Has Austin Become a Sub-Category of Itself?

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 AustinĀ “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.

I could post here the answer to my own question by submitting a long bullet-point list of cool places that make Austin special and unique, such as Barton Springs Pool, the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Town Lake, etc. or of awesome events that happen here, such as Austin City Limits Music Festival (and the TV show), South by Southwest Film Festival, etc., or of the varied lifestyle amenities available to us, and many other things. I could post links to the numerous “Top 10” lists of “great places to live” and the accompanying articles. But how many of us avail ourselves of these “bullet-point” things on a daily basis? I think a lot of us don’t. Not daily at least.

And isn’t it really just the “vibe” of Austin in general that represents the true, core draw? The “vibe” being the culmination of all the aforementioned attributes, plus something less tangible or identifiable. The “feel” of Austin and it’s people. And from exactly where in Austin does this vibe emanate?

Where, specifically and geographically, is the epicenter of Austin’s allure?

If I had to pick a specific geographic area, it would be South Austin 78704. The true, authentic Austin vibe emanates, in my opinion, from the 78704 zipcode. For non-locals, the ’04 zip is the area of South Austin just south of downtown. It boasts the SoCo (South Congress District), Restaurant Row on Barton Springs Rd. Zilker Park, Barton Springs pool, the once cheap “laid back bohemian” but now chic/mixed neighborhoods of Travis Heights, Bouldin, Zilker, and Barton Hills to name a few. It’s northern boundary is Town Lake and the Congress Bridge, beneath which lies the home of our infamous bat population. It’s the home of Auditorium Shores, where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous artists have provided such great outdoor concerts along the south shore of Town Lake and framed by the backdrop of the downtown Austin skyline. I could go on. The ’04 zip is chock full of the essence of Austin.

I love 78704. I haven’t once since leaving it in 1996 driven through it without wanting to live there again. I want to be able to walk to restaurants as we did when we lived off S. Congress in Travis Heights from 1991 to 1996, before the birth of our second child (at home with a midwife on Newning St.) prompted us to migrate further south to a “normal” house instead of our “no A/C, no garbage disposal, no dishwasher 1890s Travis Heights pad”, down to Cherry Creek and ultimately out to Oak Hill.

We’ve since morphed over that 13 year time span into dull, boring suburbanites with teenagers! We drive our kids to volleyball and acting and music lessons in a minivan. We have granite counters. We don’t party. I own a suit and have short hair. Sylvia started wearing makeup a few years back. We’re Realtors for crying out loud. I listen to talk radio and the Bloomberg Financial News station on my XM Radio instead of Rock and Roll. We attended a swanky party at the Long Center last night, all dressed up, with other dressed up people, but left at 10:30PM, just as the band started, because we were both tired and ready to go to sleep. We are so far removed from who and what we were as poor 78704 bohemian South Austinites that it’s almost sad.

But we’ve never fallen out of love with Travis Heights and the 78704 zipcode in general. And as empty-nestdome has moved into the category of “near term”, less than 6 years away, we wonder if the call of the ’04 is still valid. Is that where our lifestyle dna compass points? Is it where our true original nature says we belong?

Or is perhaps the call of the ’04 just a siren song leading to self-indulgent, impractical overpriced living to satisfy a nostalgic memory that lingers, and a desire to revert to who we remember being before school-aged kids and money.

Do greying, aging baby boomers in our (soon to be) 50’s really need to be walking to Magnolia Cafe, reminiscing to each other, “remember when we use to push Shelly here in the stroller to eat?” “Remember when you were pregnant and threw up out the (old beat up) Volvo window in the parking lot at El Mercado?” “Remember when we use to swim every morning at Barton Springs pool”?

Do we really need to once again be walking and biking distance to the hike and bike trails and Town Lake? Would we even do those things very often, or would we stay inside our over priced home on the computer and phone, and venture out only to get in the car to go sell another house?

Or the big question – will we still be cool (if we ever were) or will we simply be joining the crowd of people along SoCo that I sometimes deride as “trying to be cool on purpose”. Sitting in the hot sun, drinking a hot coffee alone at a picnic table, breathing S. Congress car fumes while wearing Birkenstocks and cargo shorts and pecking away on a Macbook Pro between sips, and accepting the occasional whiff of a stinky homeless person asking for change. And occassionally looking up to see if anyone notices how cool they are.

I don’t know. Despite the changes I’ve seen in the ’04 over the past 25 years, and my feeling that it’s at least partially a “manufactured” or phoney “hip”, compared to the gritty downtrodden ’04 we remember from the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s, it is still the “real” authentic Austin to me, and always will be.

