Keeping it Weird – Austin, TX
“Keep Austin Weird.” To my understanding, it’s the unofficial motto, meant to promote local businesses and to remind everyone that Austin is Austin because of the unique culture, so don’t screw it up. But the city just keeps growing, in large part due to that same culture. What can I say – it’s easy to fall in love with Austin.
We just got back from a last-minute trip there. I had wanted to go away for the weekend despite not planning anything, and texted my amazing friend Michelle to see if she would be around.
After getting over her initial shock that we would fly 1500 miles on three days’ notice, she seemed genuinely happy to host, even offering to let us stay at her place. (Thus the “amazing” part.) I chose to save that level of imposition for when I visit her solo, so Scott and I stayed at the exceptional InterContinental Stephen F. Austin hotel, but we basically spent the weekend hanging out with friends. We’ve been to Austin before; toured the Capitol, gawked at the Bullock Museum, drank on Sixth Street – fully touristed it up. This trip, I was excited to just spend time with dear old friends, and that’s exactly what we did.
(That’s not to say we didn’t eat. And eat. And eat and eat and eat. Austin’s eateries go above and beyond.)
What I didn’t expect was to come back looking longingly at Austin MLS listings and trying to figure out how to convince my boss I could do my job online and via Skype.
While so many cities that we visit have homogenized into an assortment of chain stores, casual dining restaurants and Starbucks coffee shops, Austin maintains a personality, with (among other oddities) spectacularly independent businesses, food trailers, a veritable culture of patios, and music, music everywhere. Michelle explained the different neighborhoods in Manhattan terms for me – “Over here is kind of like Alphabet City when we first moved to New York” – as she expertly navigated the terrifying-for-someone-who-rarely-drives traffic.
Austin is of course changing with its growth, according not only to the numerous Internet articles by cheeky hipsters asking us all to stop moving there, but also to my friends who already live there. It’s losing some of the charm as the population crowds in – but in many ways it remains a mecca for imagination and eccentricity and people who love breakfast tacos. (Mmmm, breakfast tacos!) And then if you really want to go to Banana Republic (because, you know, maybe sometimes you do), they have those too.
My friends in Austin love the culture of their city, and they also love their nice homes; we’re old enough to not want to live with 4 other people in a one-bedroom apartment like we did when we moved to Manhattan. (Almost all of my friends in Austin lived in NYC at least for a little while and moved back.) Some of them have kids and partners and everyone has pets, and they’re happy to be able to be comfortable, but I think we all still want to live lives where creativity is not only accepted, but is in fact expected. We aren’t necessarily all making our livings as actors or writers or musicians or artists – but we still want to say “yet” at the end of that sentence, and in Austin that feels acceptable.
There was a time in my life when I was surrounded by and entrenched in a community of people that valued creative dreams and passion and individuality above all, but in NYC, it’s easy to brush that off as a lifestyle that’s only for 23-year-olds. The world I walk through and live in each day that I commute isn’t the evil that some people might try to lay at the feet of all that is the financial services industry – it’s simply different. It’s a world that values a different type of exceptionalism and excellence, a world that freely admits that hard work, while admirable, is not the only thing that leads to success, and a world where success is measured in assets. There are no participation trophies, only winners and losers. That world is more cynical (some would say realistic), more logical, and in that world, keeping Austin weird doesn’t make sense – rents increase with demand, and those small, eclectic businesses go the way of CBGB. (The loss of which, as a side note, was to my great sadness, and I am unendingly thankful to have had the opportunity to experience that place firsthand before it closed. But I digress.)
Visiting Austin felt like a trip to a land where it was acceptable to want to live comfortably, express myself fully AND try to make the world a better place. I can’t be sure if it was more about seeing my old friends or being in Austin, but either way, I’ll take it, as long as it helps me keep one foot firmly in my own weirdness while the other walks from Grand Central to Park Avenue.