion you’re describing is ’83, not ’03.

      • capester p

        Actually the way you are describing Dallas and Houston sounds more like the ’80s version.

    • capester p

      If this wasn’t spot on, I wouldn’t be laughing s hard right now. Actually, they’re already starting to come to SA. It’s also the same reason why San Marcos was recently named the fastest city in America. The only problem is there are too many new overpriced apartments in the Pearl. While SA welcomes progress, looking at the Pearl reminds me of someone giving too many steroids to a 13 year old. It’s artificial. Renters are not as vested in the community. It’s too much, too soon.

    • wessexmom

      Give me a break. Austin’s not weird; Montrose is weird and deserving of its accolade as one of the top 10 Most Interesting Neighborhoods in America. Austin IS funky and charming and full of wonderful people or at least it was during its 70s heyday.

    • Austin is great to visit for more good live music than anyone deserves, and cultural options-on-high for only 1.8 M people. But about that climate…plus greed, gentrification and boasting…plz. grow up! No one place has it all, but ATX definitely doesn’t.

      By the way, this desert rat looks forward to visiting Houston for his first time. So there.

  • wsanders

    I grew up in Dallas, lived in Houston for 10 years and Austin for four. I live in California now. Austin is definitely off the list for potential repatriation – the traffic is as bad as the Bay Area and housing is almost as pricey. Houston is where I’d move if I wanted to buy a 5 acre lot and build a combination residence + lead smelter + liquor store + custom hot rod shop + strip club on my property. Dallas is the up and comer – if they can somehow get rid of the month-long stretches of 100 degree weather. Maybe I need to visit San Antonio more…

    • John

      But after Dallas gets rid of its 100+ degree days, they have the ice and snow crap that comes as early as Thanksgiving. No thanks.

    • not_Bridget

      Houstonian here.

      Generally, visiting San Antonio more is a good idea….

    • Jed

      central austin is small enough you don’t need to use freeways. all the handwringing about austin traffic is from the people causing it, moving into the suburbs and clogging up the freeways that were built just for them. that would be like moving to katy, calling yourself a houstonian, and complaining about how long it takes to get downtown. they deserve it (especially since they are also the reason we can’t get a rail deal passed). i still get anywhere i need to go in 15 minutes or less.

      dallas weather is the least of its problems. dallas people …

      • wessexmom

        Living in beautiful leafy walkable Rice U-Museum neighborhood, 2 minutes from med center job? Priceless.

        • Jed

          “Priceless.”

          literally.

    • Except San Antonio, Austin and the Gulf are where Dallas’ month of 100F weather comes from…probably hotter for longer. Then humidity much of year, cloudy winters like DFW. Nice to visit though, so much to do.

  • Kozmo

    Well, it ended too soon, and San Antonio, Ft. Worth, El Paso, And The Rest never hardly were mentioned. Fooey.

    But I enjoyed the spot-on Austin-bashing, as a resident since the mid-70s who’s seen the city change at least eight or nine times since then, each time worse than the last. I’ve had all I can take. It’s time to mosey on, Austin has been living on its own exhaust fumes for years now.

  • Mark

    After living in Austin for 35 years and burnishing my reputation as a “big, bad leftist” I finally had my fill of Austin’s traffic, gentrification, ageism, pretentiousness and covert racism (“we’ll just price ’em out of East Austin and build condos for millennials!”). I moved back to Bloomington, Indiana (home of Indiana University) — and discovered that without changing any of my views, I was just right of center for Bloomington.

    Austin brags about its “weirdness”. Bloomington IS weird. Actually, Bloomington is a lot like the way Austin was 30 years ago. The cost of living is about half that of Austin. Nine months out of the year, the weather is lovely. You have summer. We have winter. Sounds like an even trade-off to me.

    It was nice while it lasted, Austin – but you sold your soul. Enjoy your traffic thromboses.

    • Jed

      whatev. you live in indiana.

      • Indiana Pearl

        Love Bloomington, but love Austin too.

      • Mark

        Thanks be to God!

    • wessexmom

      Ann Arbor really is what Austin THINKS it used to be.

  • Lonn

    So what happened to El Paso?
    Actually I have a sense that it considers itself part of the true West (which Texas is NOT, despite all the cowboy references). Not surprisingly, when most El Paso people go on vacation they head for California. I can’t say I blame them. Why would they want to go to any Texas city to the east of them?

    • El Pasoan here. Mostly true! (except all the Cowboys fans, or EP “leaders” who want to turn us into Austin) TX seems a microcosm of the entire south, the west taking over at the Pecos River – but something changes going west near Sierra Blanca.

  • Lonn

    Addendum: It is in the nature of Texans to brag, and not too subtly. So, reading about all of these civic rivalries comes as no surprise. San Antonio, being more European in tone than all the others, has the least Texas tone about it, so people there know it is in bad taste to be bragging. That’s for loud mouthed yahoos.

    • wessexmom

      San Antonio is European? That’s a new one; I’ll give you that.

  • Biei Creative

    You forget the biggest thing about Houston is its the breadwinner of Texas. Dallas Austin and others cant enjoy their lifestyle now if it were without Houston.

  • wessexmom

    Austin traffic is as bad as any city in Texas and there is no uglier sprawl than the endless blight of Ben White on the south end or Anderson Lane on the north side, which are both ESPECIALLY lovely in a drought.

  • jgmambo

    Native Houstonian, but my favorite place in Texas to be is Austin – great hilly geography and scenery, Colorado River snakes through the city and provides recreational opportunities via kayak, canoe, etc., bike friendly, a very artistic culture (you’ll see old tubs repurposed as planters, and the restaurant marquees have clever puns), ACL show is taped there, tons of live music, Natural spring-fed pools that you can swim in, hike the Greenbelt, great indie-rock music stations, creative and inexpensive restaurants, food-trucks galore, always seems to be a festival going on, and, in my experiences, a lot of friendly people.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Austin’s a bunch of rich tech-neolibs trying to pretend they’re actually liberal.

  • K. Bowen

    Austin used to be fun and unique. Now it’s an open-air drug den, like something out of Boxer China.