‘Unrecognizable’: The changes to Austin go far beyond the skyline

The influx of people and tech companies has made the capital city into the 11th largest in the nation. But it’s come at a high cost to communities of color and creatives who often can’t afford to stay.

By Shelly BrisbinFebruary 8, 2023 1:11 pm,

Austin is changing – perhaps more quickly and more profoundly than any other American city. Now the 11th largest in the U.S., Austin is home to billionaire tech entrepreneurs, snarled traffic and escalating prices for everything from tacos to real estate. 

New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright moved to Austin more than 40 years ago, and he’s seen the city transform from a sleepy college town into a big city, facing many of the same problems San Francisco confronted when the tech industry chose the city by the bay as its home. Wright has wrritten in detail about Austin’s fast-paced transformation for the New Yorker. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How would you describe the Austin of today to someone who has never been here? 

Lawrence Wright: Oh, that’s going to be hard because, you know, there’s the Austin in my mind and then there’s the Austin that’s really in front of us. And so if somebody came into town, I say, “well, it’s kind of a cozy little town, you know, very friendly. It’s a university town. It’s the capital of the state.” And those things are all diminished in importance as Austin has exploded into population. I mean, it doubles every two decades. So it’s a far more sophisticated town than I would have described before I set out to try to acquaint myself with the city I actually live in.

You know, this article came about because I had been asked to induct Joe Ely into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and they kindly gave us the hotel room and we went up on the 15th floor of the W Hotel and opened up the blinds and we couldn’t tell where we were. There was just nothing familiar out the window except for 10 building cranes from that one window. And I know every Austinite’s experience – the sense of disorientation that the city they knew is being scraped.

You say in the piece that Richard Linklater described an older version of Austin very well when he called his 1990 movie “Slacker.” Say a little bit more about the town and what it was like when you moved here more than, what, four decades ago?

I was working at Texas Monthly and we had another writer who was a pretty hot ticket, and a lot of editors would come down to see him in Austin. And I remember one phone conversation he had in 1980 where an editor called and said, “Well, you have an airport there, don’t you?” And he said, “Oh, yes, ma’am, we have an airport.” “How will I find you?” “Well, there are two buildings downtown. There’s a black one and a gold one. We’re in the black one.” That was the kind of town it was. And, you know, I imprinted on that town.

The landmark “Hi, how are you mural” by Daniel Johnston, photographed in 2016.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Some people would say, “well, growth is growth, and cities change. They’re not static. And that’s the way it should be.” Is there something particularly unusual about Austin’s growth? I mean, it does seem like time has been compressed somewhat. 

Yeah. I mean, it’s the fastest growing metro area in the country and has been for some time. I decided I’d look at some of the seeds that were planted about the time that I came here and that exploded into the Austin we know. And foremost among them, I would say, was the university. You know, having a research university turned out to be essential. And, you know, so many young people were graduating from UT and they didn’t have any place to go. There weren’t jobs for them.

So in 1984, Admiral Bob Inman, who had been the deputy chief of the CIA, retired, and he was given the task of locating a place for [Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation] MCC. At the time, Japan was leading the world in the production of semiconductors, and they were about to embark on the attempt to have a new generation chip that could handle AI, and American intelligence saw this as a threat. So they got 20 of the most sophisticated tech companies in the country – IBM, General Motors, Boeing, Hewlett Packard – all of these agreed to work together and share resources. And they would have two years where they would try to push this chip project over the hill. And whatever town they picked was going to be transformed by it.

They wound up and chose Austin, and it was a shock. Inman told me it was a shock to both the East and the West Coast. But it was a shock to Austin. You know, to be noticed in that way – as the city in all of America where they would send this high-tech thing – was bewildering, exciting and a little threatening. And that same year, in 1984, was a year that a freshman in the Dobie dorm named Michael Dell began to assemble computers and got a contract with the state. Those two things were essential ingredients in the Austin that we know now.

You talk about the development of Austin as it sort of grew into a more mature city with a tech edge and how the “Dellionaires” were the first big money sort of spread out across parts of the city. Nowadays, the city is home to a group of billionaires that are called the “PayPal Mafia,” right? So is it the individuals who have transformed the city, or is the trajectory of the city to blame? Or how do you see this? 

