Now here’s something different – a little essay on an American city, one which happens to have been my home for the last 27 ½ years.
The Austin metropolitan area has grown from well under 1 million residents to about 1.7 million in this time, making it one of the fastest growing larger American cities. It continues to spread out in all directions, including south toward the more populous metropolitan area of San Antonio. The 80-mile gap becomes smaller every day.
I chose Austin as the best place to start my first business in 1981, and moved here at the beginning of the following year. I wanted to start a revolutionary bookstore chain, and only one metro in the US had a larger and better educated population than Austin – that was Washington, DC. It turned out not only to be a smart move for the bookstore chain, but a good move for many other reasons as well. My “second child” Hoover’s (hoovers.com) continues to be based here. While I love to travel the world and explore its nooks and crannies, it would be VERY hard to convince me to live anywhere but Austin at this stage of my life. Why?
First, I love Texas. Some Austinites say, “The only place I would live in Texas is Austin.” This is because of reasons from the political to the musical. But this attitude ignores the fact that Austin is above all else Texan. To me, that means it is down-to-earth, it is pro-individual and pro-business, it is pro-immigrant, it is the land of big skies and big opportunities.
No matter how unique within Texas, Austin is still our state capital and it is still economically and culturally linked to the diverse and booming cities of Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Last I checked, Texas was the third “least Anglo/White” state in the US, a land full of Mexican-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and every other stripe and color of Americans. Even Indiana-Texans like me.
Texas of course is especially Mexican, and has been so for many years – ever since Tejas was part of Mexico. Every day that goes by, we become more so. And in doing so, we become more family-friendly, more religious, more hard-working, more colorful, and the food gets better.
Even if you are in the most urban, artistic, funky, “weird” parts of Austin, you are still within 10-20 minutes of “real Texas” – cowboys, boots, rodeos, two-stepping, and BBQ. (Oh how my mouth waters at the thought of moist succulent BBQ, although even my veggie friends find plenty to eat here.)
This is the heart of America, and surrounding towns like Lockhart, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Elgin, San Marcos, and Marble Falls play a big part in making Austin a great place to live. Not to mention the Gulf Coast, Big Bend Country, Caddo Lake, Palo Duro Canyon, the Rio Grande Valley, and other amazing places further away but still within Texas.
(Yes, Texas is BIG. Texarkana in East Texas is closer to Jacksonville Florida than it is to El Paso, which is closer to San Diego, California than it is to Texarkana. Dalhart, Texas is less than 100 miles further from the Canadian border than it is from Brownsville, Texas.)
Next, we tend to forget the role of physical geography in making a place what it is. To hear some, you would think that what makes Austin Austin is just Dell, Willie, South Austin, Kinky Friedman, and Slacker (the movie). But none of these would have been here, or they would have been quite different, if it weren’t for our natural blessings. Hills, rivers, lakes, and sunshine.
To the east of Austin is cotton-growing black land, full of bugs and ticks and moist soil. To the north of Austin is the bottom end of the Great Plains – check out Fort Worth to make sure! To the south in San Antonio comes yet another vegetation zone, with giant Palm trees and almost never a sign of ice or snow. And to the west, in the hill country, the trees are shorter and the bugs are replaced with critters like deer, scorpions, and tarantulas. The bats, wildflowers, and vultures are everywhere. The sun shines more often than in any place I have ever lived, but we also have world class thunderstorms. And the sunsets and cloud formations are remarkable – in fact, when people ask me why I love Austin, I usually start with the clouds.
With Texas and nature as the backdrop, now add into the mix music, art, one of the nation’s great universities, more music, more sports and outdoor activities than you could do in a lifetime, and an incredible diversity of people from all over the world. Add in Whole Foods Market; top flight locally-owned specialty stores like Precision Camera, Book People, and Waterloo Records; and hundreds of restaurants old and new, including some of the best Mexican food in the nation.
Top it off with an entrepreneurial culture that has arisen in the last 30 years, led by Michael Dell and thousands of high technology, software, and other entrepreneurs. (That’s where I come in.)
Layer on top the weirdness that Austin is famous for. Down here, you can be different and still be popular. You can be yourself.
Lastly, right up there with the clouds, I think the main reason I love Austin is how real and nice – at the same time – the people are. This is still a place where people want to help their neighbors, where if you have a flat tire someone will stop, where we smile at strangers on the street. I reckon this will weaken as the city gets larger, but I haven’t seen that happening in the years I have been here.
In fact, when I see someone not smiling in an elevator – we have a lot more tall buildings these days – my reaction is usually, “You must not be from around here.” But I don’t say that, instead I smile at them and try to make them feel like they have always lived here. Just like the people of Texas and Austin did for me, almost 30 years ago.