Five Cities for a Fresh Start: Austin
This is Part 4 of Five Cities for a Fresh Start. Each week, we'll feature another American city ready for motivated and creative people looking to move. Click here to read the series' Introduction.
Last week, we showcased Washington D.C., third in the series and rep for the East coast powerhouses. For this fourth entry, we're bringing it home to Austin, Texas—Code&Quill's headquarters for the last few months.
0. Our Preconceptions (for Full Disclosure)
Before we moved to Austin, we'd experienced the place as a young, growing, hip (and hyped) city—we'd been here for South by Southwest, for example. Talking with others, we heard Austin compared to both San Francisco (our last HQ) and Louisville (the second city in this series), in the sense that all three are mid-sized, local-friendly, and younger. Moving here, it seemed that cities like Louisville and Austin had some of the San Fran "city merits" like diverse food and culture and industry, but were softened by the states around them—Kentucky in Louisville's case, Texas in Austin's.
Our experience living here as twenty-somethings has been great overall. We don't anticipate moving out of Austin anytime soon. Obviously, this means we're biased—but we'll be happy to mention the city's flaws since, while we don't mind them so far, we know you might.
1. What's its story?
Austin is named for Stephen F. Austin, who was—basically—the guy who brought the first American settlers to Texas in substantial numbers (long before Texas became a state in 1845). In the short time that the Republic of Texas was a thing, Mirabeau Lamar spotted a choice parcel on the Colorado River and had Edwin Waller plan a capital city there. His design—a gridded city centered on a main thoroughfare, Congress Avenue, which runs north from the river to the state capitol—is the Austin we know today.
Sam Houston didn't like Austin as a capital because he thought it was in the middle of nowhere—and back then, he was right. Austin remained pretty anonymous until the mid-twentieth century, when it started to grow as a metro area. It was helped along in the 1970s when semiconductors started being manufactured here and the city began to establish its own reputation for live music.
2. How many people are there, and how do they look overall?
Nowadays, the Census Bureau estimates Austin has 930,000 people, with about 2 million in the broader Austin-Round Rock metro. About half the population is white, 35% Hispanic, 8% black, and 6% or so Asian. Sure enough, the data confirms it's on the young side: a whopping 76% of residents are 44 or younger. The biggest bloc (37% of the population) falls between 25 and 44, but there are still lots of kids, teenagers, college students, and recent graduates.
3. What's the place like? How's the weather?
Some cringe imagining a Texas summer, and yeah, it's hot here—it goes above 100F all the time. But, as we're finding out now, that doesn't mean it's miserable. It's often a dry heat in Austin—if you had to choose between 105 here and 90 in D.C. or Louisville, where summers are humid, the "hotter" option might seem better.
It's hot, or at least warm, for most of the year; the summer high temps into the high 90s and 100s persist through October. There's a short winter in January and February—no snow, but temperatures as low as the 30s—and then a short but pleasant spring from March through mid-May, when the biggest portion of the year's rains fall.
4. How much does it cost to live there?
Just a touch above average; Austin's cost of living index is 107. Groceries, gas, and going out are all inexpensive. Rent isn't as safe or comfortable a proposition; while you can find reasonably-priced housing here, the rapid growth of the city means prices are sometimes inflated—if nothing else, you can expect your rent to increase each time you sign.
It's worth noting that fancy downtown apartments are a subject of great pretense for Austinites—you can't help but smirk with a line of names like The Catherine, The Bowie, The Austonian ("the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi"), and The Independent (whose marketing very openly targeted the former by building something a couple stories taller and stealing their slogan). They're beautiful buildings with beautiful apartments, and they're very visible in the city, but they're the kind of pretentious sell meant to attract conspicuous wealth—not necessarily to represent the bona-fide best of Austin.
5. How educated are the people, and what do they do for work?
Given the city's lax, inexpensive culture and wide options for entertainment, we were surprised to find that a strong number—around 40%—of the city's residents have at least a Bachelor's degree. One thing that makes this easier for Austin is the University of Texas, located just a mile or two from city center; it's big (about 50,000 students enrolled), and its production of high-value employees for Austin's industries—such as tech and programming, business, and engineering—means that many UT students graduate and take professional jobs in the area.
6. What's there to eat and drink?
Austin has several strong suits, and they do a great job of catering to the younger crowd. In the first place, Austin's a great watering hole; aside from a good collection of local brew, there's also a steady flow of wine and liquor (Tito's is based here) and plenty of places to serve it, whether you're after a biergarten with 100 taps or a lounge with hand-made cocktails. Austinites can drink—we're still catching up—and they make space for it: the police close Dirty Sixth every weekend for tavern-crawlers, and Rainey Street is lined with open-air bars and clubs. Very little pretense about all of it.
Whether you're drinking or not, you'll be glad about the grub: Austin's got one of the most robust food-truck scenes in the country. They're scattered around and they offer everything from Asian fusion to specialty donuts to Brazilian to gyros, usually cheaply enough that you can have a full meal for $10-15, if not less. A lot of local mainstays grew out of food trucks.
We can't not mention Texas barbecue—people are real sensitive about it here, and to be fair, it's real damn good. That's a good perk, but one we didn't expect? Good pizza. Whether you want NY-style, Detroit style, or just something good, there's a local place, and it's better than we ever expected from Texas.
7. How are the people?
Pretty chill, overall. As with any proud city, it has its pretentious citizens, but most people we've talked to seemed to have free time. They participate in the never-ending music scene, either as casual onlookers or as part-time players. They go out to eat and drink casually on a regular basis. Even the people who are career-oriented are lured out with some regularity; it's hard not to be tempted when "going out" is relatively cheap and easy.
While you might have to go out to meet people, you won't have to go far, and you won't have to know someone who can "get you in."
8. What's within driving distance?
Texas is a big place, and Austin's pretty much in the middle—so most of your options are other places in Texas. Austin is one of four major cities, the others being Houston (2.5 hours east), Dallas (3 hours north), and San Antonio (90 minutes south). Out of state, you can hit New Orleans in 8 hours or less—and that's about it, in terms of big cities.
9. What do you get here that you don't get anywhere else?
By its own claims, Austin is the "live music capital of the world." We're not die-hard audiophiles, but there's a show everywhere you turn—and almost any night of the week, walking around downtown or near the bars and restaurants, you'll hear music. If there's a performer you want to see, chances are they're coming to Austin. Still, the more pleasant surprises are the shows you didn't know you wanted to see, tucked into intimate venues that might be walking distance from your house.
Food-wise, we're not sure Austin has any exclusive claims. They have great barbecue, but so does much of the South. They have great tacos, but they've got fierce competition even within Texas. They have awesome food trucks, but... you get it. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find another place in America with such variety, originality, and quality—and at prices this low overall.
10. What's the final word?
It's young and it's bustling—but as much with music and food as serious business. It's hot—literally—and it's growing fast. Austin's still got plenty of growing pains ahead of it, and that means rising prices and a certain degree of internal cultural strife. That also means it might not offer as much for the older parts of life. But if you're willing to ride the changes and you like what it offers openly, you might find yourself growing with the city. It ain't perfect, but we've been here several months and we're already better for it.
Coming Up Next Week (Can You Guess?)
For our fifth and final city, we're headed to a city by the sea, where the coffee is good and the bikers are everywhere. After that, we'll be wrapping up the series with our Five Cities Rundown and some bonus features!