Two weekends ago I was running errands that took me from my home in Oak Hill in SW Austin, to my bank in South Austin, then to drop my daughter off at KidsActing in East Austin off East MLK. Then up to preview a house in North Austin, then up to Round Rock to see if the make-ready was complete on one of our new listings, then out to NW Austin near Spicewood Springs Rd and Hwy 183 to check on another house. After that I headed south, down Hwy 183 back to my office on Mopac to pick up mail, then to check on a lease listing near Zilker Park before I stopped for a late afternoon lunch at Green Mesquite on Barton Springs Rd.
I noted throughout the day of driving around that, for the most part, there is not anything aesthetically “special”, unique or visibly distinguishable about Austin. At least not along the main arteries I drove. In fact, much of Austin, viewed from the main travel arteries – especially the IH35 and 183 corridors – is, frankly, ugly.
Except for the drive through Zilker Park, and the generally large number of trees adorning Austin, I could have been driving around any city in the USA, if visual observation of commercial establishments and roadways were to be the only criteria.
So what makes Austin special? What makes Austin “Austin”? Increasingly, I believe, as “Austin” has grown to become the “Austin Metro Area”, it’s harder to differentiate the stuff we encounter on a daily basis from that which might be encountered on a daily basis in, say, Cleveland, Phoenix or Houston. The real Austin has become a sub-category of the greater Austin area.
Or perhaps, after living here almost 25 years, I’m so accustomed to what makes Austin special that it’s not readily apparent to me anymore and I’d need to go live somewhere else for a while and come back to really appreciate it. Maybe I take it for granted, except for certain areas.
A few years ago I got lost in Houston and I pulled into an outdoor mall off a busy boulevard to look at a map. There, in that parking lot, I observed the exact same grouping of stores found on Brodie Lane in South Austin. As I scanned across the stores, there was Pet Smart, Barnes and Noble, CompUSA (now extinct), Old Navy, OfficeMax, World Market, a Chinese restaurant, etc. This could have been Anytown USA. So too can most such strip mall locations in Austin, from strictly an observational standpoint of what you actually see in front of you, where you shop, and what you do in the course of a normal day.
So what makes Austin “Austin”? In other words, what do we have going on that is rare, or hard to find elsewhere, both for residents and visitors? What tales would a visitor have to tell after a 3 day visit? Where would she have gone and what would she have experienced that would generate tales of wonder for friends back home? Certainly not staying a weekend with a friend in Round Rock, visiting the outlet malls and eating out at a Chilis, then catching a movie, right? That’s not an “Austin” visit.
Nor is a true Austin visit flying in, staying at the La Quinta near the airport, renting a car and driving to Circle C, Steiner Ranch, Avery Ranch, and other popular Austin subdivisions in the suburbs, grabbing meals at fastfood places, and dinner at Chilis. Subdivisions and 90% of the eateries in Austin can be found anywhere in the U.S. So buying a DR Horton in Austin in a Subdivision close to a Pet Smart, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Old Navy, OfficeMax, World Market, and a Chinese restaurant doesn’t mean you’ve arrived in Austin, or that you even “live” here, if we define “Austin living” as experiencing the uniqueness of Austin, not just having an Austin mailing address.
So what makes Austin “Austin“?
Well, I think there are some things we can talk about, though I also think a typical person can live here and never experience any of them if they don’t get out and do it on purpose.