Texas’s Cities: One Big, Dysfunctional Family
Chronicling the rivalries of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin.
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?
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)