Next time around though I think I’d like to be in the Zilker neighborhood, off Kinney Ave or Robert E. Lee, walking distance to Barton Springs Pool and Restaurant Row and the Alamo Draft House, and so much more. That would afford a great combination of lifestyle amenities and choices. Just not sure if paying $300 per square foot to feel cool and walk to eateries and a pool is a smart financial choice heading into retirement years.

Now, as I mention to Sylvia what I’m writing about, she protests and says “what about Crestview, Tarry Town, Clarksville, French Place and Hyde Park”? Those are the “real” Austin too!

My response: Those are mere neighborhoods. 78704 embodies the entirety of everything that makes the real “Austin” what it is. In fact, the ’04 could itself be a vacation destination.

I could write a 7 day itinerary that would bring someone to Austin, straight to the San Jose Hotel on S. Congress, and never leave the 78704 zip code, yet still go home having spent each day packed with different and awesome activities. When friends back home ask “how was Austin?”, the response would be “Austin was incredible, fantastic! Live music every night, hiking, swimming, theater, great restaurants, interesting people. We never ran out of stuff to do!”.

And that would just be from a week in the ’04 zip. In what other Austin zip code could such an itinerary be written? I think none. I rest my case.

View Larger Map

10 thoughts on “Has Austin Become a Sub-Category of Itself?”

  1. Wonderful post, thanks for taking the time to share. We are in our 30s and just starting thinking about family futures and wondering about having to move away from the Austn parts we love (in our case the condos downtown close to all the restaurants and music and theaters). I imagine we’ll have so many similar thoughts as yours in 15-20 years.

    I know it is only slightly related, but I was thinking this morning about now nice mopac is as a freeway–very few bill boards, no semis, very few wrecks and parts of it are goregous north and south of the river. If I were a realtor I’d go out of my way to never drive on 183 or I35 if I could help it.

  2. Hi Carter,

    I’m intrigued about living in a downtown condo as well, but I have a hard time accepting the high HOA and maintenance fees that would come with it. An old house in 78704 still works out to be cheaper in the long run, though less convenient if someone really does want to be downtown to enjoy all it has to offer.


  3. I used to be very libertarian about this, but as Ive gotten older I have realized that one of the roles of local government is to create a livability vision for the city. Capitalism which is thousands of individual decisions that have the most value individually, ultimately creates something that has less value overall. To apply the vision means restricting the capitalists in a way that creates a cohesive vision. For example, I would love to see the city council create zoning for areas to only allow locally owned businesses. The reality is that locally owned businesses are less efficient on an individual basis which makes it hard for them to compete with well run large chains. However the value that they add as a group is tremendous.

    In return, give the property owners in those designated areas tax breaks to compensate for the larger risk they are being forced to take. Candidate areas could be around lamar and burnet up north (say 45 street up to 183), so co down south, second, fourth and 6th streets (downtown and the garden district) would all be good candidates.

    These areas already have local businesses so the zoning wouldnt have an immediate impact, but as those areas become more and more popular it will prevent the chains from coming in.

    The airport is a great example of how well this works.

  4. Steve, my point wasn’t to say downtown is better or worse than 78704, but rather it is a place that some people love but has drawbacks for families and we’ll have to contemplate possibly moving away at some point. Your post made me think 20 years to future and wondering how we’ll be.

    As to specific costs of downtown living, it has to take a different real estate mindset. The price per square foot is so much larger than other places (though sounds like 78704 is in the ball park per square foot), but you learn you don’t need the space because you are never home and hotels are very close if you need to have guests. When I lived in my first house in the suburbs my weekend mornings were filled with yard work, Home Depot visits, and maintenance tasks which included cleaning a 1500 foot home. Since I’ve lived downtown (5 years now), that time is now free time though we do have to clean the condo it is much smaller than the home.

    In addition the HOA goes to other things like lower personal insurance (some of the buildings downtown replace to spec meaning they’ll rebuild and reappliance for you so you just need renter’s insurance for your stuff), someone at your building to sign for UPS packages when you are work, and to hold your mail/newspapers, free simple home repairs (leaky sinks, etc). Is it worth an extra $200 month or so to gain the 10 hours of precious weekend time? For us it is, but others maybe not.

    Annyway, again not arguing parts of town better or worse, just enjoyed the contemplation your post entailed.

  5. What an exceptional post (and deserved love letter to ’04).

    I have given the same subject much thought, and can’t help but to be similarly conflicted. Let me briefly address the difficult issue of gentrification.

    South Austin really is the cultural and ideological epicenter of Austin (shared closely with 78705’s UT presence, 78702’s hip affordability, and more historically with 78751 and 78703’s aging and very lucky hippies; not to mention honorable mentions for East-of-Mopac ’31 and neater-than-ever ’56 and ’57).

