I love Austin Texas. In ways I can’t quite say. Perhaps my favorite part of Austin is the Shoal Creek bike path, which runs North-South through Central Austin from the river to 38th street or so, meandering along the creekbed through parks and nature areas.
Every time I go home, I find another change: last year condos began rising next to the creek as the waters rose during a wet summer; in the winter I returned to taller but still visibly incomplete buildings, and a creekbed filled with trash and dams blocking the browning water to allow access to construction vehicles. When I went back this time, the trash was gone, but the condos stood complete, lording over the downtown skyline they now dominated.
Unlike New York, Austin has never had serious residential density in downtown. Austin has always been a low-rise city, with the exception of State Government buildings and the occasional glossy business tower. In the last 3-5 years, luxury condos filled into downtown and nearby neighborhoods: driving from the airport, I counted at least 6 new high rise condo developments – a big number considering the total lack of residential infrastructure downtown (schools, laundromats, parking, etc. etc.), and groundbreaking nature of the developments, pioneering an previously totally commercial area.
Generally, I’d like to applaud badly needed high-density development in a sprawling city (Austin and San Antonio – 100+ miles away – increasingly look like a single city), but everything about these developments make me uncomfortable. For one, they sell the urban fabric of Austin as a nightlife city of artists and musicians, but sell-out the people that make that fabric possible. Artists moved to Austin because cheap rents allowed a critical mass of people to agglomerate and make a self-sufficient ‘industry’ out of themselves. Austin could have continued to support that industry, while remaining a center for government (ATX THE CAPITAL CITYYYY) and a home to the University of Texas, and done just fine for itself – there’s a solid tax base for social services, a sense of community, all is well.
Instead, the music and alt-hip-bohemia became a selling point to non-creative industries, primarily high-tech and chip manufacturing. City government got fancy new digs and started heavily promoting the moniker “Live Music Capital of the World,” even to the point of theming the city’s new airport on the slogan.
The problem is that these new industries have been gradually leaching out the people and places that made Austin feel like home. Downtown, the center for bars and shows, feels increasingly like the West Village – bohemia under glass, reliving its glory days in cruel simulacra of an authentic creative environment. The city has flooded with high-tech yuppies that raise the cost of living, and eventually rents, for everyone else.
Equally pressing, chip manufacturing is particularly dangerous in a place like Austin. The city sits on the recharge zone for the immense Edwards Aquifer, which provides excellent drinking water for about half of Texas. Silicon chip manufacture requires immense amounts of water and creates ungodly amounts of acidic waste. AMD, Samsung and Motorola have sucked water from the aquifer at the cost of lower-flowing springs (including Barton Springs, perhaps the best place in the world – see picture above), and ever-drier creeks that used to be all-access swimming pools in the hot summer months.
With every urban overhaul, someone benefits. Without a doubt, real estate interests have cashed in to huge payoffs, as the city dons its new, glossier finish. The point I’d like to make is that the changes occurring in Austin closely follow those in New York, and elsewhere: economic elites are filling out city centers, at the cost of lower class folks that make the city run in the first place. (A service-economy driven urban core in Austin would be particularly unsustainable for the folks working in it, considering the city’s shiiity public transit and rising gas costs)
These changes are happening everywhere. They also feed off each other – the advertising-entertainment of shows like Sex in the City in New York become the model for urban living elsewhere. The surest sign that my old home has become an over-priced yuppie urban oasis? Realtors have started naming themselves after the swankiest of the swanky neighborhoods in New York, with the hope of that New York glitter rubbing off on their new downtown developments: