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All-American Boomtown

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from the magazine

All-American Boomtown

Texas Rising 2016
Texas
Economy, finance, and budgets

I love booming cities. Cranes, construction zones, motion, ideas, start-ups, new restaurants, verve, bad traffic: these have been hallmarks of pretty much everywhere I’ve lived over the past two decades and more. I moved to Atlanta during its 1990s boom years and enjoyed its great neighborhoods. Washington, D.C., my home for seven years, is a recession-proof Leviathan. A few years in London—in my opinion, the world’s greatest city—inspired in me daily the sense that anything is possible (except affording a flat there larger than 900 square feet for my family of four). Heidelberg and Stuttgart combined the old (castles and such) with the new (STEM-powered economies) to offer more dynamism than one usually finds in Europe. Downtown Indianapolis, surprisingly more Sun Belt than Rust Belt, set the record for the number of breweries (six!) that I could reach by foot. Chicago forgot long ago how to be a boomtown and has been losing people ever since, but the Windy City was impossible not to love.

Now I live with my family in Austin, a place that booms like nowhere else right now. Of Texas’s four largest urban economies, Austin’s has the least to do with petro-wealth. It has managed instead to blend its history as a funky music-and-college town, friendly to outsiders, with a technology-centric economy feeding off imported talent. Since 2000, its population has exploded by more than 60 percent. We live in a downtown high-rise and rarely ride the elevator with anyone originally from Texas. Young people are moving to Austin with nothing lined up and quickly getting jobs as software engineers at this or that tech company. High-tech workers represent about a quarter of the labor force, with average annual salaries above $100,000. Austin is basically at full employment and has had one of the nation’s fastest job-growth rates for years. A local poll shows that, even as Austinites grumble about the traffic, most regard the newcomers as a positive thing.

Of the cities I’ve called home, Austin has the most aspirational culture. People move to Washington, for example, to change the world, and often do so—for the worse. People come to Austin to build something new, earn their success, and have fun. Visit any one of the city’s coffeehouses, and new rounds of funding and pitches are in the air. Drive or bike anywhere on a weekend, and you’ll likely run into a festival that you had no idea was happening. Our zip code has more bars per capita than any other in the nation. Many are indoor-outdoor, which gives Austin a festive, public feel. Voices, music, and faces are all integral to the urban landscape here.

Such vitality helps explain why Austin now has more 25–34-year-olds than the San Jose metro area, which is basically Silicon Valley. Austin’s laid-back irreverence attracts artists, techies, entrepreneurs, and university types. But it also offers families a variety of neighborhoods, along with comparatively good schools, from the urban core to far-flung exurbs. It’s a polycentric city of districts, with housing options close to amenities that one might consider urban, even if they’re suburban in location.

Dysfunction among California’s ruling class has been great for Austin. So has the high-cost urbanism of New York, Boston, and Washington, which, along with San Francisco and San Jose, have sent more people to Austin over the past 20 years than Austin has sent to them.

A local once told me that he worried that the new arrivals would infect Austin with their bad ideas. I don’t worry too much about that. Creative, energetic people wanting more freedom and a greater share of their paychecks sound like they belong here. Besides, give them a little time, and I’ll bet that they’ll be more at home here than they were where they came from. Austin seems to work that effect on almost everyone.

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