    You do a great job of outlining the highlights of 78704 so I’ll assume this audience is aware of the specific cultural highlights of the area.

    What is interesting to me as a Realtor that (tries whenever possible to) sell property in the area, 78704 is one of those few neighborhoods that people necessarily choose to pay a lot more to live in than other neighborhoods.

    In economic parlance, this is “adverse selection” (which also explains why you’re likely to pick up a loser when visiting a singles bar, and why most restaurants in Times Square are horrible).

    Specifically – why would someone spend $1100 for a 2 bedroom duplex in 78704 when they could rent a 3 bedroom house for the same amount just a few miles away? Why choose less square footage, older construction, a smaller yard, and more “funkiness”?

    Of course the reason is related to brand affiliation; the importance people put on the value of living close to like-minded people in an increasingly Internet-differentiated society, as well as the value of place (or in oenophile terminology “terroir”).

    Perhaps this is unfortunate to say, but it is also a factor of education and economics. Those that don’t “get it” surely also consider those that willingly pay 78704 prices deserve their shoddy accomodations. They’re probably wealthier at the end of the year too from having paid more commodity based prices in outlying areas. It would suck making $50,000 a year and having to live in Manhattan, but who would doubt that the same Manhattanite could live a life of unparalled pleasure making $1M a year? Who gets the last laugh we’ll never know.

    What we do know though is that people that do find themselves neighbors with others in areas like ’04 share cultural, intellectual, political, and socioeconomic values with their neighbors.

    This feeling of community feeds on itself over time, breeding increasing pride and (somewhat amusingly I have to say) – increasing property values, as the premium for self-identification becomes increasingly a benefit of those few that can afford it. Artists, hippies, musicians, and others that have inspired the very counter-cultural values that made the area so desirable are now forced to move out, and like Berkeley, the Upper West Side, the Mission District, and the whole city of Boulder.

    Sadly, economics have obligated me to increase the rent on and move out many such 78704 tenants on my own properties and those of my clients. Well, I’m not really sad about it on a case by case basis – artists are famous for paying rent late – but I do recognize the irony and bordlerline hypocrisy of my actions.

    I just came back from visiting friends in West Hollywood, and despite having a median home price of over $1M there, the CA property tax rate is fixed at 1% of the owner’s original purchase price. This means that because property tax values are slow to become overly onerous and therefore encourage the relocation of lower income residents – gentrification happens slower than in Texas.

    In Silverlake, for example, it is very common to see a recently-emigrated Honduran family renting next to a gay couple and their dogs, next to an elderly couple that have lived there for decades.

    Alas, 78704 will continue along this path, becoming increasingly a playground for those that can afford to live here.

    Luckily that is not a bad thing for the people who do live here, as the eco/tech-aristocracy needs a place to live.

    But this high tax and high barrier to entry area will over the long term crowd out those that made it ironically what a great place it is today, and how that ultimately impacts the community will be interesting to watch unfold…

  6. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your excellent contribution.

    > the very counter-cultural values that made the area so desirable are now forced to move out,

    Case in point, Terra Toys, which was a S. Congress “original” from the grittier days, but eventually was priced out and relocated to Anderson Lane, of all places.

    Gentrification happens in the commercial realm too. The pioneering storefront warriors come into a scrappy area for the cheap rent, attract a motley clientelle, create something interesting and unique (perhaps by accident), then no longer can afford what they created. Then pricier, perhaps better run establishment co-op the vibe and bring the next generation of “cool” to the masses.


  7. Hi Carter,

    Good points about the opportunity cost of time as it relates to the value of downtown living and the HOA fees and services.

    Yes, as you contemplate what life will be like for your kids, you might have to leave a bit of yourselves and your preferred lifestyles behind, if you follow the path the me and Sylvia (and countless other parents our age) followed.

    That’s not to say that raising a kid in 78704, or a downtown condo for that matter, deprives the kid or the parents of joy, but there are in fact practical social matters and schooling decisions that become more difficult to manage.

    In our suburban setting in SW Austin, my 7th grade daughter has 6 friends and classmates within a 3 block radius, and her social interaction with those friends is an extremely valuable and important part of her life. It would be hard to provide that for her if we lived elsewhere since she’d have few neighborhood friends. Same issue for people we know who choose to live on acreage 20 miles west of Austin. Play dates are hard to arrange, birthday party attendence requires an “in town” venue, friends don’t just pop by for a visit, etc.


  8. For some of us who grew up in the burbs or smallish Texas (burb-like) towns developed in the postwar era, the thought of living as an adult in suburbia is somewhat horrifying. I think at least some of that contributes to the funky-fication and hip attractiveness of old inner citry areas around the country. A return ticket to Levittown is the last thing some aging boomers want.


Leave a Comment