Well, there’s a push-pull. You know, Austin has been drawing interest for a long time because of this growth in the tech industry. And also, you know, it’s become a very diversified economy. But there’s a push thing, too. And so, you know, one of the draws about Texas is the absence of a personal income tax.

Ten percent of all the migrants into Texas are coming from California, and they arrive with a lot of complaints about where they came from having to do with crime and, you know, the low return on investment. They wouldn’t say they were tax refugees. They would just say they weren’t getting their money’s worth. But if you spread out a map of the United States and you looked at it and say, “where would be a cool place to go, that’s not on the coast?” There’s not a lot of real clear alternatives.

You’re not the first writer to point out that there’s a decreasing number of Black and even Latino residents in this city, and a lot of those residents have been priced out. Is it fair to say that both the stories of old and new Austin have both been seen through a very white lens? And I wonder to what extent this transformation is due to that?

Well, you know, our original sin was that master plan in 1928. Tam Hawkins, who’s the head of the Black Chamber of Commerce, said that they did a study on Black-owned eating establishments in Austin, and they found that there were more in 1863 than in 2019. So, you know, just imagine – had we been able to hold on to the elements in 1863 that gave that kind of collective commercial aspect to Austin, it would be an entirely different town. But for quite some time, Austin has been the most economically segregated city in America.

And, you know, part of it is, we pushed all the Black and Latino population east of I-35 before there was an I-35. And that became the part of town that is segregated. And now that part of East Austin is, I think in many respects, wonderfully well-integrated, but is at the expense of all the people that left. So, you know, there’s a nice racial mix in East Austin, but it only came because we’re now asking the descendants in many cases, or the people who were forced out of West Austin, to find other accommodations in Pflugerville or Lockhart or other places where they can afford the rents.

You know, I have heard people say that Austin has jumped the shark. And usually when I hear that, I’m hearing it from longtime residents who had a different vision of what Austin would be in the 2020s, perhaps. But I’m curious, would you say that Austin has jumped the shark, or does the city still have a chance to become a great city? What do you see as the destiny of this place based on all that you document in your incredible piece for The New Yorker? 

The marquee of Antone’s Nightclub on Fifth Street in Downtown Austin, photographed in 2020. Michael Minasi/KUT

Well, if we can hang on to some of the things that we hold dear and the things that we think of when we think of Austin – and for me, this is a creative, artistic community – and it can’t be Austin if it loses that. And it’s a challenge. You know, creative people, sometimes they’re wildly successful, but mostly they’re serving their art, and it makes it difficult to fit into a high-tech economy.

But a lot of the people that I interviewed came from Silicon Valley, and one of them said, “you know, we could have helped San Francisco, but we didn’t. You know, we were too busy building our own businesses.” And so there’s income disparity. They weren’t taking care of hiring local people. They weren’t sponsoring internships in the schools, and so on. They weren’t engaged with their community. And as a result, San Francisco has had horrible problems with terrible financial inequities. And those kinds of things are happening now. They’re bringing success, and yet success is not evenly spread around. And we have to find a way – if we want to remain Austin and the city that we love – we have to find a way to spread that wealth among everybody.

Well, is there a meta story here, sort of a lesson for other cities? I believe you mentioned that Austin, back when you first moved here, was about the size of what Lexington, Ky., is. I know of longtime Austinites who are looking around for the next Austin. They’re looking around for that next medium-sized city that they can move to and maybe recapture some of that old spirit. I bet you’ve heard from some of those folks, too. 

In the cases that I’m familiar with, it’s not that they want to move. They just have to find a way to, you know, make their living expenses equal to their income. We have more than 300 – I think it’s 350 people is the latest I heard – moving to Austin every day. But there are about 250 or 220 I think leaving every day. So, you know, it’s not a balanced. I mean, that’s why we’re growing so quickly. We’re losing a lot of people. And many of those are people – musicians and artists and so on – that we want to hang on to. Because when you think of what makes Austin distinct, they’re the people that do that.

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